How — and why — the U.S. must support Iraq

June 13, 2014

Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a tent filled with mourners in Baghdad, during a funeral in Najaf A disaster is unfolding in Iraq. It is in part a result of the failed Syria and broader Middle East policies pursued by the West in the past four years.

Insurgents reportedly led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (also known as “ISIS”) have occupied Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and may be planning to push further south to the capital, Baghdad. ISIL, a largely Sunni jihadist group more radical than al Qaeda, seeks to establish an independent caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that he doesn’t “rule out anything” when it comes to U.S. involvement in the region, and some political analysts are already predicting possible U.S.-led drone strikes or even air strikes.

A looter checks a vehicle beside the body of a member of the Iraqi security forces in TikritIt is possible that the United States may now again become embroiled in direct military action in the Middle East. Washington, unfortunately, has no good options: It can’t allow Iraq to be overrun by a terrorist group that is capable of and willing to launch attacks on the United States.

At the same time, Americans have no appetite to militarily support the ineffective, Shi’ite-dominated Nuri al-Maliki regime. Yet this is what the U.S. will likely now have to do — with possible drone strikes, intelligence cooperation and other aid.

Any decisions the United States makes will only be more gut wrenching by the fact that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are reportedly supporting Maliki’s forces. So we would be intervening on the side of Iran.

This disastrous situation is due to a combination of Maliki’s incompetent governance, spillover from the Syrian civil war, and Washington’s unwillingness to take more modest steps to shore up Syria and Iraq several years ago — when that might have been enough.

In a column last summer, I argued that the administration had two reasonable policy options. Both were far short of air strikes or U.S. ground troops in Syria or Iraq:

  • Massively increase both military (small arms) and non-lethal aid to the moderate Syrian rebels, which at the time still had a fighting chance against President Bashar al-Assad and were also fighting ISIL.
  • Significantly step up diplomacy and increase security aid to Iraq to stop ISIL’s resurgence and its efforts to promote sectarian violence there.

Many senior leaders within the Obama administration, including Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria who recently resigned, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, advocated a similar approach.

It is not a given that U.S. aid to the Syrian opposition and a continued American presence in Iraq would have prevented this crisis. But our inaction worsened the situation, if it did not cause it.

Washington is belatedly aiding the Syrian opposition now, and is considering assistance to Iraq. This is a positive development. Unfortunately, the tired adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies here: Modest steps to shore up Iraq and aid the pro-democratic side of the Syrian conflict several years ago would have been easier and more effective than the heavy lift — such as potential air strikes — now required to resolve the crisis.

So how did we get here?

The story starts in Syria, as well as in Iraq. In the spring of 2011, the Syrian people — mostly young, well-educated moderates — took to the streets for weeks of peaceful protests. Assad was not willing to abdicate, as he had just seen Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak do. Instead, the Syrian president had his soldiers fire indiscriminately on peaceful demonstrators. This radicalized the conflict and started a civil war.

Armed Iraqi security forces personnel take their positions during a patrol in the city of RamadiThe U.S. and our allies — despite strong advocacy from some of Obama’s most senior aides — were unwilling to help the moderate Syrian forces in any meaningful way. They refused to send enough of the small arms and supplies that the rebels had requested. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran were pumping millions into Assad’s cruel military. Sunni conservatives from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and beyond funneled money to the most conservative Islamist groups.

The result was more than 2 million Syrian refugees, plus an additional 6.5 million internally displaced citizens; at least 150,000 Syrians killed, and a breeding ground for al Qaeda splinter groups that are destabilizing the entire region.  Assad has concentrated his fire on more moderate opposition fighters, who are now battling both Assad’s forces and the Islamists. This gave ISIL and its allies room to grow.

Also in 2011, the United States was determined to “bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end.” Instead of a functioning democracy, the invasion of Iraq had by then only produced a fledgling democracy and fairly weak central government dominated by Maliki’s Shi’ite faction.

The Maliki government has largely been a failure — indecisive, ineffective and not inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds. Maliki decided that he did not want U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, and Washington — exhausted after years of difficult fighting and lack of support for the war at home — was happy to oblige.

The sovereignty of the weak Iraqi state has gradually eroded since U.S. troops left in December 2011. In 2007-9 the U.S. had significant successes courting Sunni groups to help fight al Qaeda-linked jihadist terrorism.

As U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq, however, these arrangements quickly broke down.  Sunnis were frequently victims of the Shi’ite-dominated government’s security forces. This may also have served as an effective recruiting tool for ISIL.

ISIL and other Sunni extremist groups began operating freely and even established some administrative control in the deserts in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq.  If the U.S. comes to the aid of the beleaguered Iraqi military now, which it will likely have to do, it is unwittingly supporting an unpopular Shi’ite-dominated Maliki regime — and its ally Iran — rather than the whole Iraqi population.

