Given the United States’ 11 years of involvement in Iraq as an invader, occupier and, most recently, facilitator and ally, it is difficult for the government and Americans to watch what is happening there with equanimity.
The United States withdrew its forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, with what it said was a democratically elected government in place and with ample armed forces poised to defend that government, which America had trained and equipped. That is, of course, the strategy that the United States has also laid out for its departure from Afghanistan, at this point scheduled for the end of 2016, after 15 years there.
The edifice that Washington set up and supported in Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, has fallen apart, in a heap of sectarianism, regionalism, non-inclusion, corruption and just plain narrow-minded stupidity. The regional powers — Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs — have backed their respective horses in the race, the governing Shiites and the challenging Sunnis, pulling the country of Iraq apart.
The likely outcome now will be a Kurdish north, a Sunni heartland probably including at least part of Baghdad the capital, and a Shiite south — the three pieces perhaps working to a degree under the shell of the former Iraq, the one that existed prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003.
At this juncture there are key points for President Barack Obama and his team to bear in mind.
First, Mr. Obama is probably right to put a small number of U.S. troops into the Baghdad Green Zone, to keep the 5,500 American officials still in Iraq — astonishingly — from being slaughtered or taken hostage by a victorious Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or a desperate Maliki government. He must stick to his position that U.S. troops will not become re-involved in combat in Iraq.
Pushing Mr. Obama to use troops to save the Maliki government will be U.S. parties with commercial interests and investments in Iraq’s status quo, some of it through the sale of arms and other products, and those who still feel committed to the previous strategy and don’t want to admit that it has failed. Mr. Obama needs to resist influence by these parties, which are unable to adapt to the changes on the ground.
An ironic, but basically positive outcome of the new situation is that it is compelling the United States to consult with Iran on matters of common interest in Iraq. This is a long overdue development, even though the subject may be how to save the skin of the failed Shiite government and American face in the region.