Like everyone in Washington who worked on Iraq for the past decade and hoped the nightmare had ended, my immediate reaction to the stunning recent reports was simple: “Oh my God, no.” For the news is as bad as it could be. A small, but hardened fighting force of 800 members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – a group so radical that it has been disowned by its former sponsor Al Qaeda as too violent (that is not a joke) – routed two regular divisions of the hapless Iraqi army, numbering some 30,000 men. ISIS then captured Mosul, Iraq’s second city, with 1.8m inhabitants, before pressing on to Baghdad itself – although this move looks to have been resisted by Iraqi government forces over the weekend.
The military calamity has starkly revealed the political dysfunction lying just beneath the surface in Iraq. Palpably, no one is willing to lay down his life to protect the corrupt, incompetent, wholly sectarian leaders of this rickety state. Rule number one in dealing with this emergency is to recognise – after the trauma of an American occupation that cost $1 trillion (£590bn), 4,500 American lives and left an estimated 100,000 Iraqis dead – that we cannot want a stable Iraq more than the Iraqis.
Useless Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki is in desperate need of American air support to bolster his shattered troops, allowing them to make a stand in front of Baghdad. As former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton so rightly put it, we should consider his request, but only on our terms. For to help the Shia-chauvinist Maliki government survive without forcing him to keep his promises on reform helps no one.
True to form, and despite repeated, hollow promises of inclusivity, Maliki quickly centralised power upon assuming the premiership, cutting the formerly dominant Sunnis out of decision-making (the key reason many of their leaders are now flirting with ISIS), and allowing the disbanding of the Sons of Iraq. These Sunni fighters, who stood up to Al Qaeda in Anbar province, were also supposed to be incorporated into the new Iraqi army. All these terrible decisions are now coming home to roost. Without ironclad guarantees from Maliki that he will reform his inept, sectarian administration, helping him would simply amount to throwing good money after bad.
Second, and assuming Maliki can manage the domestic reform agenda within Iraq, the nature of ISIS itself must be understood. These people mean what they say about wanting to establish a fundamentalist caliphate, encompassing both Iraq and Syria. In the desert area around the Syrian town of Raqqa, ISIS is on record as having crucified a suspected murderer, and for numerous beheadings of opponents. Already in Iraq, various human rights groups say that up to hundreds of Iraqis have been summarily executed in the areas under ISIS’s sway. It is impossible to reason with a mad dog; we merely have to think through how best to shoot it.
Thus, the second rule for dealing with the emergency is to work with anyone, and to creatively try anything – short of putting Western boots on the ground – to halt ISIS’s advance. This means the White House must tactically work with next-door Iran. Our interests line up perfectly with theirs, in that neither the West nor Tehran wants a virulent Sunni state at the heart of the Middle East.
For Iran, it is hard to think of a more important interest regarding its foreign policy than to have a friendly, compliant Baghdad. It has been reported that Tehran sent 2,000 elite troops into Iraq to help defend Baghdad, as well as the Shia holy sites around Karbala and Najaf.
The ultimate realist rule in the Middle East is that the enemy of my enemy is temporarily my friend. America needs to get over its Iran hang-up right now, possibly even providing air support for its troops, if we are to turn back the barbarians from the gate.
Third, however bad the days ahead prove, President Barack Obama must keep his nerve, and not let immediate events sweep away the strategic fundamentals of his foreign policy. He was elected to end wars, not start them (particularly in the strategically unrewarding Middle East), and to pivot toward Asia and the future. Iraq must be helped if it proves itself worthy of help, and we must try to stop the unspeakable forces of ISIS. But whatever happens, America must not lose its nerve and be dragged yet again into the endless sinkhole of war in the Middle East.
Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., and president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and most recently Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.