President Barack Obama’s decision to help the Iraqi armed forces contain or defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by sending 300 military advisers and offering intelligence, equipment and other support is fully in keeping with the confused American response to the situation in the Middle East. I give him an A for consistency, and a D for efficacy.
The painful irony of Obama’s speech Thursday night is that everything he said was sensible: ISIS must be contained and defeated, the U.S. military cannot solve Iraq’s problems, Iraq needs an inclusive government and a credible democracy, and regional powers must be involved in a diplomatic process to bring peace to Iraq. Yet the problem that he and Americans seem to refuse to acknowledge is that actual American policies on the ground have led to the exact opposite of these truths. For recent American military and political conduct created the conditions in Iraq for ISIS to emerge, allowed the Iraqis under American rule to fragment and bypass serious pluralistic power-sharing, and stunted any regional diplomacy by refusing to deal seriously with Iran.
American policies in the Middle East reflect confusion and some dishonesty at three levels, leaving Obama’s sensible rhetoric and analysis largely invalidated by the impact of American actions on the ground.
First, logistically the United States is stuck between not wanting to return its troops to combat (a good decision) and trying to play a role in preventing the spread of ISIS. It is trying to respond to both imperatives, which is impossible to do. It is also hard to see how 300 advisers can make a major difference in the wake of U.S. spending of hundreds of billions of dollars over the last decade training and equipping the Iraqi armed forces. Even this limited level of American support for the Iraqi government will make the United States appear to be siding with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in the domestic strife in Iraq—which is the case—and which will make Americans targets for revenge attacks.
This is a sad replay of the U.S. policies in Vietnam in the early 1960s, or in Lebanon in the early 1980s, both of which proved to be disastrous military interventions. Americans have not learned that since the days of Greece and Rome, foreign armies in the Middle East can prevail for a few years, but they always depart and leave behind them great levels of mayhem and destruction that their presence helped to foment.
Second, Obama continues the prevalent trend in American public politics of totally ignoring the fact that the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the single most important factor in the short term in unleashing the forces of violence and sectarianism in Iraq. He speaks of Iraq as if it were some isolated island untouched by American foreign policy, but that suddenly suffers sectarian warfare and fractious politics that emerged on their own from a vacuum. Refusing to admit the failure of American policy in the period 2003-2012 means that the United States and others continue those same failures.
Obama correctly noted the centrality of promoting inclusive governance in Iraq as the long-term solution to the problems and threats at hand. Yet he refuses to acknowledge that when the United States had immense, even controlling, influence inside Iraq in the period 2003-2012, it failed to achieve this end, and left behind a wrecked and scarred landscape defined by government incompetence, criminality, corruption and polarization.
Third, Obama’s comments on Iran are truly offensive. He resorts to his hallmark “audacity” in saying that Iran can be part of the regional diplomatic action needed to bring calm to Iraq if Iran plays a constructive role in Iraq. There is zero credibility in such statements coming from the president of a country whose war on Iraq probably created the most destruction in Iraq since the Mongol invasion and sacking of Baghdad in 1258. If there were a global award for willful and criminal destruction of a sovereign state by a foreign power, the United States and the UK would have to share that prize for the consequences of their policies in Iraq.
Obama’s disdainful treatment of Iran reflects, however, a pattern of American attitudes that the United States can do anything around the world and not be held accountable for the death and destruction it causes, but smaller and darker states in the South must conform to behavioral norms set in Washington (and sometimes set in Tel Aviv, though Israel usually is exempt from adhering to the same norms, as we witness today in the mass arrests, collective punishments and continued arrest and killing of children in Israeli-occupied Palestinian lands).
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global