Like Groundhog Day, in the movie of that name, Iraq won’t go away. In what Friday’s New York Times curiously called “robust military moves,” President Obama is now sending 300 military advisers to Iraq to complement the 275 servicemen who are guarding the American Embassy.
My point, in this instance, is not to argue who is at fault for the chaos in Iraq. Other than one observation, let us agree to disagree, at least for the moment, as to the cause. An aspect of Saddam Hussein’s nearly 24-year reign that too often is forgotten was his wanton brutality. We know he used mustard gas, Sarin and nerve agents (all weapons of mass destruction, by the way) against the Kurds. No one knows how many of his own people he killed, but estimates range from 600,000 to well over a million. In other words, he killed his own people at the rate of between 25,000 and 50,000 a year (or 68 to 136 every day) for 24 years! In the gallery of the world’s worst monsters, Saddam Hussein stands in the front ranks.
Regardless of the cause, we are left with a mess. Syria and Iraq are in disarray. Iran is moving toward nuclear capability. Islamic extremists not only threaten Iraq and Syria, they are doing so in North Africa, as well as in such West Africa nations as Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Ironically, today Iran is being touted by some as a bulwark of relative stability in the Middle East. The U.S. has reached out to the Mullahs to aid in derailing the assault on Baghdad by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In return, Iran may be invited into the community of nations, if they forswear developing nuclear weapons. Agreeing to the latter, means one is willing to rely on trust without the Reagan qualifier of verification.
Regarding Iraq, the temptation is to throw up one’s hands and say a curse on both your houses –battle it out. We don’t care. But can the United States, the world’s largest power (and the most democratic State to ever serve in such a capacity) afford to give up responsibility for global peace? Historically, it has been the threat of force, not passivity or negligence, which has preserved peace. And, like it or not, we are the elephant in the room.
In puzzling over what actions the Russians might take in 1939 as the world was preparing for war, Winston Churchill described the country as being “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but,” he added, “perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” As we ponder the problem of the Middle East, it is worth thinking of our national interest as it pertains to the region. Our self-interest appears to be comprised of four distinct, but related parts: first and most critical is maintaining stability in the region; second, preventing the export of terrorism to our homeland and to that of our allies; third, ensuring that Gulf Coast oil continues to flow, and, fourth, the preservation of Israel as a free and independent nation. All are, of course, interrelated. The critical question: Will a dismembered and strife-torn Iraq affect our national interests?
That the Middle East has become noticeably less stable is apparent to all. For centuries, the region has been like a cannibal’s cauldron, simmering with morsels of humanity, ready to be devoured by those most ruthless. Throughout history, as the pot warms, one group or another – Christians, Jews, Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites or Palestinians – have made it their job to stir the pot towards boiling, revolution and chaos. Most Middle Easterners have lived under imposed external tyranny of one form or another for centuries. The region was once part of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire and later, part of the Ottoman Empire. Following the collapse of the latter, after World War I, new territorial lines were drawn by the British, with little regard to language, the tribes in the region, or to whether the peoples within those borders were Sunni or Shiite. Today, trouble brews throughout the region, from Syria/Iraq to Iran, from the Levant to Yemen, from Somalia to North and West Africa. Caliphates are being considered in a number of countries. Will war-torn Iraq provide more or less stability? Historically stability in the region has been achieved with strong, dictatorial leaders, and at the expense of human rights and liberty. Can it be otherwise? Israel’s democracy is indicative that freedom can survive in the region, but it is a lonely and beleaguered example. And anti-Semitism is rife in the Middle East; it is also on the rise in Europe and among certain segments in the U.S.
Most would agree that democracies are the most stable form of government man has yet devised. George W. Bush thought democracy was transferable to Arab states, but his hopes were dashed. Was he naïve or just too early? The path toward democracy is typically evolutionary. It takes time, but to assert that certain groups are incapable of self-rule smacks of arrogance and hypocrisy and is, in my opinion, prejudicial.
We do not know whether terrorism will be exported to the U.S., as was done on 9/11. But we do know that terrorists find unstable countries fertile grounds in which to breed and germinate. And terrorism is more than al Qaeda, as we know from recent experience with ISIS, Hamas, Boko Haram and 55 additional Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTOs), as identified by the U.S. Department of State. Are our borders today so secure that we can prevent bad people from entering the United States? I suspect not, especially given the recent influx from Central America. It is hard not to conclude that a destabilized Iraq has increased the risk of domestic terrorism.
