In his efforts to save Iraq, President Obama is right to demand more power-sharing and other political reforms from Iraqi leaders before the United States offers more military assistance. But Obama should not think he can hold off offering such assistance until he secures those reforms—not if he wants to prevent the bloody breakup of the country and a wider regional war. As sensible as a conditional approach seems, the president simply doesn't have that option open to him.
That's because Obama doesn't have the time. The crisis created by the Sunni terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, continues unabated, and Iraq is now on the verge of full-blown civil war. Over the weekend, ISIL seized several more towns in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, including border crossings that will allow the militants to bring in more fighters and weapons from Syria and possibly Jordan. Meanwhile thousands of Shia fighters loyal to renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr began mobilizing in parts of Baghdad. The president himself, in an interview with CBS, warned that ISIL was "destabilizing the country" in a growing state of chaos "that could spill over into some of our allies like Jordan."
As a result, the Obama administration faces a difficult conundrum—one that presents the president with only two very poor policy approaches. Obama can either pursue an incremental, conditional approach that will satisfy his desire to put maximum pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and minimize America's return to Iraq—but will likely fail to address the severity of the crisis. Or Obama can set aside his understandable caution and provide more robust military assistance before he can be confident of getting the political changes that are needed to turn any Iraqi government military gains into strategic successes.
Obama was wise to send 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq, and he is correct to think that, without political changes, the Iraqi state will struggle to overcome its current security challenges given that it will be unable to win the support of either the Sunnis or the Kurds. But the political outcome that will bring all Iraqis back into a power-sharing government has become much more complicated just in the last week.
And every moment that the president waits, the more complicated it becomes as new realities consolidate on the ground.
As ISIL advances, it is benefiting from the support of other Sunni groups alienated from the Iraqi government, and it is amassing huge caches of money—as much as $2 billion, by one newspaper's account. With considerable resources at its disposal and some element of public acquiescence, ISIL may prove more sophisticated than al Qaeda in Iraq and provide services and governance, further consolidating its hold on Iraqi territory.
The Kurds, meanwhile, have gained control of disputed areas they have long sought to incorporate into the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and see as critical to an independent state; they are not going to relinquish these grounds nor once again pledge to be part of Iraq without fundamental changes to the political compact. They will likely push for a confederation on the basis of new internal borders as a condition for staying inside Iraq. They may ultimately be willing to settle for less, but will not be willing to return to the pre-ISIS political arrangements. Kurdish leverage is further heightened by the reality that enlisting Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, into the fight is one of a small number of factors that could help produce a decisive shift on the battlefield.
Sunni political groups will also be reluctant to settle for a return to the post-2003 political status quo. It was too open to abuse and allowed one person, the prime minister, to consolidate power and alienate Sunnis and other groups. The Sunnis are likely to desire further delegation of Baghdad's powers to the provinces, term limits on any prime minister's tenure, and a more even distribution of power between the country's top officials and institutions, including the presidency and parliament.
And then there is the huge challenge of easing Maliki from the political scene. Although Maliki played a critical and positive role for Iraq when its territorial integrity was threatened in 2006 and 2007, the Iraqi political elite, most of the region, and the United States no longer have any confidence that Iraq can stabilize under his leadership. The politicization of the military which contributed to the collapse of dozens of battalions, is only one demonstration of how Iraq's institutions have suffered on his watch.
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