My friend and colleague, Meghan O’Sullivan, worries that the Obama administration has provided a muddled rationale for intervention in Iraq. And she’s right! The rationale is muddled. Saving Yazidis? Protecting Americans in Erbil? Huh?
Her criticism is not Republican boilerplate or McCainiac war-now interventionism. She supports the actual U.S. policy. What she worries about is that by playing-down the real strategy in favor a made-up humanitarian intervention and a specious protection-of-Americans the administration is setting itself up for problems in the future.
What is the real strategy? Simple: containment of the Islamic State at the borders of Kurdistan and Jordan. (Jordan has not been attacked yet, but the Islamic State certainly has it in its cross-hairs.) But the administration will not defend the rest of Iraq unless and until the Iraqi government gets its act together. The reason is simple. From the point of view of the Kurds, the Islamic State is a foreign state that is trying to conquer it, WW2-style. Ditto the Jordanians, with a wrinkle that the Islamic State might have a fifth column in Jordan. From Erbil and Amman, the Islamic State is Nazi Germany.
But from the point of view of the rest of Iraq, the Islamic State is more like North Vietnam. They have taken advantage of Baghdad’s terrible discrimination against the Sunnis. The U.S. cannot protect the rest-of-Iraq without encouraging that discrimination. Moreover, the North Vietnam analogy breaks down because the Shia are rabidly unwilling to live under ISIL rule: the Islamic State can trigger a lot of violence in Baghdad, but its forces are not about to sweep down to Basra and take all the oil.
So once you take invading the Islamic State’s homeland off the table, a containment strategy with the lines drawn at Kurdistan and Jordan makes perfect sense.
But that is not what the administration has publicly-presented. I understand why, but I agree with Meghan that it does not make sense. Sure, it is humanitarian, but it is also strategic ... and I do not think that the American people have a problem with that. Heck, I don’t think the public would have a problem with putting our forces on the ground if it really were a containment mission, like Gulf War 1: throw the ISIL bastards out and stop. But that kind of mission will be harder to organize if the public thinks that the Administration lied to them.
Anyway, go read Meghan! If only to see that there still is some bipartisanship in America.