The picture of President Barack Obama returning from his vacation ready to make a decision on U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria to try to head off Islamic State forces there is very disturbing and demands careful analysis and consideration by the American public.
For me the image is that of a young boy splashing around in a creek populated by poisonous water moccasins.
To try to get a fix on the situation, let’s line up the elements in the Middle East snake pool that would be on our side in a war against the Islamic State, and those who would be against us, those who would favor a U.S. attack on Islamic State forces and those who would think it to be a bad idea.
The first element to recall in the picture is that the Islamic State is a Sunni organization in the ongoing Shiite-Sunni contest in the Middle East.
That would be to put as U.S. allies — allies — in a war against the Islamic State, Bashar Assad’s government in Syria, Iran, the Shiites-only government in Iraq and the so-far-ineffectual Syrian moderate forces opposed to Assad’s regime. If there were any reason to believe that this grab-bag of allies could somehow be brought to cooperate in a war against the Islamic State, the situation would be considerably more bizarre than even most Middle Eastern wars.
Among those “allies” the United States has been opposed to Assad’s government for years now, but it considers the Sunni-based Islamic State to be its most dangerous enemy. Iran, in spite of the continuing negotiations between it and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including the United States, plus Germany over its nuclear program and economic sanctions against it, is nonetheless still considered to some degree the U.S. devil incarnate in the Middle East.
U.S. military support to the Shiite Iraqi government in Baghdad has mostly caused its forces to run when faced by Islamic State forces, abandoning its U.S.-supplied weapons to their hands. The United States has hesitated to provide weapons to moderate Syrian forces from a well-founded suspicion that those weapons would end up in the hands of Syrian Islamist extremists, as in the Islamic State.
Now, can Mr. Obama seriously be considering putting the U.S. Air Force or Special Operations forces behind a group of allies such as this?
And then there are the Kurds. They are claiming that if only the United States would provide them hotter weapons, they would be prepared to stand up to Islamic State forces. There are a couple of problems there. One of these is that what the Kurds want is their own country. The first problem with that is that the Kurds would create their own country out of pieces of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The second problem, even worse than the first if one is thinking in terms of battlefield efficacy, is that the Kurds are divided into three, competing, armed groups.
Faced with serious foreign opposition the Kurds more or less stick together against an enemy. Left to themselves they fight each other. Already the three groups are scrapping over which gets the American military aid that is being provided them. There is no reason to believe that this old, tribal phenomenon will get better over time.
In trying to grasp the current situation, if one is Mr. Obama or the American public, it is also important to look at the other side of the field. Who supports the Islamic State?
Islamic State fighters are Sunnis. They are thus supported by important rich, if unofficial, elements among America’s major Middle Eastern allies. These include Saudi Arabia; Persian Gulf states Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates; and even Egypt.
The Islamic State makes the leaders of these states nervous, with its radical Islamist line, but when it comes down to Sunni vs. Shiite, they will be on board with the Islamic State against the Shiites led by Iran. The strength of the Sunnis in Iraq also should not be underestimated. They ruled the place from 1932 until the U.S. invasion in 2003 and can’t be sniffed at. The Islamic State is still gaining ground and might have taken Irbil, the Kurdish capital, or even Baghdad if U.S. air attacks had not intervened earlier this month.
So, given this line-up in the field, where do various Washington players come down in the “Do we, or don’t we?” debate on U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State that Mr. Obama is presumably presiding over in Washington now? The U.S. military favors intervention, if one is reading Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey correctly as reflecting Pentagon views.
This is predictable. The U.S. role in Iraq ended in 2011. The Pentagon’s role in Afghanistan is winding down. It is currently selling or scrapping many billions in gear from a peak 800 bases in Afghanistan in preparation for departure.
The Pentagon therefore needs another war to justify its budget. Taking on the Islamic State does check that box, ill-advised though it might be. It is better than fighting Russia in the Eastern Ukraine or heating up conflict with China in the South China Sea.
The U.S. companies that make money off wars, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon, would of course favor another war with more sales of aircraft, drones, rockets and fuel to wage such a war.
Other Capitol elements favoring war include the Israel lobby, which wants to see American public concern diverted from what Israel is doing in Gaza and from pressing it for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians over the future of the Israel-Palestine territory. American forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would serve as useful distraction in that regard from the point of view of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and his American supporters.
Also favoring increased U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria would be the usual mindless warmongers such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, although many of the members of Congress, when they come back from their long summer vacation, will not want to be counted on that question, given their awareness of the public’s reluctance to see America in another Middle Eastern war.
Those Americans favoring letting the Islamic State and the other malevolent elements in that area fight it out among themselves, without benefit of the United States taking sides, are, in my view, right. Let’s just hope that Mr. Obama gets it, and has the strength not to let his collection of advisers push him into intervention, to my mind clearly the wrong decision.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).