As the world decides how to handle the latest disaster in Iraq, it’s our turn to discuss the future of that tortured nation. It’s hard to know how permanent a problem the Islamic State (IS) is. The group has been around in some form for a few years, and was formally allied with and subordinate to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) until February of this year. It’s run by some guy who thinks he’s destined to be the Sultan of a new Islamic caliphate that will encompass the entire region. IS is crueler and crazier than many of its peers, but radical Islamist groups are common these days, especially in the wild west that is central Iraq.
Yet, as everybody knows, in the last couple of months (and to the shock of Western intelligence agencies) IS has become a significant threat to Iraq and, probably, to the West. IS has gone on a bloody conquest spree. The group now controls about 1/3 of Iraq and gleefully slaughters its enemies and innocent civilians. After IS overran Fallujah and Mosul the West woke up. The United States began airstrikes and emergency humanitarian aid, and may have succeeded in stopping the group’s advance. Obama and world leaders are trying furiously to come up with a plan to stop IS and eventually roll it back. NATO met this week to decide on a course of action.
Making the stopping of IS even harder is that IS has become a major force in Syria’s ghastly, never-ending civil war. As President Obama has admitted, no one really knows what to do to stop IS in Syria. We have very little influence inside Syria and can have little confidence we even know who’s who exactly, plus there is no friendly government to work with.
So, IS, IS, IS. Yet, the Islamic State is just one more manifestation of the same basic problem that we have been staring at since we toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003: Iraq has not achieved national reconciliation between its major factions: Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and assorted other religious and ethnic minorities. That is our real subject for Monday, IMO, along with U.S. strategy. As Obama said, Iraq’s disunity fundamentally is a POLITICAL problem and can only be solved by Iraqis. Obama did just engineer the ousting of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, who was part of the problem. But, the road will be long.
I’ll explain recent events in a little more detail to open Monday’s meeting. Then, I’ll open it up. I hope we can speak realistically about what we can and cannot accomplish in Iraq.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- IS: Who are these monsters? What caused IS rise? How does the IS situation both arise from Iraq’s longstanding problems and make them worse?
- Stopping IS: How can the group be stopped? Can it be rolled back or just contained? Who should do what specifically?
Syria: What are our options? Any good ones? Would attacking IS in Syria mean we’d be supporting Assad? Should we do it anyway?
- Iraq: What are its basic political divisions and problems? How – ideally only, let’s say – can the country find peace?
- U.S. culpability: Is all of this just the fallout from Bush’s war? Does Obama deserve any blame here?
- U.S. Limits: How much influence does the United States really have over Iraq’s long-term future? Over Syria’s?
- U.S. Policy: What should the United States do? What should be our (1) goal and (2) the means?
The Islamic State (IS) –
- What does it want and what is its main weakness? (New Republic) Recommended.
- 17 facts about IS you need to know and 9 myths same (Vox) Good primers.
- Is this awful group a threat to the United States? Yes. Or, No. Both.
- Why it ‘s our problem. (New Yorker)
- The almost comical emptiness of some of Obama’s critics on the Right. (Atlantic Monthly) Recommended.
- But, Obama needs to level with us about what it really will take to combat IS (as do his conservative critics). (War on the Rocks)
Healing Iraq, more broadly –
- Who’s who in the battle over Iraq’s future: IS, Shiites, Kurds, etc . (WashPost, a good primer.)
- Iraq’s divided future. (Financial Times) Same.
- Divisions within Iraq’s Shiites are a major source of the problem. (NYT)
Healing the Middle east, more broadly –
- Actually, Obama does have a Middle East foreign policy. This is my view.
- A Saudi Arabian-Iran compromise is what’s really needed to make peace in the region. (Carnegie)
Next Week: Does the Constitution Need Updating?