During Gulf War One, The White House asked a group of regional experts to answer the question: Should U.S. forces, once Kuwait was secure, keep going into Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein? In a ten-page paper we all said NO. Our reasons revolved around a few simple historical facts: Iraq was a man-made country; it only survived under a dictatorial type regime since otherwise it would split into its three natural groups – Sunni, Shia, and Kurds. We felt that overthrowing Hussein would leave a vacuum for Iran to become overly influential and for the state of Iraq to split into three. The Kurds in the north have always wanted a separate Kurdish state which makes its neighbor Turkey quake in their boots since their eastern half has a large Kurdish population that has had an active small violent group (the PKK) causing problems for decades. A breakup of Iraq, we felt, would destabilize the entire region which is a critical region for the West and U.S. George H.W. Bush and James Baker agreed with us. American troops stopped at the Iraqi border.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did not. Now we have dead American service personnel, dead coalition troops, and many dead Iraqis. We have terrorists taking over the country inch-by-inch (except the Kurdish region). Who knows when they might walk into Baghdad and Basra? (Probably not the later since Iran would then intervene.) Americans are “war weary” from the long wars of Iraq and Afghanistan and our 24-hour media has increased those feelings by constantly harping on the issue with no serious counter voice from the Administration.
The current White House has tried to ignore the need for America’s leadership (and I don’t mean that as a synonym for troops). And now, it is suffering from said lack. The choices are only going to get harder the longer we wait. The 3,000 troops being sent into Iraq are hopefully intel and special ops so that we will have drone targets as much as we do in Yemen. And by some miracle, we won’t hit Sunni or Shia who are not terrorists since we can’t be seen to pick sectarian sides. And if somehow there will be a miracle and the Baghdad government will be convinced to bring in the Sunni tribes into a real power-sharing. The Sunni tribal leaders once before shut down Al Qaeda and its spin offs such as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) who are worse than Al Qaeda was ever thought to be. I doubt the Kurds will ever go back to being part of Iraq – they’ve had their taste of freedom and the longer it takes for Sunnis and Shias to create a working government and Army, the less likely it is to see the same Iraq as existed a year ago.
Unfortunately, the above scenario is the rosiest picture of them all. It is highly unlikely that the Shia government led by al-Maliki will voluntarily disappear into the night. It will take more than just the U.S. and the head Shia cleric al-Sistani calling for change to get the current government to quickly get out of the way and for a new, effective and balanced government to rapidly be created. I’m keeping my fingers crossed but not placing any bets on it.
What I am most concerned about – because I am skeptical about any real regional stability any time in the future – is why most Americans do not seem to understand how important it is for America to help this region find its way into the future with its own social, cultural and religious history worked into its new political and judicial institutions. The isolationism that I keep hearing is frightening from a historical perspective. Every time the U.S. has removed itself as a major world player – and again this doesn’t mean boots on the ground fighting a war – not only has the world suffered, but so have we.
We need some leaders now to explain over and over again this basic message to the general population – our well-being and our financial security depend on the entire world now. It’s a simple fact. When we overreact to long confrontations such as Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan, we ultimately hurt ourselves. Even if one doesn’t care about hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, or the deaths of Iraqis and Afghanis at the hands of terrorists, we have a selfish reason to stay in the game.