President Obama spoke yesterday (6/12/14) in the Oval Office with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
And although he stressed that what was happening in Iraq was an emergency situation, and that we should and probably would do something, he said that we would not be sending troops. I think that neither this President, nor any American president would have the chutzpah to send the troops back, that which makes me think we may have learned something from our sorry experience in Iraq.
But wait a minute, I may have spoken too fast. For President Obama did kind of promise to help the Iraqis in their present trouble (again). And that very vague, general statement was enough to startle and dismay me, given our recent past. Perhaps he spoke in this manner because he felt some responsibility for the present situation? I don’t know, but he may very have felt some guilt for the fall of Mosul, given our rapid and somewhat irresponsible withdrawal in 2011 (Senator John McCain’s opinion and that of other Republicans). Obama’s predecessors, George Bush in particular, ought to feel the principal guilt, especially Bush since he was the principal instigator of the Iraq war.
The irony of the present situation, in particular of the lightening like fall of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, to the insurgents is, of course, that just 11 years ago Iraq’s army could certainly have faced down and repelled the pick-up truck loads of black-clad jihadists that rolled into Mosul, having come the 100 or so miles after passing through the porous border separating a wild and ungoverned eastern Syria from northern Iraq.
The irony being that we destroyed Iraq’s army of 11 years ago, the army of Saddam Hussein, and have not since then, during some 8 years of trying, been able to recreate a comparably dependable and capable fighting force, with the result that the American trained and outfitted Iraqi forces at first sight of the enemy shed their Iraqi uniforms, put on civvies, and fled the field instead of opposing the ISIS fighters.
Speaking yesterday from the Oval Office the President told the assembled journalists —”we’ve been in close consultation with the Iraqi government… and any military assistance we might provide would include equipment, intelligence… I don’t rule anything out… whatever it takes in order to make sure that the jihadists don’t get a permanent foothold in either in Iraq, or Syria… but (and he stressed this) there has to be a political component… the Iraqi government, meaning Prime Minister Al Maliki, has to bring the responsible elements of the Sunni population into his government, although, and I say it again, in the short term we have to deal with what clearly is an emergency situation on the ground in Iraq.”
In what he said he gave only one reason for again helping Iraq, that we could not allow the jihadists to gain a permanent foothold there. There was no talk this time around of helping the Iraqi people acquire some of the benefits of Western liberal democracy. Obama did oppose Bush’s Iraq war, but perhaps not for the best reasons. In any case he must know now that it was the worst of mistakes to think that we could somehow inject into the lives of the Iraqis some important piece of our own way of life, such as agreeing to subject ourselves to the rule of law. Why, when we can’t even make responsible, voting citizens of our own children here in our own cities and towns during some 10 to 12 years of compulsory schooling how could we ever expect to accomplish something much more difficult, in a foreign language and foreign land.
But is even this, to defeat the jihadists, to slay the dragon as it were, is this a valid reason for returning to play Whac-A-Mole in the Middle East? And even if it’s only with unmanned aircraft that we do the whacking? Is it in our own vital interests to keep the jihadists out of power? Has the United States, has this President ever considered that the jihadists might be less of a problem if they were in power? And that by keeping them out, much as we’ve done more or less with the Taliban in Afghanistan, we prolong the threat they represent to us.
For doesn’t power corrupt and the jihadists if they were, themselves, to obtain a kind of power, a nation of their own for example, carved out of Syria and Iraq, might not their extremism, which is after all a kind of idealism, become corrupted, in this case meaning lessened, with the result they be less of a threat, and at very worst they become with territory of their own just another Middle East autocracy, no less disruptive of the stability of the region than the present illiberal autocracies of Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia?
And in fact our successive and on-going attempts to protect various peoples from fanatical, extreme, and tyrannical leaders from within their own countries (again, the Taliban is a good example) haven’t, so far anyway, done the peoples we would protect much good. Haven’t the best and most effective governments always been created, from inside, from below, by the people themselves, never imposed from above, and certainly not from the outside.
