As a conspiratorial Shiite who spent long years of exile in Iran, Nouri al-Maliki has long been suspicious of the United States and overconfident about the capabilities of his own security forces. He had to be brought around to support the U.S. troop surge in 2007 because even then, even as the state was collapsing around him, he had exaggerated ideas about the ability of the Iraqi military to handle matters on his own. Four years later, in 2011, he drove such a hard bargain over renewing the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that President Obama walked away and left Iraq bereft of all U.S. troops. Maliki didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, at least not in public.
So you know that things have come to a pretty dire pass when he is actually requesting American airpower be employed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That request was first made, apparently, last month and no doubt will be even more urgently renewed now that ISIS fighters have taken Mosul, Tikrit, and Baiji and are on the march, like the wildling army in Game of Thrones, toward the seat of power in Baghdad.
The request was, naturally, rebuffed by the Obama administration–an example of the president doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The real reason, one suspects, why Obama won’t order airstrikes is that he is determined not to let facts interfere with his cherished narrative that the “tide of war is receding” and that the U.S. is “rebalancing” away from the Middle East. That’s a political posture, not a serious strategy. But even strategic considerations argue against employing U.S. airpower to help the Maliki regime as presently constituted.
Maliki himself is largely to blame for the resurgence of ISIS because he has so alienated Sunnis that many have been driven to support the terrorists as their defenders. Maliki has also undermined the effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces by politicizing them. Under those circumstances, American airstrikes would do nothing to change the conditions which have given rise to ISIS and would instead foster a narrative that the U.S. is supporting Shiite sectarianism in the civil war raging across the Middle East. Same goes for rushing Apache helicopters, F-16 fighters, and Hellfire missiles to Iraq so they can be employed by Iraq’s own military. Such advanced assets can be invaluable as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy but they cannot substitute for the lack of such a strategy.
Obama should tell Maliki (and he should get on the telephone to deliver the message personally) that greater U.S. military aid will only be forthcoming if Maliki makes dramatic moves to mollify the Sunnis, depoliticize the Iraqi security forces, and limit his own almost-unlimited authority. Better still, the U.S. would be even more willing to support Iraq if Maliki were to step down as prime minister–admittedly a condition that would be hard to get Maliki to agree to but one that the U.S. could press with other political factions which are already suspicious of the prime minister.
Absent substantial political reform in Iraq, greater U.S. military aid at this juncture would be counterproductive. But the very dire nature of the situation today makes it at least marginally more likely that the government may actually make political reforms needed to ensure the state’s survival. If that were to happen, the U.S. should offer to provide not just airpower but intelligence analysts, military advisers, Special Operations Forces, and other assets to enable the Iraqi Security Forces to strike back effectively against ISIS.