MIDEAST

Obama must explain why Iraq still matters

 

trubin@phillynews.com

When President Obama went on TV last week to outline his response to terrorist advances in Iraq, he missed a chance to do something essential: Convey how serious the threat is to the Mideast — and to us.

The practical steps he proposed made sense in the short run (although they should have been taken at least a year earlier). But Obama failed to make clear to skeptical Americans why they should care about Iraq’s current troubles, or why this crisis is so terrifying to those who know the region.

So here goes:

The current crisis was sparked this month when an al Qaida offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. As the Iraqi army collapsed, ISIS forces moved rapidly toward Baghdad.

The group was well known to U.S. officials. Born in Iraq, then decimated by U.S. troops in the 2000s, it reconstituted itself in war-torn Syria last year and conquered the northeastern part of that country. It moved into Fallujah in western Iraq early this year.

But its seizure of one-third of Iraq this month marks the first time a radical jihadi group has taken control of a nation-sized swath of territory, erasing borders that had existed since the early 20th century. ISIS has pledged to restore the Islamic caliphate that ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. In areas of Syria it controls, ISIS has set up courts and schools and taken control of other government services.

Not only does the group control land, it also has the financial and military resources of a state.

Once reliant on cash from private donations from rich gulf sheikhs, it increased its wealth through taking control of Syrian oil fields, illegally selling valuable antiquities, and extortion. Now it has added about $400 million seized from Iraqi banks in Mosul. And it has an arsenal of heavy U.S. weaponry taken from Iraqi army depots it captured this month.

“This is the biggest challenge to the United States since 9/11,” says Jim Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, in comments typical of those I’ve heard from many experts. “This is the largest concentration of al Qaida anywhere, and they are the nastiest.” In fact, ISIS was so extraordinarily violent in Syria that core al Qaida disavowed the group, worried it would alienate the locals.

Some experts argue that the ISIS threat is overrated because it has only 7,000 to 10,000 members and because its advance on Baghdad has stalled.

They also say ISIS gains in Iraq depend on cooperation from Sunni tribes that have been alienated by the avidly sectarian rule of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They predict these tribes will ultimately evict the jihadis. Thus, they claim, no American focus on Iraq is necessary.

Such arguments gloss over the depth of the ISIS threat to U.S. interests, and to Iraq.

• First, ISIS has already attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including at least several hundred Europeans and dozens of Americans, one of whom died as a suicide bomber in Syria. Top U.S. and European intelligence officials worry that some of these trained fighters will be dispatched back to their homelands.

• Second, Maliki has been able to stall ISIS only by relying on extensive help from radical Shiite militias and from Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers. Unless the Iraqi leader can be persuaded to step down or form a national unity government with Sunnis, he is likely to provoke a wider sectarian war in the region that could spread to Lebanon, Jordan, and the gulf.

Only intense, U.S.-led regional diplomacy offers a slight chance of averting this grim scenario, by persuading Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraqi factions that sectarianism threatens them all (Iranian officials appear split on this issue). Only U.S. diplomacy, led by Obama, might lead to an Iraqi government of national unity. Only then might there be a chance to roll back ISIS inside Iraq.

And if U.S. diplomacy fails, the White House must be positioned to prevent ISIS from threatening U.S. interests, using drones if necessary. But long before then, Obama needs to explain to Americans why Iraq still matters to them.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

©2014 Trudy Rubin

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
OBAMA

    EXCLUSIVE

    Michelle Obama: We can end veteran homelessness

    At the beginning of June, 85 mayors, governors and county officials from across the country — and across the political spectrum — signed on to the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness. Today, we’re announcing that in the two months since then, 87 more state and local leaders have pledged that they will end homelessness among veterans in their communities by the end of 2015.

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">POVERTY:</span> GOP Rep. Paul Ryan has offered a new plan for using federal anti-poverty funds.

    In My Opinion

    Leonard Pitts: Give Paul Ryan credit for his ideas on poverty

    Cover your eyes and hide the kids: A Republican is talking poverty.

  •  
DOCKERY

    MEDICAID EXPANSION

    Medicaid expansion should be a no-brainer

    The Florida Medical Association, the politically powerful lobbying organization that represents the state’s doctors, recently approved a resolution endorsing Medicaid expansion for Florida’s low-income uninsured.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category