Some analysts argue that if the United States had not made the original mistake of invading Iraq, none of this would have happened. It is true that Saddam Hussein was good at “keeping a lid” on sectarian strife — largely by massacring or oppressing those who dissented from his views. I did not support the invasion of Iraq (and had no involvement in the policy). Whatever one’s view, though, by 2010-11, the United States and Europe could have played the hand they were given far more effectively.

What now?

The United States has difficult decisions to make. If it does nothing — or too little — to aid Maliki, it will likely be faced with a full-scale sectarian civil war in Iraq, which could bring Iran into the conflict.

The best of the admittedly terrible options now would be to help the Iraqi (Maliki) security forces with drone strikes on ISIL forces — before those forces overwhelm the Baghdad airport or the Iraqi army’s main weapons depot, both of which are in Sunni-dominated areas.

As a condition for this assistance, Washington should require Maliki to step down after the immediate crisis ends, in order to create a more genuinely inclusive Iraqi government that would represent the interests of Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds.

Simultaneously, as Ford, the former ambassador to Syria, argued, Washington must finally put its full financial support behind what remains of the moderate Syrian opposition. While their victory in Syria may no longer be possible, moderates can hope to fight ISIL and Assad to a draw. This would prepare the ground for genuine negotiations over the future of Syria.

U.S. hesitation must end now.


PHOTO (TOP): Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a tent filled with mourners in Baghdad, during a funeral in Najaf, south of Baghdad, June 12, 2014.REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A looter checks a vehicle beside the body of a member of the Iraqi security forces in Tikrit, which was overran by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), June 11, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Armed Iraqi security forces personnel take their positions during a patrol looking for militants from the al Qaeda faction, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as explosives and weapons in a neighbourhood in Ramadi May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer



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the “how & why” is quite simple..its good for the economy…!

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Miss Anja Manuel fails to mention that it is the US and our disgusting allies that are helping the Sunni terrorists spread throughout the region and the world. The shiites do not have puritanical terrorist groups like the Sunni’s do.

A few facts:

-The greatest state sponsor of Sunni terror is Saudi Arabia, not Iran.
-Al-Qaeda is a Sunni organization that is supported by Saudi Arabia, not Iran.
-All of these so called ‘rebels’ in Syria, ARE ALL TERRORISTS, all supported by Saudi Arabia.
-The Sunnis of Iraq are overwhelming terrorists. Nobody wants to admit it, but they are supporting the ISIL’s activities.

The real problem that Ms. Manuel and every other Western propagandist has is that they cannot admit that they have been supporting the wrong side for over 35 years.

The US armed and trained Al-Qaeda. The US is allies with Saudi Arabia, that is the financial center of world-wide Sunni terror. Iran is our enemy, but is a rational state actor that seeks to defend its interests. The Shiites in general are not involved in acts of real terrorism. THIS IS A SUNNI PROBLEM.


Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

What nonsense. We fight wars for money. Oil wars are less and less profitable. The only people pushing for more war are the companies that profit from them. The Iraqi’s have been fighting for 500-1000 years, and they will not stop because we want them to. Let them go and do what they wish, they actually enjoy the pain as most religious people do. The inevitable has happened and now some creeps want to get rich doing something about it. We can keep scamming money off the tax payer for the benefit of a few corporations and their stock holders or we can let what is inevitable happen. No matter how much time, money and lives we spend on Iraq, they will always decay to this point.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Saudi Arabia has sponsored these terrorists as well as the terrorists in 9/11. Let them support their proxies. Let the Brits and the French join in. They created the mess 90 years ago with their division of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Let them take the lead.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

This is a religion based war of revenge and tribal hatreds. We never should have gone into Iraq in the first place with G.W. Bush’s war to supposedly liberate them from…each other, and give them freedom, which they do not comprehend, and now they all hate us even more than before we lost so many of our guys, and wasted so much of our treasury. All over a lie about W.M.D.s.

“The Maliki government has largely been a failure — indecisive, ineffective and not inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds. Maliki decided that he did not want U.S. troops to remain in Iraq…” That is correct, and now the Sunni faction is bent on revenge, and I doubt there is a man or woman in Iraq who is capable of looking beyond their own religion biased/ primitive tribal view to solve the situation. Keep our guys out of that hell hole.

Posted by anotherfakename | Report as abusive

“It is in part a result of the failed Syria and broader Middle East policies pursued by the West in the past four years”

Unfortunately the writer disqualifies herself from knowing anything about the region with that opening statement. It is simply in the fact that NO policy can be set other than letting Middle Easterners create their own policy which is to constantly war with their neighbors over extremist religious beliefs. End of story.

Posted by mynamehear9 | Report as abusive

Get involved in Iraq? With an army riddled with a corrupt officer corps and desertions by the hundreds of thousands. With a government that excludes Sunnis and Kurds from positions of power and discriminates against Sunnis? Better take your meds.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

Anja Manuel, please feel free to put on YOUR combat boots, pick up YOUR rifle, and head on over there.

