What if ISIS just burns out?

If it’s really true that Al Qaeda dumped ISIS for being too evil (which I highly doubt, as I’m sure it was more about competition, territory, or leadership) then I’d find it hard to believe that any people would allow them to rule over an area for long.

Ultimately, terrorist groups tend to hold political power only as long as they can deliver services more than they oppress people. It’s easy to take power but hard to hold it.

Is the only way to stop them really military action? What about letting them burn out under their own terribleness?

Banging around in the dark in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia: the land between two rivers, the buffer between eastern and western empires, the perennial peripheral battle zone between Persia and her Western challengers. Today: Iraq.

Parthian Empire at its greatest extent. Credit: Keeby101- Wikimedia

Parthian Empire at its greatest extent. Credit: Keeby101- Wikimedia

The Republican Iraq policy of the past 12 years has been to stumble through a pitch-black room of broken hazards with no awareness of what’s behind, what’s nearby, or what’s ahead. But they triumphantly declare that we’re almost there and everyone else is an unpatriotic traitor who wants us to fail.

On the other side of the room, Iran — supposedly the Republicans’ greatest boogeyman since the Soviet Union and at least the second greatest since 1979 — is standing silently with night vision goggles and thousands of years of knowledge of what’s behind. If we get too close, it steps out of the way, but remains inside the room. It used to wait outside the room, in the darkened hallway, but then the Republicans opened the door by trying to get into the room, as if they had no idea Iran was even next to the room and that that closed door had been the only thing keeping Iran out.

I don’t have an instinctive, overriding opposition to Iran the way some do. But if the goal was to keep Iran from gaining influence over more territory, there had to be a counterbalancing force left in Iraq which was in opposition to Shia Iran. And that would have meant a minority-led dictatorship, statistically speaking. Which is not a reason to support the existence of such a thing (though we had managed to mitigate it without dismantling it by 2002). But their bumbling haste meant they didn’t even attempt to reconcile that their regional policy goals — taking out the Iraq regime and containing Iran — were at complete odds. Today they find themselves rallying to the Shia-aligned government whose biggest friends are in Tehran, condemning the President for not unquestioningly dumping money, bombs, and troops into the cause, even as they condemn his efforts to negotiate a nuclear solution with Tehran.

Worst of all: Still today they refuse to entertain the idea that the 2003 invasion was a mistake of vast and sweeping proportions on all possible fronts. A crippling, even rippling, disaster at home in our politics, economy, and budget; the elephant in the room on U.S. foreign policy for years to come; and a massive disruption that upended the delicate Middle Eastern balance and tore a fragile country apart into a bloodbath. At least most Democrats who supported it, despite how obviously bad an idea that it was at the time, have the decency to admit they screwed up.

The continued denial of reality on Iraq, let alone repentance, from Republicans right now makes me politically angry in a way I haven’t felt since George W. Bush was in office. Their genuinely — not even strategically or cynically — held belief that President Obama is to blame for what’s happening now is merely the infuriating cherry on top of a rage sundae.

Maybe let’s stop trying to “help” Iraq for a second

Iraq-NO-FLY-ZONES-map-1991-2003There’s this sort of myth, which sprung up in the 2004-2008 period of the U.S. War in Iraq, that the world could not just tolerate Saddam Hussein’s cruel rule a moment longer than March 2003. This was used to justify the invasion retroactively when it turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction, which was the original stated reason.

Of course, it’s a bit odd on its face to claim that the cruelty of his regime was suddenly supposedly intolerable by the end of 2002 (more so given that it took more than four months between the U.S. authorization of force and the actual invasion), in a way that it had not been a decade and a half earlier, when he was an American ally.

Moreover, not only was the Iraqi regime not actively committing some kind of genocide at the time of the invasion (again, not the stated reason for intervention at the time it happened), but the U.S. and the world had already pretty effectively contained the regime over the course of the 1990s.

No, Iraq wasn’t doing great by the end of 2002 — it certainly couldn’t be expected to under the weight of massive sanctions from around the world — but it was probably more stable and less violent than it had been for quite some time. And that wasn’t by chance.

With US/UK no-fly zones operating continuously from 1991 to 2003 to protect the Kurdish population and the Shia population from Iraqi air campaigns — the U.S. alone flew more than 200,000 missions by the beginning of 1999, often taking a lot of Iraqi anti-air fire — along with other protective measures for the persecuted zones, the bad old days were basically over (by comparison to what preceded or followed anyway).

