After ISIS forces (Islamic State) overran Ramadi, capital of Iraq's Anbar province, a friend asked at lunch: "Why should we care if Arabs want to kill each other? They've been fighting sectarian wars for years."
It's a good question, one many Americans are asking as the White House contemplates its next moves to bolster Iraq's faltering government. Obama's dilemma resembles in some ways President Lyndon Johnson's in 1965 when it appeared that Vietcong insurgents would soon overrun South Vietnam without U.S. troops to bolster South Vietnamese forces. Marines had earlier been dispatched to Danang and air power had been used against enemy installations.
That summer, the president decided, after much internal debate, to send 175,000 troops to South Vietnam to bolster its forces and stop the Vietcong offensive. Will Barack Obama similarly escalate the U.S. role in Iraq by deploying ground troops to bolster Iraqi forces to stop the ISIS offensive?
The case against doing this was highlighted last weekend when Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was quoted in a front page Washington Post story saying Iraqi forces at Ramadi appeared to have "no will to fight." Critics cite this lack of resolve to defend their country as a reason American troops should not be sent.
Still, two senators with presidential ambitions, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, called on Obama to send at least 10,000 ground troops to Iraq to turn the tide against ISIS. Skeptics say this would only be a first installment.
The fundamental question is how the United States views its stake in Iraq in 2015. George W. Bush thought it was a vital national interest in 2003 to prevent Saddam Hussein from threatening the Persian Gulf oil supply, which he sought during his invasion of Kuwait in 1991, and his designs on Saudi oil fields. Today the threat to oil supplies to world markets comes from Iran's Islamic Republic, not Iraq.
The principal challenge to stability in the Middle East today is ISIS, a brutal, resourceful enemy that does not control a legitimate national government, yet calls itself the Islamic State. Its ideology resembles European fascism in the 1920s and early 1930s. before it took hold of the German government and led to its building a powerful war machine. ISIS has little chance of capturing control of a state like Egypt, Turkey. or Iran; but it remains a dangerous ideological threat that has acquired sufficient arms and recruits to capture parts of Syria and Iraq.
We are probably at the point in our post-9/11 Middle East policy that tough decisions must be made about America's future role, especially in Iraq. Regrettably, the efforts of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama to keep Iraq united and build a democratic government that embraced Sunnis, Kurds, and the majority Shiites has largely failed. That's because Shiite politicians refused to accommodate the needs of the other sectarian groups. The result is a fragmented country which ISIS is exploiting.
It's time for the United States to abandon the pretense of supporting a united Iraq and instead accept the division of the country in three separate entities, Sunni, Kurd, and Shiite. How to administer Baghdad, which is claimed by Sunnis and Shiites, will require international supervision. Once a Sunni government becomes a reality, U.S. aid and advisers would be sent directly to Sunni tribal groups that are determined to fight ISIS attacks on Sunni lands.
What's the future U.S. stake in Iraq? To support groups friendly to the West who will wage war on ISIS, not those groups, mostly Shiite, that now get arms and direction from Iran. We may not stop the sectarian warfare from spreading across the Middle East, but it may be possible to contain it. That outcome is worth pursuing, even though it's not a victory.
Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and author who lives near Charlottesville.
File last modified on Monday, 01-JUN-2015 9:54 AM EST