In our own case, that was surely what happened. What if outsiders had tried to eliminate slavery in our society, had tried to give equal rights to women, correct other such illiberal conditions existing only 200 years ago in our own country? Of course they wouldn’t have succeeded, any more than we succeeded in Iraq. As it’s been said, the readiness is all and just as we weren’t ready during the time of our Founding Fathers for undoing slavery and promoting equality, so the peoples of the Middle East are not now ready for us and liberal democracy. Just as we had to do everything for ourselves so will these people have to do it for themselves, when and if they are ready, probably not in my lifetime.
The tragedy in today’s Middle East is that the only people who seem ready to make the necessary sacrifices and do the necessary work to improve their lives and living conditions are the very fanatics and extremists we would slay. So doesn’t their real readiness to achieve what they see as a better life have to be somehow allowed, or at least not opposed as we’ve done up until now at huge cost to ourselves in American lives and American treasure irrevocably lost.
By allowing the jihadi a territory of their own might that not have begun the process of lessening their fanaticism (after all, whatever they are they’re not stupid and they must know that this is no longer the 9th. century) and start the long and difficult process of improving the lives and living conditions of their peoples. Perhaps only now when they are without a land of their own, one spanning as they envision regions of present day Iraq and Syria, does terror seem to be a valid means of achieving their ends.
The founders of ISIS, although there are innumerable young within their ranks who are ready to blow themselves up to help their cause, are probably as much interested in order, discipline, work and effort, as we are. They would most likely like nothing better than to cover with their own responsible governing structure the poorly governed or ungoverned or at present ungovernable regions of eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
II fact it may be that they are the ones best able to begin to stabilize the entire region. For wouldn’t a successor Caliphate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have to become responsible in its dealings with its neighbors, that which the violent rejection they’re now confronting prevents them from becoming? It does sound like I’m preaching acceptance and forgiveness, and I admit that in the face of beheadings and suicide bombings, and probable atrocities, it does sound crazy, almost Christian.
What is not out of place, however, not inappropriate, is the conclusion that I have reached, that the peoples of the Middle East have to first of all help themselves. President Obama should not even think of helping the situation, be a spectator if he so wishes, look on, and cheer his side, but not get into the game.
If we involve ourselves at all in the Middle East it has to be only to prevent, or “clean up” afterwards, atrocities, genocide, and the like, being carried out by any side, by any one of the players. Atrocities have to be against the rules, and we’re probably, along with the Euopean Union, the only referees available to enforce the rules. So to some extent I suppose we have to. Much as Obama said he would do, and didn’t, regarding the chemical warfare carried out by the Syrian government, perhaps against the very organization, ISIS, we have been talking about.
Other than that, there is no valid reason to get into this fight, even to choose one side or the other. By the way, how many sides are there? In any case how is one to choose between criminal and corrupt autocracies who sell us their oil and the jihadi who do seem to believe that they are God’s soldiers fighting for their God and for a way of life that they believe that their God has shown to be best for them. Sure, they’re mistaken, but isn’t it better to give them a place of their own and then make sure they stay there for whatever length of time is necessary for their extreme views to soften.
And finally just as footnote to all the above, this headline taken from today’s Times:
ERBIL, Iraq — After Islamic extremists swarmed his city this week, Saad Hussein fled here with his wife and six children. But after one night, he was on his way back home to Mosul, hearing that things were quiet there.
“What can we do?” said Mr. Hussein, at a checkpoint on the road from Erbil to Mosul. “You have to depend on your God.”
Another man stood nearby, his two small sons tugging at his belt. “The government is not there. It’s empty.”
As many as 500,000 Iraqis fled Mosul this week after the city was besieged by the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, many of them Sunnis who seemed less fearful of the beheadings and summary justice that the group is known for than of their own government and the barrage it might unleash in an effort to take the city back….