How bad is it in Iraq today? Here's one way to answer the question: The government in Baghdad just allowed Russia to start bombing targets on Iraq's home soil.
The territory in question, of course, now belongs to the Islamic State. And the decision, reports by the International Business Times, "comes just days after a U.S. diplomatic envoy sought assurances from the Baghdad government that it would not allow Russian jets to conduct operations inside Iraq."
That makes this a big embarrassment for America. And it's hardly the only one.
Consider the painful spectacle of the most recent U.S. special forces raid against ISIS — the first to result in a death among our troops since the White House returned us to the Iraq war it once so proudly ended. The raid was called in at the request of our only competent allies in Iraq, the Kurds. As The New York Times recounted, ISIS had imprisoned a host of Iraqi soldiers, readying a massacre, with "a number of peshmerga fighters, as the Kurdish forces are known," among the soon-to-be-victims. Despite their tenacity, the Kurds doubted they could save their men alone. In came U.S. special forces.
The roughly 70 prisoners freed by the intervention weren't the ones America expected to find. And despite the fact that "the raid was the first time American soldiers had been confirmed to be directly accompanying local forces in Iraq onto the battlefield against the Islamic State since President Obama sent troops back to the country last year," Washington downplayed its significance.
"This was a unique circumstance in which very close partners of the United States made a specific request for our assistance," said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. "So I would not suggest that this is something that's going to now happen on a regular basis."
But in a telling reflection of President Obama's self-inflicted predicaments, Cook referred three times in his statement on the hostage rescue to a so-called "Iraqi peshmerga" — a willfully misleading moniker itself hostage to the administration's awkward politics of pretend. Call them what you will, but the Kurdish armed forces are not simply one particularly potent and high-morale branch of Iraq's own. They are a band apart, as is their nation-state in all but name.
In fact, the first U.S. death in the latest iteration of the Iraq war came at the hands of yet another disappointing performance by Iraq's actual military, which was embarrassed yet again by the Islamic State. Iraq's woefully ineffective army can't even keep itself out of ISIS jails, much less retake Mosul, the country's second-largest city and linchpin of the north. Baghdad, meanwhile, insists that it first retake Ramadi, where an ostensible "offensive" backed by the U.S. petered out last month, if it ever really got started. Unlike the insurgents who battled U.S. and Sunni Iraqi forces for Ramadi and Falluja roughly a decade ago, the Islamic State has dared to ring its strongholds with defenses Iraq's local Sunnis can't penetrate on their own.
America's solution? USA Today reports that it's a fresh round of training helmed by Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, otherwise known as the guy who "helped foster a successful tribal revolt, called the Awakening, that drove insurgents out of Ramadi. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter praised him Friday as a 'pioneer of the Sunni Awakening.'" Around and around we go.
Without question, the situation in Iraq could be worse. Despite humiliations large and small, the White House has not allowed Baghdad itself to fall to ISIS. No civil war has broken out among Iraq's fractured constituents. Shia militias have not gone rogue. And though Iran has marched across Iraqi battlefields, it hasn't hoisted flags over government buildings (yet).
Nevertheless, President Obama will leave Iraq as he found it, an inherited war passed on to the next administration. Despite his famous unwillingness to tar himself with the conflict, he has wound up adopting a bizarro version of Joe Biden's notorious scheme for a tripartite division of the country into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia states. It is the dominant Shia faction that sought and won a green light for Russian strikes from Iraqi skies, a nice synergy for their mutual allies in Tehran. It is the Sunnis we must handle with kid gloves in an open-ended commitment to walk them through the most thankless and grueling counterinsurgency operations. And it is the Kurds who are left to win battles, the only force standing between ISIS and ruin.
That is, until Russia takes the lead that Obama will not.