Pro: Obama can’t afford to plunge war-weary US into a sectarian civil war
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, “Can the U.S. allow radical Islamists to create a new terrorist state in the Middle East?”
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The horrors that Iraq is experiencing these days cannot be blamed on President Barack Obama. He can’t put troops back into Iraq for a full-scale fight against ISIL—the Islamic State of Ira and Levant—the group that is taking over swaths of territory there. We would be on one side of a sectarian war, with no end in sight.
The criticism being leveled against Obama is that he left Iraq too soon. He should have kept U.S. forces there to train the Iraqi army. He should, critics say, have convinced the Iraqi government to agree to a status of forces agreement that would put U.S. troops under U.S. law exclusively.
But would a longer troop stay in Iraq have done any good? In northern Iraq we saw how Iraqi forces laid down their arms and fled in the face of ISIL advances. Would the Iraqi army have done better had we stayed?
Not likely. ISIL was able to rout the Iraqi army in northern Iraq because the Iraqi government had so alienated the Sunni sector of Iraq’s population that the Sunni, who predominate that area, were not prepared to defend the government. They may not like ISIL, or its declaration of a caliphate, but the government of Nouri al-Maliki, had virtually disenfranchised the Sunnis.
Al-Malaki, a Shiite, had come to power through nationwide elections, but he is operating the government to favor the Shiites, who constitute the majority of Iraq’s population. The Shiites had been disadvantaged under the former government, which had been Sunni-dominated, led by Saddam Hussein.
In 1991, when the United States took on Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush was smart enough to know he should not overthrow its government. There was too much chance of Iraq coming unglued.
The Sunni and Shiite populations are Arab. Iraq is also home to a large population of Kurds, who are Persians. These three populations were thrust together back in the 1920s, when the British and the French took over the region from Turkey. The borders of what became Iraq made little sense, but a certain stability had been achieved.
Unfortunately, the wisdom of the father did not rub off on the son. In 2003, President George W. Bush, for what turned out to be no valid reason, invaded Iraq and brought down the Arab- and Sunni-led government.
Adding insult to injury, Bush put in temporary charge of Iraq a chap named Paul Bremer, whose main work had been in counterterrorism.
Bremer ran Iraq for the next year. Bremer thought it would be a splendid idea to get rid of most of the Sunnis in Iraq’s military and civilian posts. That move pushed Sunnis out of any semblance of power and led eventually to the al-Malaki government, which continued anti-Sunni policies.
If one wants to find a culprit for what is now going on in Iraq, the best place to start looking is Texas. George W. Bush had little clue what would become of Iraq if he overthrew its government.
From what is known, Bush’s subordinates gave little thought to the matter, figuring that the overthrow of an Iraqi government that, to be sure, was hated by many Iraqis, would be greeted enthusiastically, and democracy would flourish.
Now the ISIL group is taking advantage of Bush’s shortsightedness and is re-enfranchising the Sunnis of Iraq. The result of Bush’s invasion of Iraq is that the United States is now tactically allied with its declared enemies—Syria and Iran—in stemming the ISIL advances in Iraq.
It is hard to see what Obama could have done to stave off the current chaos in Iraq. One can speculate that staying longer might have helped, but the odds are that it would have made little difference.
John B. Quigley is a distinguished professor of law at The Ohio State University. Readers may write to him at Moritz College of Law, 55 West 12th St., Columbus, Ohio 43210.