This country shouldn’t have been in Iraq in the first place, being lied to by a bunch of sociopath neo-cons, most of whom have never had anything to do with the military other than send our troops to their deaths.

Posted by taggert | Report as abusive

The article is a good story – and all of us can make up stories … Unfortunately, facts are different. 5000 “terrorist” of ISIS/ISIL cannot occupy cities with millions. The work in Iraq is the making of the Sunni Tribes Rebellion and the fact that they are fed-up of the US-Setup puppet government, that is corruption infested to the core, and only loyal to Iran, with one aim – to keep Iraq messed up.

At least now – someone with “Cojones” is doing something.

Posted by Fadeaway1232 | Report as abusive

The Kurds are the only group the US should help over there. They deserve a homeland. Let the Iranians teach the Sunni extremists a lesson on the battlefield. The US is broke. Unless we get free oil as payment for our involvement, stay out, and let the chips fall where they may. Tell the Europeans to either go do some fighting for a change (except the Brits), or learn to speak Russian and take orders from Putin. We can survive just fine in North America protected by 5,000 H-bombs, with plenty of shale oil and gas.

Posted by Discovery451 | Report as abusive

@Discovery4511 – Don’t count on “we can survive just fine” with our arms under the bed. Why the hell do the Kurds need a homeland anymore than the Jews needed a Homeland? Most people don’t get “homelands” in life, and aren’t usually satisfied even if they have one. They get an address, and many have dozens in a lifetime.

But we have been backing the wrong horses and beating the wrong horses too. If you do that long enough, you loose. Or you look like the damned idiot you always were but were so willing to indulge your own sense of superiority.

We lost! Any further moves now just mean you go kicking and screaming to the grave. All the double talk, special interest money, influence peddling, prevarication and manipulation of public opinion has bought only a lethal combination. And it was all, more or less, legal, or accepted as such by “the manipulated majority, just administered by far less than perfect physicians (and some where outright quacks and frauds). I’m not naming names – its too exhausting.

There need not be, and isn’t, a truly salutary option open to any of the participants. Ces’t la Vie and Ces’t la Mort.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

She sure has a big smile – for a war cheerleader

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

So let me make sure I have this correct. Because this American administration did not give small arms to the Syrian rebels, some of whom had connections to the same parties now attacking Iraq, the secure and stable situation created by the previous administration is now in jeopardy. Now what we have to do is get those arms to the right rebels and tell Mr. Maliki what to do. I sure do miss the simple world of Ms. Manuel and her gang. And whatever happened to the Iraqi people laying down welcome mats for democracy?

Posted by Carltheskeptic | Report as abusive

Anja Manuel is a Partner with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley at The RiceHadley Group LLC

Enough said…

Posted by KarimNNAss | Report as abusive

As you can see by the comments Anja… Americans don’t care. They’d rather spend all their time obsessing over the political party they hate, or coming up with goofball conspiracies. Americans hate wars… Until somebody comes over to the US and blows something up, or the price of gas goes up 50 cents… Then they’re all screaming bloody murder, asking… “Why didn’t the government do anything!”. Americans have become a bunch of selfish crybabies, that think everything happens by magic.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

It is time for the USA to attend to its issues at home and in the Western Hemisphere, which it has neglected for decades. Leave the Middle East to those who live there. If they choose to simply continue to battle it out for decades or even centuries to come, so what? That is their business and their right. That trillion dollars Bush spent over there certainly could have been put to better use here in the US and even the Western Hemisphere. Let those on the other side of the globe take care of themselves….or not. Most of us have had it dealing with barbarians.

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

FYI: Ms. Manuel began her career in the 1. investment banking division of Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment bank now part of Citigroup… attorney at international law firm WilmerHale…3. special assistant to Nicholas Burns, undersecretary for political affairs at the U.S. Department of State…4. founding partner of RiceHadleyGates LLC, formed with former U.S. Secretary Condoleezza Rice and former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley…5. visiting scholar at the Stanford University International Policy Studies Program.

Now, she is an elder stateman on US foreign/war policy?

Posted by shabang | Report as abusive

We got the “how” of our misguided involvement in Iraq, but where in this column is the “why we should be there”?

Posted by HortonPDX | Report as abusive

Ms. Manuel is exactly wrong — and has been for years. If you backed the attack on Iraq in the first place, you should sit down, shut up and work on a letter of apology to the human race.

Posted by vinlander | Report as abusive

Islam cancer killing Islam cancer in Iraq and Syria and soon Pakistan and Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. That’s the thing about teaching kids nothing except the Koran – you will reap a nation full of machines ready to kill. Let them kill each other, that’s what they want. If they didn’t want that they wouldn’t teach their children to do it.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

Muslims killing muslims as taught by their Koran. What a surprise.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive