There is a lot of interesting material in President Obama’s interview with Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic beginning with the president’s claim: “No, I don’t think we’re losing, and I just talked to our CENTCOM commanders and the folks on the ground.” I can’t help remembering that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush said some variation of that statement regularly between 2003 to 2006 even as we were manifestly losing. Earth to Oval Office: Just because military commanders tell you that they’re not losing doesn’t mean that they’re right!
The US military is the finest fighting force in the world, but its officers are prone to over-optimistic assessments—the flip side of their “can do” ethos. It’s striking that this president who so routinely ignores military advice (by, for example, imposing a time limit on the surge in Afghanistan and by forbidding US advisers in Iraq from leaving their bases) now embraces military thinking when it’s so deeply flawed, yet convenient for him. Like the assessments of progress that emanated from the Pentagon and the White House during 2003-2006, this one is not going to be believed by many people.
But that’s not what I want to focus on here. What I want to focus on is this statement from the president: “If the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.” That’s a statement that’s likely to have wider resonance even among Republicans. Indeed, it was a common trope during debates over whether to send more forces to Iraq in 2006-2007. Many on both the left and the right wondered why the US should be helping Iraqis when Iraqis appeared not to be willing to help themselves.
This misses the point on several levels.
First and foremost, we’re not in Iraq now, any more than we were during the 2003-2011 period, to help the Iraqis. We’re there to help ourselves because we perceive threats to our national security. Before those threats came from Al Qaeda in Iraq and from Iranian-backed Shiite militias; today from ISIS and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. We need to work with Iraqis to advance our interests, but if we feel that there is insufficient effort on the part of the Iraqis, we can’t simply throw up our hands in despair and walk out—that would be a serious blow to American interests in the region. Instead, we need to figure out how to better motivate the Iraqis to fight hard.
Obama’s broad-brush indictment of Iraqis misses the all-critical circumstances in which Iraqis find themselves. Imagine that a vicious street gang were terrorizing a neighborhood of Detroit or South Central Los Angeles. Would we blame the residents for not being willing to confront the gang on their own and thereby conclude that the residents were not worth saving? Of course not. Because we would recognize that a small number of heavily armed toughs can terrorize a neighborhood—and if sufficiently vicious they can even cow the local police force. That doesn’t mean that the residents want to live under the domination of the street gang, any more than Iraqis today want to live under the domination of ISIS or the Quds Force. The problem is that they don’t feel strong enough at the moment to rise up against those terrorist organizations.
Plenty of Iraqis have shown themselves more than willing to fight for their country—just recall how the Iraqi armed forces and the Sons of Iraq, in cooperation with US forces, routed Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007 and then later took on the Mahdist Army. The reason that today we consistently see small ISIS formations scattering much larger Iraqi units is that the Iraqi units have been undermined from within by corruption and sectarianism. Iraqi soldiers today are badly trained, badly led, badly supplied, badly motivated. But that’s not the fault of rank and file troops. The blame goes to the Shite sectarians who have dominated Baghdad since the American pullout in 2011. If Iraq forces have better leadership and training and supplies, as they did in 2007-2008, they will fight far more effectively.
It’s in America’s interest to increase the quality of Iraqi forces but that won’t happen unless we make more of a commitment ourselves, not only sending more American troops but also loosening restrictions that currently prevent our advisers from operating side by side with Iraqi units—the only way to significantly enhance Iraqi combat performance.
President Obama’s comments have a whiff of “blame the victim” about them, because ordinary Iraqis are the main victims of the vicious sectarian extremists who currently dominate their country. Most Iraqis would love a more moderate government of the kind they enjoyed until the US pullout in 2011, and it’s in our interest to help them achieve that goal. But don’t blame Iraqis for not being willing to stand up to the cut-throats of ISIS or the Quds Force on their own. Both organizations have substantial outside backing and to roll back their advance will require substantial support for more moderate forces—especially Sunni tribes—from the US and its allies.