The news from the Middle East is pretty much all bad these days. The latest troubling developments have happened in Iraq, where an Islamic militant group has made enormous gains in recent days and the Iraqi government seems to be teetering on the brink.
The militant group of extremist followers of the Sunni branch of the Islamic faith is called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS for short, because the Levant is another name for Syria). They seek a fundamentalist Islamic state that spans parts of Iraq and Syria. In Syria, they are fighting to topple the Assad government; in Iraq, they’ve captured the second-largest city, Mosul, another key city, Tikrit, and are threatening to move on Baghdad. Accounts indicate that the Iraqi Army performed poorly in the fighting.
The Obama Administration seems to have been caught off guard by the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Iraq. President Obama said yesterday that the United States would help the Iraqi government and had “not ruled anything out,” but also said that the situation should serve as a wake-up call for the current Iraqi government, which is accused of excluding Sunnis in favor of Shiites. The White House later clarified that the President was speaking of air support for the Iraqi government and that the United States was not considering sending ground troops in to shore up Iraqi forces.
There’s going to be a lot of second-guessing about how the United States has dealt with Iraq in recent years. Some Republicans have already resurrected criticism of how the Obama Administration handled negotiations for a status of forces agreement several years ago and did not keep any American troops in Iraq. It is hard not to be sick at the thought that the hard-won gains and relative peace achieved through the deaths of thousands of American soldiers who fought to topple the Sadaam Hussein government and then beat back the insurgency might be lost. No one wants American deaths to be in vain. Even worse, there are reports that the head of ISIS was in American custody in Iraq for a number of years but was released in 2009, even though he was believed to have been involved in torture and executions.
At this point, however, the issue is how to deal with the situation that currently exists. President Obama has touted Iraq as a foreign policy success precisely because it has been a secular democracy. If ISIS is successful in establishing a radical Sunni state that controls some of the most oil-rich territory in the world, and then engages in clashes with Shiite majority governments in the region, it could destabilize the entire Middle East and establish another haven for terrorists. That prospect is alarming, and we need to figure out a way to prevent it from happening.