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Gathering honey from a hornet’s nest

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by Donna Brazile

When U.S. President George W. Bush visited Iraq at the end of his term, his thanks was a popular Middle East insult — a shoe hurled at him. Iraq President Nouri al-Maliki — whose job was made possible by the United States and who once pretended to sign an agreement Bush had just signed, but instead moved his pen in the air — demanded a U.S. withdrawal.

American military commanders had told Bush that a military solution to Iraq’s continuing violence was not possible — a political solution was a necessity. Next, Barack Obama took office. Again, military commanders in both Iraq and Afghanistan told him military solutions had been exhausted.

Our country has been at war for 13 years. We suffered a major attack on our soil, engaged in two wars at once (adding Libya to the mix), suffered the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, and strained our volunteer soldiers (the world’s strongest, finest, military) with exhausting, repetitive military tours.

Obama has been criticized for not having a Middle East foreign policy. In fact, his policy is to selectively engage militarily when national security interests are at stake, or when humanitarian needs demand it.

Obama has been transparent and clear that the current U.S. military engagement in Iraq is to prevent the genocide of Christian, Muslim and non-Muslim minorities. He is emphatic he will not put troops on the ground to engage ISIS, the radical-Islamist organization so extreme that Al-Qaeda booted it out.

What then, is our mission in Iraq? What should we expect?

Our mission is to press Iraq to fix the problem that has caused the near-collapse of its government.

That problem is the government’s exclusion of Iraqi groups, like the Sunnis, from self-government.

Much of the criticism of the president’s policy (left and right) comes from what I’d call foreign policy “one-notes.” They harp on Obama’s cautious approach in Syria and Iraq as allowing ISIS to gain strength, as if nothing else were at play.

They make the error of assuming that the U.S. can militarily control the Middle East.

These Johnny-one-notes are like the sightless man who felt only the elephant’s tail and concluded the beast was a snake hanging from a tree. Middle East politics are almost as complex as a Rubik’s cube, involving dozens of shifting alliances among ethnic and religious groups.

The U.S. is not a military robot-policeman that needs only raise its visor to zap out the “bad guys.” We actually believe in democracy, and have offered advice and persuasion to Maliki, who turned down or resisted most of it.

Iraq’s being confronted by ISIS, a military force estimated only between 8,000 to 20,000, is primarily a result of Maliki’s exclusionary actions and suppressions. The growth of ISIS did not happen in a vacuum.

The New York Times interviewed a street vendor in Maliki’s neighborhood. “We haven’t gotten anything from Maliki except destruction, sectarian violence and murders,” he said. Counter-terrorism experts are near unanimous in the belief that inequality in government is a surefire recipe for a revolution. Well, they’ve got one.

Maliki has allowed ISIS to be active in Iraqi cities since 2009. They were in Mosul, the first city to fall, and effectively ran the show though the Iraqi Army was present. It is a myth that ISIS is funded by wealthy Middle East patrons. It makes most of its money by plundering the incomes of minorities, and with “taxes” on the population.

Maliki’s army was corrupt at the top, and this betrayed the soldiers, some of whom fought with and were trained by the Americans. Mosul’s governor and three generals fled ISIS without a fight, by plane at night. Soldiers awoke the to find lower-level commanders in civilian clothes and flip-flops.

Chaos ensued, and as in other cities, they stripped their uniforms, leaving them in the streets, and fled. Who can fight without a command structure?

The Sunni tribe militias outnumber ISIS by anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 fighters. Yet they are pragmatically arms-length allies of ISIS. To underscore the complexity of the politics, the PKK, an effective fighting force of Turkish Kurds taking refuge from their government in Iraq are the ones who retook cities from ISIS. They are a U.S. designated terrorist organization. Then again, Nelson Mandela was once on a U.S. terrorist list.

Obama has shown steely nerve in all this, refusing to commit any military aid to the Iraqi government until it corrects the problems that permitted the rise of ISIS. The pressure on Obama must have been immense, but it paid off. In the past week, a new Iraqi leader has been elected, and behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts resulted in the collapse of Maliki’s support in Iraq’s parliament.

ISIS may require an international military response as suggested by Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. However, even the limited military strikes that Obama ordered to rescue Christian and Yazidi minorities have lifted the status of ISIS.

We’re in a dangerous paradox, where greater military response will increase the allure of an organization that runs local governments efficiently while the heads of religious minorities dot their cities’ curbs.

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