The opening sentence in this morning's Washington Post account of the turmoil in Iraq is not exactly wrong, but it is woefully inadequate.
"Iraq was on the brink of falling apart Thursday as al-Qaeda renegades asserted their authority over Sunni areas in the north, Kurds seized control of the city of Kirkuk and the Shiite-led government appealed for volunteers to help defend its shrinking domain," begins the news report by Loveday Morris and Liz Sly. In truth, Iraq has been on the brink of falling apart since it was carved out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
"Iraq is not a country. It is an oil field with a flag." I remember reading those sentences at the time of the first Iraq War back in 1991. I can't find the citation, but I believe it was in The New Republic. For the West, nationalism was seen as a good thing in the days after the Great War, and it was believed, foolishly, that Western ideas about nation-state sovereignty could be transplanted around the world, the norms of democracy or monarchy exported as easily as manufactured goods.
The top advisers to President George W. Bush labored under a similar delusion in 2003, apparently thinking you could fly in Jeffersonian ideals as easily as you could fly in the 101st Airborne Division. Twice now, Americans have allowed the deception of territorial integrity to color their judgment and expose hundreds of thousands of simple Iraqi people to mass atrocities. When Bush pere declined to march on Baghdad and depose Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed. When Bush fils did march on Baghdad and depose Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed.
As President Barack Obama contemplates what steps to take in response to the crisis in Iraq, he is well advised to hold firm to a simple principle: The territorial integrity of Iraq is not worth a single life -- not a single American life, not a single Iraqi life. It is time to admit that the arbitrary borders drawn by the British Colonial and Foreign Offices are not worth preserving.
This admission is not exhaustive. It does little to explain what can or should be done about the frightening prospect of armed extremists loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but the admission rules out one course of action. The last thing for the United States to do is be dragged back into an Iraqi civil war.
Understandably, the government of Nouri al-Maliki has born a great deal of criticism for the crisis. Maliki, with U.S. help, persuaded Sunni tribal leaders to help his regime defeat Sunni al-Qaeda extremists back in 2007. But he failed to set aside his ongoing suspicions of those same Sunni tribal leaders, nor did he cultivate a working relationship with other moderate Sunni political leaders. Maliki appears by all accounts to be a small man focused on petty political machinations when the moment demands a person of large political vision. Instead of recognizing the need to persuade Sunni leaders to buy into a new, more tolerant Iraq, he alienated them.
Of course, finding a "big man" solution brings its own problems. The fractious, bitterly divided citizenry of Iraq were held together by Saddam Hussein, but his means were those of brutality, assassination, thuggery. Short of brutality, what will keep these warring factions from killing each other? It is doubtful negotiations will work. According to the Post report, the ISIS forces announced a new charter for the regions they have claimed in recent days that includes this: "We are the soldiers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ... who took it upon ourselves to bring back the glory of the Islamic Caliphate and turn back injustice and indignity." Hard to imagine successful negotiations with those whose stated aim is the restoration of the Caliphate.
Indeed, Maliki's failure to cultivate moderate Sunni leaders and ally his ambitions with theirs has left the Sunni population receptive to the presence of ISIS, even if the population does not dream of reclaiming Istanbul and all of Arabia for its purposes. That same Post story quotes a 33-year-old electrician saying of ISIS, "People are willing to give them a chance." In the absence of failed political leadership, people become disposed to extreme remedies. Ask Eric Cantor.
There are no good scenarios for the immediate future. The best to be hoped for in this situation is that the Kurds claim their territory, the Shiite government holds on to its territory, the ISIS forces decide it is more important to consolidate their hold on the cities they have already claimed and not seek to take over the rest of the country, and that international forces separate the three groups one from another and try to keep peace. Who knows if ISIS will march on Baghdad? It is worth trying to keep that from happening with limited air strikes if necessary, or else the bloodshed will be too horrible to imagine in this region of the world already drenched in blood.
The British-created myth of a united Iraq died this week, and no one should mourn it. But there is no good reason for thousands more to die. I do not relish the idea of leaving millions of civilians under the control of fanatics like ISIS, but I do not see any alternative. Here, I should add, President Obama's failure to help the moderate opposition in Syria two years ago has contributed mightily to the current unrest in Iraq. The ISIS fighters know that the West is all too willing to look the other way when atrocities are committed. If a bit of Western assistance can help keep the warring factions apart -- a real peace is too much to hope for, but at least an end to the killing -- that is a worthwhile goal. Propping up the inept regime of Nouri al-Maliki and its claims to the entirety of a nation that never really existed is not a worthwhile goal.
A final thought. Is anyone else tired of listening to those men who championed the Iraq War in 2003 and promised it would be a cakewalk -- Sen. John McCain, former Bush adviser Paul Wolfowitz and, perhaps most of all, Bill Kristol -- opine on what should be done now? If you go back and listen to the promises that were made, the predictions of being greeted as liberators, the easy dismissal of the possibility of ethno-religious strife and, especially, the confident claims about a peaceful democratic future for Iraq, you get the feeling you get when you look in a funhouse mirror. You recognize what you see and hear, but it is all distorted. McCain, Wolfowitz and Kristol all thought they were doing the right thing. No one can or should impugn their motives. But we should recall the sage warning of Reinhold Niebuhr: "A too-confident sense of justice always leads to injustice." The architects of the second Iraq War may have convinced themselves of the perpetual efficacy of U.S. military intervention. Their arguments, given their track record, should not convince the rest of us. It is a time for small ambitions. It is an Augustinian time. U.S. policy should aim to stop the killing. That is enough for now and, in the event, may be the only thing we can reasonably hope to achieve.