Quotes of the day

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), issued a rare audio message back on January 21 in which he flatly stated his group’s intention to march on Baghdad and move into “direct confrontation” with the United States.

“Our last message is to the Americans. Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day,” Baghdadi said. “So watch, for we are with you, watching.”


Florida’s Rubio delivered a lengthy floor speech on Thursday arguing that “the choice before us will be whether we take action now, or we take action later.” He warned that ignoring the chaos in the country, which U.S. troops withdrew from in 2011 after years of war, raised the risk that it would turn into a safe haven for terrorists who could threaten America and its allies…

Meanwhile, Kentucky’s Paul, a libertarian-leaning politician, expressed deep reservations about renewed American military involvement in Iraq, and outlined concerns that Congress wouldn’t be sufficiently consulted before action was taken.

“I hate that Mosul is falling, but I also think that for 10 years we have supplied the Iraqis and they can’t stand up and do anything to defend their country, and it is all up to us?” he said during questions to a panel before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


Hillary Clinton said the United States should not provide military assistance – particularly airstrikes – to the Iraqi government “at this time” in response to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other militants…

“That is not a role for the United States,” Clinton said. “There needs to be a number of steps that [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al] Maliki and his government must take to demonstrate that he is committed to an inclusive Iraq, something he has not done up to date.”

Clinton also said that the Iraqi Army – “which has not been able to hold territory” – needs “an injection of discipline and professionalism” before any help could be considered.


The prime minister and his ruling party have behaved like thugs, excluding the Sunnis from power, using the army, police forces and militias to terrorize their opponents. The insurgency the Maliki government faces today was utterly predictable because, in fact, it happened before. From 2003 onward, Iraq faced a Sunni insurgency that was finally tamped down by Gen. David Petraeus, who said explicitly at the time that the core element of his strategy was political, bringing Sunni tribes and militias into the fold. The surge’s success, he often noted, bought time for a real power-sharing deal in Iraq that would bring the Sunnis into the structure of the government…

But how did Maliki come to be prime minister of Iraq? He was the product of a series of momentous decisions made by the Bush administration. Having invaded Iraq with a small force — what the expertTom Ricks called “the worst war plan in American history” — the administration needed to find local allies. It quickly decided to destroy Iraq’s Sunni ruling establishment and empower the hard-line Shiite religious parties that had opposed Saddam Hussein. This meant that a structure of Sunni power that had been in the area for centuries collapsed. These moves — to disband the army, dismantle the bureaucracy and purge Sunnis in general — might have been more consequential than the invasion itself…

Washington is debating whether airstrikes or training forces would be more effective, but its real problem is much larger and is a decade in the making. In Iraq, it is defending the indefensible.


The Iraqi security forces don’t have troops capable of relaying detailed targeting information, which would likely require the Pentagon or the CIA to send small numbers of American personnel into Iraq to handle that difficult mission. Without adequate ground intelligence, the United States could run the risk of accidentally killing Iraqi security forces or, even worse, civilians.

“Airstrikes are tricky,” Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said. “In an urban environment, they can become indiscriminate, resulting in civilians killed and infrastructure damaged.”…

“The one thing the government and the West can’t do is further alienate the Sunni population in the north and west [by accidentally killing Sunnis in errant airstrikes],” Henman said. “Otherwise, any U.S. involvement would be easily construed and utilized for ISIS propaganda.”


This situation makes me think I was wrong when I supported the idea of having a small “residual force” of perhaps 10,000 troops based near Baghdad to support the Iraqi government and to discourage coups. If we had troops there now, we would be facing the choice of pulling them out under fire or reinforcing them, two equally unpalatable choices.

No, I don’t think we should do airstrikes. The last thing we need is American pilots being held prisoner by the new guys. And where would you base your combat search & rescue helicopters, and what do you do when one of them gets show down? I don’t think Obama faces hard choices in Iraq.

The one interesting suggestion I’ve heard is that the U.S. government make military aid to Iraq dependent on Maliki stepping down. But I think Iran has more say in that than we do.


I’ve long argued that the only thing that would force Maliki to change his ways would be his perception that his survival depended on it. When U.S. troops were fighting his war and securing his rule, he consistently refused to make the political accommodations that his U.S. advisers pushed upon him. After U.S. troops left, he enjoyed sufficient political strength and military security to strike the kind of political deal that could have consolidated a legitimate Iraqi order. Instead, he moved to consolidate his personal power and punish Sunni political opponents. When he went to Washington seeking military and political support in October 2013 amidst an escalating insurgency and political tensions, he could have taken the opportunity to change course before it was too late.

Maliki might now, for the first time, feel real pressure, which could force real concessions. His first instinct, naturally, has been to try to use the crisis to expand his power by calling an emergency session of parliament to pass a truly objectionable emergency law, which would give the prime minister virtually untrammeled dictatorial powers. Iraq’s parliament might be able to thwart that particular power grab (it could not muster a quorum in today’s first attempt). But it’s clear that his political instincts remain unchanged.

