Why is this our Problem?
This week, the world caught up to the explosive advance of an ultra-radical and violent Sunni militant group, ISIS, into central Iraq, rolling up an ineffectual Iraqi army and, in its wake, executing hundreds of Iraqi citizens. ISIS, which grew in eastern Syria as a jihadist participant in the uprising against the Syrian government, has declared its intention to create a Sunni controlled caliphate covering a large part of both countries. That caliphate will be a breeding ground for a new generation of ultra-violent terrorists who will threaten the region and, eventually, US interests and citizens.
The sudden rise of this group, which was cast out of Al-Qaeda because of its violence against Arabs, poses a huge challenge to the United States. What is happening now in Iraq is, sadly and inexcusably, in major part our fault. Sunni-Shiite tensions go back thirteen hundred years; they are not new. But by invading Iraq in 2003, we destroyed an existing, albeit brutal, government. By abruptly withdrawing in 2011 without a status-of-forces agreement and without, therefore, any leverage to affect Iraq’s development, we created a power vacuum which has degenerated into a full blown civil war. Now the charnel house of Syria will have an eastern neighbor.
However flawed the logic of our invasion of Iraq, we placed the lives of forty million Iraqis at risk and put hundreds of thousands of Americans in harm’s way on the premise of limiting a terrorist threat and helping build a new Iraq. Because we failed to invest the resources and political muscle to leave behind something sustainable, we created the conditions that led to mass executions and sectarian bloodshed. We left Iraq because it was politically convenient and before there was a sustainable alternative to the vile regime we overthrew.
The American people want no further part of this conflict. Over on POLITICO, 79% of respondents want no part of the Iraqi civil war we started. That doesn’t mean our hands are clean. Why did 4500 Americans have to die for this unfortunate country? Why did we spend nearly a trillion in direct costs on our involvement in Iraq? To leave behind a legacy of chaos and broken promises? If we are going to involve ourselves in other countries’ problems, we cannot afford to make things worse by our intervention. Otherwise, no one anywhere will trust us.
It is clear what need to happen, whether it is politically popular or not. We are going to have to get busy with the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, the moderate Syrian opposition and whoever else will help to eradicate ISIS, and use our influence with Nouri Al-Malki’s government to create a viable,inclusive political process in Iraq or else press to replace him. Otherwise, the 4500 young people we sent over there will have died for nothing. And the world will be less safe for their sacrifices than it was before.