US blamegame over Iraq forgets how sectarian it was even before 2003.
Less than 60 miles from Mosul, where the Sunni Islamic fanatics who have overrun the city are slaughtering their enemies as if the Middle Ages never ended, a rather different scene in Iraq was recently described in a report from the Russian investment firm Renaissance Capital: “We saw Ferraris and Bentleys being driven by students at the American University of Iraq in Suleimaniyah, and at the only five-star hotel in Erbil, the car park was filled with new BMWs and Range Rovers. The few international restaurants in Erbil cost approximately $90 per person for a meal with a beer. The city’s shopping centres carry international brands, all of which we noticed are priced at least 40 per cent higher than the international standard; and shop managers claimed inventory flies off the shelves.”
In nascent Kurdistan, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government, whose relations with the central government in Baghdad are a stop-go affair, things are different. Even the worst mess has its winners. The Kurds, almost a century after missing out on statehood at the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, are the beneficiaries of Iraq’s mayhem. Nobody should bet against an independent Kurdish state within the next decade. Syria and Iraq are in a state of implosion; Middle Eastern borders are up for grabs. Qaeda affiliates have already done their grabbing. They control wide swathes of Syria and Iraq 13 years (and trillions of dollars) after the US went to war in Afghanistan to dismantle the jihadi state within a state of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
The left blames the disaster on President Bush and the American invasion of 2003 that shattered the Iraqi state and removed its murderous dictator, Saddam Hussein. If this had not happened, there would be no fanatics from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at the doorsteps of Baghdad. Wrong, says the right. President Obama is to blame for abandoning Iraq in 2011 without leaving a residual counter-terrorism force. His feckless failure to back the Syrian opposition early in the uprising was a principal cause of Syria’s collapse into a lawless haven for Islamic fanatics. If Obama had been more resolute in Iraq and Syria, ISIS would not be on the rampage.
The facts are plain enough. The US invaded Iraq in 2003 because of its weapons of mass destruction programme. However, Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction. The invasion brought the Shiite majority to power, so advancing the interests of Shiite Iran, America’s enemy. It ousted the Sunnis, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite balance in the Middle East, and infuriating America’s nominal ally, Saudi Arabia. As a result, a Sunni-Shiite regional conflict has been escalating over the past decade. There was no al-Qaeda in Saddam’s Iraq. The US birthed it through the invasion. It then beat al-Qaeda down, before allowing its affiliates to regroup by leaving and doing nothing about Syria’s disintegration. American and Iranian interests in Iraq are now aligned in preserving the sectarian Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, encouraging his (unlikely) outreach to the winning Kurds and the whiplashed Sunnis, and beating back the barbarians of ISIS. However, the political forces arrayed against cooperation with Iran in the Congress are powerful — and US and Iranian interests part ways in Syria and over Israel.
The blamegame misses the point. Iraq and Syria, well before America’s hapless intervention and hapless paralysis, were rotten to the core, as ripe for dismemberment as the Ottoman Empire a century ago, sickened by the personality cults of brutal rulers, cracking at the internal lines of fracture colonial overseers chose to disregard. President Obama should use targeted military force to drive back the fanatics of ISIS. If the jihadis cement their hold, the blowback will be felt in Europe and the US. Such action will not resolve Iraq’s problems, or the region’s. But the alternative is far worse. It would be a betrayal of the thousands of American lives lost since 2001 and of the millions in the Middle East who view the Middle Ages as over.