There is a strategic dimension to the rapidly unfolding crisis in Iraq that hasn’t garnered much attention but could have a significant impact on the broader and longer-term security, economic and diplomatic interests of the United States.
The Obama White House clearly has little interest in remaining intimately engaged in the messy disputes of the world that occur beyond our borders. It orchestrated the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 and seeks to do the same in Afghanistan over the next 18 months. It “led from behind” in Libya, elected not to intervene in the Ukraine-Crimea crisis, has been a no-show in both the Syrian and now Iraqi crises and has refused even to take China to task for bullying its neighbors in the East and South China seas.
The administration perceives this as prudence; the rest of the world as weakness. And when radicals perceive weakness, they take action.
Libya can’t form a coherent governing structure because of disruptions from various militant-extremist factions. Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a “done deal”—blatantly violating the integrity of Ukraine—and its instigation of disorder in Eastern Ukraine threatens to push the entire country into civil war. Early in the Syrian civil war, there were good guys the United States could have supported. But as time went on and it became apparent American help was not coming, more aggressive groups asserted control. The American drawdown in Afghanistan has emboldened the Taliban to re-emerge and increase terror operations in Pakistan and protected areas of Afghanistan.
A fractured Iraq that results in separate Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish autonomous areas (if not new countries) will have profound implications for the larger framework of relations and competitions involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the Gulf States and Israel. If ISIS success results in the fall of the Iraqi government and the establishment of an ISIS-controlled zone within Iraq, other extremist Islamist elements will see it as validation of the brutal measures employed by these jihadis.
Our absence from Iraq has left us so few options that we have little choice to turn to Iran for help. But Iran does not share our reluctance to intervene, and it could emerge with both concessions from the U.S. on its nuclear program and a more prominent role in Sunni-Shia competitions.
Is the immediate problem of one group seizing control of a few towns in some distant land ours to solve? No. But we do have larger interests that would be threatened by an even more radicalized, violent and unstable Middle East: increased energy prices; the export of experienced terrorists to Europe, Africa, Latin America and perhaps even the U.S.; emboldened terror groups in other regions adopting the ISIS model; increased tensions between Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) as they compete for dominant influence within Islam; a more energetic push by Iran for a nuclear weapons capability which would lead to further nuclear proliferation in the greater Middle East…the list goes on.
Moreover, we are the chief beneficiary of the existing global order. We need access to markets for our goods, to reasonably priced energy to keep our economy moving and influence in disputes beyond our borders that directly affect us. It’s worth our while to keep favorable conditions favorable and to maintain working relationships and, with that, awareness of when things go awry.
We can’t be the world’s policeman. But we do need to protect our interests.
Unfortunately, the current administration doesn’t see this and will make every effort to avoid entangling itself in a messy, distant, hard-to-deal-with problem. The consequence, of course, will be even more ‘messy, hard to deal with problems’ that will move from ‘distant’ to our own shores.