Opinion

Back in Iraq: What on Earth is President Obama thinking?

The U.S. is sending more troops to Iraq. Good luck with that.

Iraq is in the crapper, as you probably have heard. A good fraction of the country is still under the control of the Islamic State, and the situation is getting worse. While ISIS had suffered several setbacks and losses against Kurdish and Iraqi forces, it took the major city of Ramadi in mid-May. The group now controls most of Iraq's Anbar province.

This has led the Obama administration to re-escalate the U.S.'s involvement in the conflict. About 3,000 American troops are currently in the country, and now 400 more are reportedly on the way and some new forward military bases are going to be constructed. To which I can only say: What are these people thinking? Is President Obama trying to restart the Iraq War? Because that's where this ends.

That's not to say that ISIS isn't a really terrible organization. The group had control of Tikrit, an Iraqi city near Ramadi that had survived Bush years relatively unscathed, for less than a year and almost completely destroyed the place. Its members are mass-murdering, psychotic misogynists who are trying to set up a faux-Islamic totalitarian state. They're bad.

However, the ISIS question must be informed by their actual capabilities and the context of the region. The most important fact about ISIS's repeated victories over the Iraqi military is how easy those victories were. The Iraqi military put up essentially no resistance to the capture of Mosul — two divisions comprising some 30,000 troops, armed with cutting-edge American weaponry, melted away in the face of less than 1,000 militants. Meanwhile, ISIS took Tikrit, a city of 200,000, with 30 militants in seven trucks.

ISIS is not invincible. With some American air support, Kurdish militias beat them in a straight fight at Kobane. That became a symbolic battle, and despite giving it their all, ISIS's fighters lost. They were also driven out of Tikrit by a combination of Shiite militias, Iranian commandos, and Iraqi government troops. They're tough, but can be beaten by any halfway competent military.

We can draw two conclusions from these developments. First, ISIS's wins have depended mostly on the utter rottenness of the Iraqi government. ISIS has mostly been kicking in doors that were already broken, not sweeping to victory through tactical or strategic genius. This goes for ISIS's post-victory strategy as well. The group has typically combined savage political repression with the bare basics of a competent administration — getting the water and power turned back on, handing out free bread, and so forth. In this respect ISIS is greatly assisted by the enormous incompetence and corruption of the Iraqi state.

The second conclusion is that if Iraq is to survive as a nation, it must at some point be able to defend itself against militia forces. This is a case where American power cannot help that much — and could even be a hindrance. Yes, it looks as though American air strikes were of some limited assistance when they supported competent ground forces, but elsewhere the effort has clearly backfired. Eight years of expensive training were simply wasted in Mosul and Tikrit, as the supposed units collapsed like flan in a cupboard. The billions of dollars spent on top-shelf military hardware ended up deeply harming Iraq, as ISIS picked up a king's ransom in free arms and equipment.

Scholars of international relations argue that military competition was one of the key pressures that led to the development of the modern state. Something very like this process is happening in Iraq right now at warp speed. Riven by sectarian conflict, the legacy of Saddam Hussein, the idiotic boundary-drawing of colonial powers, and above all George W. Bush's hideously bungled military occupation, the Iraqi state is corrupt and weak. But confronted with a formidable foe, it must get its act together or perish. That it seems to be doing, to some degree.

To put it in another, more familiar way, ISIS is an internal political problem for Iraq, a situation that will ring bells for students of the Diem regime. America might help defeat ISIS in the short run, at the cost of delaying the day of reckoning — or the plan could simply backfire altogether, with U.S. arms ending up in the wrong hands or foreign occupation fueling an insurgency. Providing air support is one thing, but America must avoid getting entangled with ground troops. We just saw that movie, and it didn't end well.

At this point, people typically ask for a replacement policy. The answer is the same as it was a year ago: containment. Realize American military power is mostly useless here. Let the Iraqis, for the most part, fight their own battles, while supporting the Kurds and normalizing relations with the Iranians.

Above all, make sure there is plenty of money for refugees. The wars in Syria and Iraq have created a massive refugee crisis, and U.N. programs are billions of dollars short. There are fewer exciting explosions, but providing beds and food is cheap and logistically simple compared to micromanaging the internal politics of a foreign nation. It might even mitigate some of the anti-American sentiment in the region — which all by itself would make it a better option than the one Obama is pursuing.

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