While U.S. oil imports from OPEC nations have declined over the past several years (as have imports generally), we still get 45% of our oil imports from that consortium, with Saudi Arabia and Iraq being the two largest individual contributors. Our dependency on the region for oil is distinctly becoming less. Nevertheless, an interruption of the flow of oil would have negative economic consequences. Obviously, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and permission to drill on federal lands would further alleviate dependency on imported oil, but that’s not where we are.
In terms of Israel, there has been, in the European Press and in papers like the New York Times, a subtle and insidious move toward blaming Israel for woes in the Middle East. Despite being Jewish, NY Times reporter Jodi Rudoren accused Israel of destabilizing Israeli-Palestinian relations, in the search for the three boys kidnapped a week ago. The so-called “unity government” in Palestine includes Hamas, the organization which most find responsible for the kidnapping. While only one of the boys is a child of “settlers,” it has become obligatory for the liberal media to mention the settler aspect of the case. I raise this point, because without question destabilization anywhere in the Middle East affects the cause of Israel. Making an ally of Iran, a country that has pledged to “wipe Israel off the map,” is indicative of the changing attitude in the West toward the region’s sole democracy and one of our most important allies.
What happens in Iraq does affect our national interests. Nevertheless, it also seems obvious that Americans are not ready to defend those interests when the consequence would be “boots on the ground.” And no political leader has emerged as willing to argue the cause. While the call last Saturday by the Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani for Iraqi politicians to form a new and inclusive government was welcome, success will depend on the willingness of Nouri al-Maliki to accede to that request. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Baghdad this morning pressing that case. It is possible that Iraqis might peacefully settle their differences, but with hatred between the tribes embedded so deeply that seems a long shot. It is conceivable that the 300 U.S. military advisers to help train the Iraqi army will be adequate to protect our interests and allow al-Maliki’s forces to defeat the Sunni insurgents, but that also seems a long shot.
The greater likelihood is that Iraq will continue to be a bubbling cauldron, as will its western neighbor, Syria. Instability will persist and give rise to more terrorists. Instability risks cutting off the flow of Iraq’s oil, especially from the southern port of Basra, which thus far has seen exports increase, as most of the fighting has been in the north and along the Syrian border. And instability raises the stakes for Israel, a country that has been losing friends.
Americans have little stomach for wars in which hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers are sent to fight in places most people do not know and cannot pronounce. They have less tolerance when they see thousands coming back in coffins or severely disabled. Very few politicians have the ability or the willingness to argue the case that if global peace is ever to be realized it may well require a robust and strong military presence. And the press has been almost universal in its preference for the U.S. to concentrate on problems at home.
When the U.S. defeated Germany and Japan in World War II, they left behind thousands of GIs whose purpose was to maintain order and to help those countries adopt democratic institutions. Neither country had ever experienced democracy prior, yet each adopted it. The American presence was disliked by some, but success could be seen in the democratic governments that were born at the time and the success each had subsequently, both politically and economically. There are still about 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan. The same thing could be said of South Korea, which we exited in 1953 and where about 28,000 U.S. troops remain. We were not victorious in Korea, but we left behind a contingency of troops to help enforce the border and to help the country adapt principles of democracy and capitalism. On a GDP per capita basis, according to CIA data, they now rank 30th in the world. North Korea ranks 167th.
When we hear criticism of a continued American military presence in Iraq, questions should be asked: Would you rather have been born in East Germany or West Germany? Were our troops in Japan a force for good or evil? Would you rather have been raised in North Korea or South Korea? All three countries had American troops for decades. On the other hand, we never left troops in Vietnam. When the City of Saigon fell and the last Americans were helicoptered out off the roof of the Embassy in April, 1975, hundreds of thousands, or perhaps more than a million, Vietnamese were butchered by the Communists. Today Vietnam is an economic success, but a lot of people died in the ensuing months and years after we left.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that ultimately millions of peace-loving Muslims who live in every country in the world must stand up to the extremists. It is their responsibility to tame those who would tarnish their faith. And, I also know that the U.S. has almost always been a force for good – something we should remember as we debate Iraq and the consequences of leaving her prematurely to a fate of inevitable further destruction, imperiling us all.
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