Again, I recognize it was certainly far from ideal. Dissenters and sectarian minorities were still being persecuted at the hands of the regime in the Sunni areas and on the ground in the south, but that’s a situation that happens in authoritarian regimes the world over. In stark contrast with the 2003-2011 U.S. war, the ad hoc solution from 1991-2003 involved very little loss of life on either side — somewhere in the range of 50 people were killed during the no-fly zone operations — and it prevented the regime from going around bombing and gassing everyone (or sectarian extremists from killing each other). By the end of 2002, the world had a pretty solid handle on keeping Iraq stable and non-genocidal. Then George W. Bush’s invasion happened.

At that point, the whole country broke. Just plain fell apart into total violence and an extremists’ free-for-all where everyone could avenge every old wrong. We had no plan, no resources, no experience, and not enough troops, and we just decided to wing it. And the inevitable result was just total pandemonium and wholesale destruction.

We did that. That’s on us. And we never really did fix it before we left. (Which isn’t an argument for staying indefinitely, as I’ll get to in a moment.) There’s no way that was better than the default situation in 2002 where the persecuted populations were protected from mass slaughter and everyone else had it bad but weren’t living in an unending hell (one which never ended).

Now as ISIS pours over the border from Syria, capturing four major cities (including the country’s second largest) and perhaps soon the northern oil fields, while the Iraqi Army falls back into a chaotic retreat, U.S. pundits — the war everywhere always brigade — are asking each other whether it’s time to re-intervene in Iraq.

Because apparently a permanent U.S. military engagement from 1990-2011 wasn’t enough. Because apparently we didn’t do enough damage in the second round while trying to “help.”

Look, I’m no isolationist. I’m actually even an advocate for humanitarian military intervention in many cases, to the point of annoying some other progressives. But I try to be smart about it and historically conscious. And right now, right there, this just isn’t one of those cases.

Iraq now is like when you break an antique, keep trying to help fix it, and everything else around it breaks in the process and the big pieces keep breaking into smaller pieces. Finally your grandma tells you “just stop.”

Colin Powell is alleged to have once said, prior to the 2003 invasion, that there was going to be a “you break you bought it” policy on Iraq with regard to American involvement. Thomas Friedman dubbed this the “Pottery Barn rule,” in spite of Pottery Barn not actually having such a rule. But either way, one imagines that if you blew up an entire Pottery Barn store, you would not be asking “hey so do you think I should go back and help out?” two years later when someone else accidentally broke a vase.

We need to stop “helping” Iraq.

Surprise! The “surge” in Iraq never worked.

iraq-map-ciaNew York Times headline today: “Qaeda-Linked Militants in Iraq Secure Nearly Full Control of Falluja

The city of Fallujah, located on the Euphrates river, is 43 miles west of Baghdad, the capital, which is on the Tigris. It’s a major Sunni city and was the site of heavy civilian casualties in the 1991 Gulf War and then of bitter fighting in 2004 between the United States military and Sunni insurgents aligned with al Qaeda. The United States lost control of the city then, but regained it with a very heavy push that year, which included the intentional use of chemical weapons against insurgents and the destruction of tens of thousands of homes. The city has now essentially fallen to Sunni insurgents once more.

Remember how conservatives just spent the last five years insisting that George W. Bush’s “surge” actually “won” the War in Iraq and made it possible to leave? It’s pretty clear right now that that was a bad assessment.

I mean, on its merits it was clear to me that it always had failed, because it never achieved its primary goal of creating space for political solutions to the civil disarray. Well, it may have created the “space” but no solutions — or even dialogue — ever happened. And that was the entire premise upon which success should have been measured.

So we just left later than we should have, with a higher body count than before the surge and nothing to show for it. But conservatives kept insisting it was a huge success. Anyone who disagreed was supposedly just a Bush-hating liberal who couldn’t admit being wrong.

Now Iraqi violence is the highest it’s been in five or so years and large parts of the Sunni areas are falling like dominoes to a miniature, transnational Syria-Iraq militant empire affiliated with al Qaeda. It’s the successor group to the old Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia unleashed after the U.S. invasion in 2003, except now they’ve gotten control of giant sections of not one but two countries, away from the respective non-Sunni national governments of the bordering countries.