Maliki wants U.S. military aid, from helicopters to airstrikes, to fight the ISIS advance. Many in Washington will want to offer assistance to save Iraq from complete collapse. But at the same time, U.S. policymakers understand from painful experience that such military aid will simply enable Maliki’s autocratic sectarianism and allow him to avoid making any serious concessions. Yes, the United States should try to use this moment of leverage to attach political conditions to any military aid. But such leverage is going to face an obvious problem: It will be virtually impossible to force any meaningful political moves in the midst of an urgent crisis, and any promises made now will quickly be forgotten once the crisis has passed.


Broadened tools, soft power, carrots and sticks in the form of sanctions, and international law are the means by which liberal internationalists such as Obama limit the range of forceful U.S. action on the world stage. They are the ingredients in the foreign-policy recipe that has brought chaos to the Middle East—including more than 150,000 Syrians dead and an empowered Iran—and has given us the Russian annexation of Crimea, guerrilla war in eastern Ukraine, a bullying China, a degraded U.S. military, and a disapproving American public.

But Obama does not disapprove. He sees his foreign policy as a success. “Standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future—without us firing a shot,” Obama said at West Point. Yesterday Ukraine said that Russian tanks had crossed its border. “It is possible we are victims of our own leadership,” a senior administration official said of Iraq in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. That official is right: global security is the victim of our own leadership. Our elected leadership.

“We are winding down our war in Afghanistan,” Obama said in his “long speech about this.” Can he really look at the images coming from Iraq and not recognize that they are a preview of what is to come when America leaves Afghanistan? Obama has not only proposed the wrong solutions to the problem of a degrading international order. He fails to see the problem altogether. He is more concerned with the limits of American power than with its responsibilities.


As Sunni terrorists make gains in Iraq, it’s triggered a political debate in the United States not only about what to do, but also over who is to blame for the country’s deterioration. Is it President George W. Bush for invading in the first place, or President Obama for mishandling the withdrawal? Whatever the merits of the case against Obama, conservatives should realize that no matter how bad things get, Americans are very unlikely to blame him for what’s happening.

The public isn’t focused, say, on the nuances of Obama’s negotiations on the status of forces agreement with Iraq. Most likely, they see the current violence in Iraq as totally expected, and are just glad American soldiers aren’t in the middle of it…

The only way this becomes a political problem for Obama is if he intervenes and things don’t improve or get dramatically worse. Which is likely another reason why he’s reluctant to get involved.


But what makes his remarks especially galling is that we helped create this problem. We tore Iraq apart. And we coddled and supported the Maliki regime, which has worsened the country’s sectarianism. (Obama mentioned the small-mindedness of Iraq’s leaders, but not our decision to coddle them.) Thus, for Obama to say that this is an Iraqi problem and Iraq “as a sovereign nation” (whatever that now means) must solve it involves a gigantic shirking of responsibility.

Yes, even if this is our problem, it’s not clear what America can or should do, which is why remarks like those from John McCain, who called this “an existential threat” and seems to want some sort of huge response, are alarming. But that doesn’t let the United States off the hook, and certainly not at the rhetorical level. Would Obama say that the Cambodian genocide was ultimately up to the Cambodians to solve, after America bombed and destabilized the country? Was the genocide in the former Yugoslavia a Bosnian problem, even though the West kept an arms embargo on the Bosnians, essentially preventing them from defending themselves?

Perhaps America should choose to involve itself less in the quarrels of others. But once America does so, it cannot then exempt itself from responsibility on whatever timetable it pleases.


The problem is not that these Iraqis weren’t well trained and equipped, it was they did not have a government worth fighting for. The Maliki government is Shiite, exclusionary and anti-Sunni. It is corrupt and inefficient. In sum, like most of these great freedom-fighting government we’ve backed over the decades—corrupt and inefficient. And certainly non-inclusive in its politics, certainly not welcoming of potential opponents, certainly ill-disposed to give non-Shiites a legitimate share of power. So the Iraqi troops throw down their arms and run away.

No amount of U.S. air and drone attacks will alter this situation. This kind of outcome was inevitable for Iraq given the political lay of the land in that country. It is almost certainly what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. There too, we’ve fought and died, equipped and trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops. The Kabul government is a corrupt mess not worth fighting for. There too, Americans should not be surprised if the Taliban soon regains the offensive and Afghan troops take off their uniforms, lay down their arms and run. Remember Vietnam? The South Vietnamese had a million and a half men under arms and despite the unconscionable Congressional cutoff of future aid, these armed forces had plenty to fight with. But they gave up too…

Why don’t our “good guys,” our plentiful men in arms, our decently to very well-equipped security forces fight as well as the jihadis in Syria or Iraq or as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan or the North Vietnamese in Vietnam? It’s that motivation that is central to victory. If our “good guys” can’t supply this motivation for themselves, Americans should have learned by now that we in our goodness and kindness and sacrifice cannot supply it for them. That’s the central lesson of warfare for more than half a century. That’s the essential moral Americans can’t seem to learn.