There are no good options in Iraq right now. But some are worse than others. Three of the worst, unfortunately, are also the most popularly debated in Washington today: launch U.S. airstrikes without U.S. boots on the ground; work with Iran to fight ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; and/or break up Iraq into separate Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish states. All three options are alluring, but their appeal is fool's gold.
Start with the idea of hitting ISIS with U.S. drones, sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and, possibly, manned bombers. This is the easiest policy, but it is also the least likely to succeed. It recalls nothing so much as Operation Desert Fox, four days of bombing of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1998 that accomplished pretty much nothing.
The effective employment of air power, especially against non-state targets such as ISIS that don't have tanks, uniformed troop formations or infrastructure to hit, requires reliable eyes on the ground to direct airstrikes and an army capable of exploiting the airstrikes. Both conditions were met in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, which is why a few hundred special operations soldiers and CIA officers were able to work with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban.
But President Obama has already ruled out sending U.S. ground troops to Iraq. Aerial surveillance is seldom effective enough, on its own, to accurately identify terrorist targets, and relying on the Iraqi government for help is a bad idea because Prime Minister Nouri Maliki seems to think that all Sunnis are terrorists. Employing U.S. air power under those circumstances would lead to the U.S. being perceived as the enabler of a Shiite agenda that is tearing Iraq apart. It would, in effect, turn the U.S. into an adjunct of Iranian plans to exert hegemony across the region.
But don't the U.S. and Iran have a common enemy in the Sunni extremists of ISIS? To a limited extent, but the differences that remain between Washington and Tehran preclude joint action in Iraq. The Iranian agenda is simple: Install a Shiite sectarian government in Iraq that is beholden to Tehran. The U.S. agenda — to install a moderate, multi-sectarian, pro-Western government — is diametrically opposed.
Sure, the Iranians don't want ISIS in control of significant chunks of Iraq, but they would prefer that Shiite extremists — who from the American viewpoint are just as bad — be in control. In the short run the ISIS threat even serves Iranian interests by mobilizing Iraqi Shiites around radical, Iranian-backed militias such as the Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Khattaib Hezbollah for protection. The more Shiites feel embattled, the more Iran's influence as their protector grows. The last thing Iran wants is a negotiated compromise in Iraq that gives Sunnis significant sway in the government, but that's the only thing that can pry the Sunnis away from ISIS now.
The last option is to accept the division of Iraq into three parts, the very idea Vice President Joe Biden embraced when he was still in the Senate. It won't work because Sunnis and Shiites are mixed together in Baghdad, Iraq's largest city. Neither side would give up the capital and both would battle it out indefinitely for control. The result would be ugly ethnic cleansing verging on genocide.
Realpolitikers might be willing to accept that as the price of separation, but the further problem is who would be in control of the successor states of Iraq. The Kurdish region would be in moderate, pro-American hands, but the Sunni Arab region, which would extend deep into Syria, would be under the control of ISIS and its radical ilk, while the Shiite area would be under the effective control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Creating two terrorist states in the heart of the Middle East is hardly in America's interests.
So what should we do? To stop the advance of ISIS, Obama should immediately offer to send into Iraq a limited number of special operations forces and military trainers who can call in airstrikes and buttress the battered Iraqi security forces. At the same time, the president must get personally involved — this isn't a job that can be delegated — in pressing the Iraqi government for serious political reforms that include embracing Sunni tribes, ending the persecution of Sunni leaders, curbing the prime minister's authority and weeding out political hacks and sectarian actors from the security services.
It is unlikely that Maliki would agree to such reforms, so the United States needs to work behind the scenes to ensure that he doesn't win a third term in office. His State of Law party was the top vote-getter in the April 30 elections, but it needs support from other factions to form a government. The U.S. should take advantage of ISIS' attacks to press the other political parties to dump Maliki and find a more inclusive figure.
This is, admittedly, an ambitious agenda. But there are no quick or easy fixes. What appears to be a simple solution can actually make the situation worse. But if the U.S. puts in place a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan, with military and political lines of operation, the situation can reverse more quickly than anyone imagined.
That's what happened during the "surge" of 2007-08, when in a matter of months Al Qaeda went from looking triumphant in Anbar province to being all but beaten. It's possible to re-create that success, and without nearly as many U.S. troops, but Obama must act fast and he must disregard the bad ideas now floating around Washington.