Obama’s Iraq policy in 2014 is his 2007 policy all over again. The minimal attacks on Al Qaeda are paired with the expectation that Iraqis will unite to achieve a political solution.
But what if they don’t?
In 2007, Obama had claimed that American withdrawals would pressure Iraqis into a political solution. He was wrong. The withdrawals not only failed to move Iraq toward a political solution, but they gave Maliki and his Iranian allies the power they needed to marginalize the Kurds and the Sunnis.
Obama went on insisting that the only solution to Al Qaeda could come from Iraqi unity right up until the threat of Yazidi genocide forced him to commit to air strikes. Denial of aid from the United States even as ISIS forces were closing in on Baghdad and Erbil had still failed to lead to a political solution.
Even now Obama is still reading from the same worn political unity script. But if even the threat of genocide hasn’t brought political unity in Iraq, is there anything that will?
It’s unknown whether Obama ever really believed in some anti-colonialist doctrine that convinced him that Iraqis would unite after an American withdrawal or whether he was using it as a fig leaf for his preemptive withdrawal platform, but time and mass murder have discredited him and it either way.
Middle Eastern countries with mixed ethnic and religious populations tend to be unstable and war-torn. Israel and Lebanon are two of the obvious examples, but Iraq and Syria have long histories of conflict predating the current civil wars. Whatever stability they had came from dictators and bloodshed.
In Israel, Sunni Muslims can’t get along with the native Jewish population they had once conquered, but which had managed to achieve political independence. In Lebanon, Sunni and Shiite Muslims can’t get along with each other or the pre-existing Christian population despite multiple agreements.
Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims can’t get along in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. And that’s just a partial list.
There’s a pattern here that doesn’t suggest a bright future for a unified Iraq.
In a country where either Sunni or Shiite Muslims are so weak that they pose no threat to the Muslim majority of a different sect, they are persecuted, but the country as a whole can be stable. However where the demographic or political split is less tilted toward one side, then conflict becomes inevitable.
It’s not just a numbers game. It’s often a question of which families or tribes are closest to the centers of power. It’s also a regional conflict much like the Cold War in which Sunni and Shiite countries promote the spread of their brand of Islam through terrorism and armed insurgencies.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar and the rest of the boys didn’t want a democratic Iraq in which different religious groups got along with each other. They wanted their religious sect to prevail.
When the United States left Iraq, Iran filled the void in Baghdad while even more Sunni oil money began flowing into Al Qaeda. And it really took off once Obama began favoring Iran’s nuclear program.
ISIS represents a familiar Saudi tactic. It’s the revival of the Ikhwan, the armies of Wahhabi bandit raiders who united Saudi Arabia under the House of Saud by terrorizing Sunni rivals and Shiite Muslims. The ISIS atrocities of today were business as usual for the Ikhwan who referred to other Muslims as infidels, invaded Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan, killed some 400,000 people and created a million refugees.
(Similar events had also taken place earlier such as the Wahhabi sack of Kerbala in Iraq in 1802. A contemporary description relates, “The elderly, women, and children—everybody died by the barbarians’ sword.”)
The Ikhwan, like Al Qaeda, turned on the Saudis and their attacks on British territory attracted Imperial attention. The Saudis used British air strikes to put down the Ikhwan in the 1920s and transformed what was left of them into the country’s National Guard. This pattern becomes familiar to us if we swap out the Ikhwan for Al Qaeda in its various forms. The difference is that modern technology and oil wealth have given the Wahhabi raiders a truly global reach as we discovered on September 11.
A century later, the United States is stuck playing the British role with the Saudis using Wahhabi insurgencies to crush their rivals before bringing in the United States to clean up the mess.
Maintaining a unified Iraq doesn’t just mean protecting it from Al Qaeda, but protecting it from Iran and the Saudis. And that isn’t something that we can realistically do. Barring an Iraqi Ataturk who can create a secular Iraqi state backed by a powerful army and reformist elite, there is no hope for a unified Iraq.
Iraq’s multiculturalism enabled ISIS. The shifting agendas of Maliki, his Shiite rivals, the Kurds and their various factions destroyed any possibility of resistance to the advancing Al Qaeda army. The Shiites wanted to use ISIS to impose central control on everyone else. The Kurds wanted to use ISIS to achieve their full independence. Despite the threat of genocide, these clashing agendas have not changed.
Right now we have two bad choices in Iraq. We can either ignore everything that happens there or try to micromanage it. Both policies have failed. We tried walking away from Iraq only to discover that it had become even more dangerous. At the same time we failed to create a stable multicultural Iraq.
The neo-conservative idea of stabilizing the Middle East with a democratic Iraq was visionary, but it was also fatally flawed by longstanding religious and ethnic tensions within the country and the region. The very idea of creating an Iraqi Egypt or Turkey to counterbalance explicitly sectarian Islamic powers only ensured that Iran and Saudi Arabia would do everything in their power to destabilize the experiment.
And that is what happened.
The only real hope for stability lies in breaking Iraq up along demographic lines into majority ethnic and religious states. These states will face external threats and they may be drawn into the orbits of Sunni and Shiite powers, but they will be internally stable and therefore less likely to host Al Qaeda. And they may be dependent enough on American weapons and aid to protect non-Muslim minorities.
The solution won’t be neat or easy, the history of Kirkuk testifies to that, but it is likely to be a solution that will leave behind countries that won’t require our constant involvement. To implement it, we don’t have to reject democracy, but we do have to be realistic about the prospects of multicultural states in a region where tribal wars of race and religion are a commonplace reality.
ISIS showed how unreal Iraqi nationalism was, just as the AKP proved that Turkey’s secular nationalism could be undone with Islamist money. Hamas demonstrated that Palestinian nationalism was a phantom and the Muslim Brotherhood showed how fragile Egyptian nationalism was.
In the Middle East, clan trumps nation and only religion occasionally trumps clan.
We can fight against the facts of the Middle East or we can work with them to create an Iraq that we can finally walk away from.
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