President Obama and his top aides have criticized the militarization of American foreign policy and called for a “smart power” approach which utilizes all aspects of our national resources. Yet when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda, especially in Iraq, the administration is resorting to a purely military policy.
With al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters seizing control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the administration has responded by rushing Hellfire missiles to Iraq. The administration would also like to sell lots of Apache attack helicopters to the Iraqi Security Forces, but is currently being blocked from doing so by Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Administration officials are frustrated with his hold on the Apaches. One of them told Foreign Policy, “It’s hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al Qaeda.”
If this were a Republican administration, such talk would lead to accusations that the administration is questioning Menendez’s patriotism. But in fact the Democratic senator has a good point–it will take a lot more than Apaches and Hellfires to stop AQI. It will take a political overture from Prime Minister Maliki to the Sunni tribes of Anbar, similar to the Awakening orchestrated in 2007-2008 by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
It is important to kill and capture al-Qaeda militants, to be sure, but absent political reconciliation with the Sunni population, AQI will have no trouble regenerating its losses. Indeed the indiscriminate application of firepower by Maliki, while it may play well among the prime minister’s Shiite constituents (which, with an election looming, may be the point), is likely to simply arouse more Sunni opposition.
Selling Maliki military hardware without preconditions is a bad idea. What’s needed is a more comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy centered on political outreach. If Maliki launches such an effort, the U.S. should support him–even flying armed Predators to directly target AQI if Maliki agrees. But unless and until Maliki ends his sectarian attacks on prominent Sunnis, giving him a military blank check, as the administration wants to do, would be counterproductive.