The growth of a forest is measured in decades to centuries; whereas, the burning of a forest is measured in days to hours. This truth is certainly playing out in Iraq as global players with vested interests in the little Middle Eastern country rich in oil and division struggle to respond to mounting militant threats and the near collapse of Iraq’s national government. While Iran and Syria are already engaged militarily in Iraq, Sunni-dominated US allies like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Turkey are positioning themselves to respond with force should the situation spiral out of control. As such, there is a strong possibility that a much broader conflict based on sectarian division is forming across the region, which has been experiencing massive civil unrest and armed strife since the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions began.
Truth be told, saving the Maliki-dominated government collation, or even the national Iraq government as an institution, is not in the vital national interests of the US and our allies, especially given the increasingly exclusive, ill-democratic nature of Maliki’s rule. In Iraq, our interests revolve around preventing the propagation of globalized terrorism and encouraging the propagation of human rights, basic civil liberties, and stability in line with international norms. Our broader interests in the region are rooted in fostering stability and cooperation between nation-states by creating an environment where the nations of the Middle East feel compelled to turn to open diplomacy with each other instead of war when conflicts arise, plus our economic interests in oil.
Looking at the current Iraq Crisis, the greatest hazard associated with using military force in Iraq, most likely airstrikes, is the US accidentally siding against traditional allies as well as the majority of Muslims, i.e. Sunnis, in favor of Iraqi-Iranian Shiites. At the same time, allowing Iraq to collapse into chaos and/or bolstering Syrian and Iranian influence in Iraq by failing to check their actions cannot be permitted. Although a long-term anti-terrorism campaign, versus an anti-insurgent campaign against those waging civil war, is necessarily, limited military intervention in Iraq by the US is likely to have little immediate impact on the progress of ISIS extremists, aside from preventing them from acquiring more machines of war. Meanwhile, a US troop presence would simply mean putting US troops under siege instead of Iraqi troops to protect the current dysfunctional, self-serving government.
Furthermore, if Iraq is going to eventually splinter into smaller nation-states due to internal and external pressure, it will do so whether or not the US acts. Consequently, the best role for the US is to engage the Iraq Crisis as part of a broader regional approach. This means engaging in far more open, far more intense diplomatic exchanges with regional players. Even though the situations is presently driven by a security threat, it is one that is being defined by sectarian tensions, thus the US must work through our Sunni allies to address Sunni interests in Iraq, as well as the region, and the Maliki government, which is also an indirect way of involving Iran, to address Shiite interests. At the very least, we need to find ways of discouraging regional players from supporting militant extremists while they need to start supporting reasonable, moderates who can stand up to the extremists.
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