Iraq Isn't Ours to Save

A hawk's case for caution
Iraqis who have volunteered to join the army and fight ISIS militants parade in Baghdad. (Reuters/The Atlantic)

I was a strong supporter of the Iraq war. Now I urge caution about military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgency in the country.

U.S. intervention to defend its interests and support its friends remains essential. But the government in Baghdad is not an American friend, and action against ISIS will not advance U.S. interests. Instead, Washington faces a real risk of being drawn into conflict to protect an Iranian ally from the consequences of his own misrule—and paying Tehran a strategic price for the privilege. 

The United States handed the government of Nouri al-Maliki a real opportunity at the end of its troop surge in 2008. Iraq had been stabilized militarily, both by the battlefield successes of the U.S.-led coalition and—maybe even more—by American-designed political initiatives to bring Sunnis into the Iraqi political system. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government proceeded to discard all these achievements.  

You can read a disturbing timeline of Maliki’s failures here. The bottom line: After finishing second in the elections of 2010, the prime minister held onto power through a sequence of parliamentary maneuvers that left him dependent on Iranian-backed Shiite coalition partners. This outcome probably suited his own inclinations more than the broader-based government midwifed by the United States in 2006. Maliki's second government retooled itself as an authoritarian and sectarian regime. Sunni leaders were driven from office, arrested, and in some cases executed. 

Maliki insisted that all U.S. troops leave Iraq by the end of 2011—a demand that was likely welcomed by the Obama administration. What wasn’t welcome was the new role Maliki chose for himself: an Iranian ally who allowed his airspace to serve as a resupply corridor for Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian-supported forces in Syria.

Now, the most extreme and brutal of the anti-regime forces inside Syria has turned against Maliki. He is seeking American help, and Maliki’s patrons in Tehran appear content to see the United States rescue their client. According to some reports, the Iranians view U.S. aid to Maliki as a strategic partnership that could smooth the way to a nuclear deal more favorable to them.

Is this situation not utterly upside down? It’s Iran that has a vital interest in the survival of Maliki, not the United States. It’s Iran that should be entreating the U.S. for assistance to Maliki—and Iran that should be expected to pay the strategic price for whatever support Maliki gets. 

ISlS has captured cities in northern Iraq because the Iraqi army collapsed there. But as it moves south, it will encounter much larger Shiite populations and Shiite militias as vicious as itself. We’re not going to see ISIS ruling the country. We may see carnage in Baghdad, as we’ve seen carnage in Syria. Both countries are suffering horrifying humanitarian disasters, but as security challenges they present only a local threat. Of all the potential actors, the United States is the one with the least cause to involve itself—and the one best positioned to insist on conditions for any involvement.

The United States overestimated the threat from Saddam Hussein in 2003. Without an active nuclear-weapons program, he was not a danger beyond his immediate vicinity. That war cost this country dearly. The United States failed in its most ambitious objective: establishing a stable, Western-oriented government for all of Iraq. It did, however, succeed in establishing a stable, Western-oriented government in a part of Iraq: Kurdistan. Let’s focus resources instead on strengthening our relationship with that impressive enclave—and hope that as much as possible of Iraq’s oil wealth ends up under Kurdish control.

Presented by

David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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