President Obama made his first remarks today about the crisis unfolding in Iraq. From a transcript in the Washington Post:
This is not solely, or even primarily, a military challenge. Over the past decade, American troops have made extraordinary sacrifices to give Iraqis and opportunity to claim their own future. Unfortunately, Iraqi leaders have been unable to overcome, too often, the mistrust and sectarian differences that have long been simmering there. And that’s created vulnerabilities within the Iraqi government, as well as their security forces.So any action that we make take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq’s communities, and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force. We can’t do it for them. And in the absence of this type of political effort, short-term military action — including any assistance we might provide — won’t succeed.
A major thrust of the speech is a political ultimatum to Maliki and his government: we will only help you if you get serious about an inclusive government and system in Iraq that offers real accommodation for the Sunnis.This means Maliki has a choice. Iran is willing to bolster his government without any requiring any concessions to the Sunnis, having already dispatched two Revolutionary Guard units to protect Baghdad and the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. So for Maliki, do the advantages of American help offset the concessions he would have to make? If in his estimation they do, he’ll respond positively to Obama and the U.S. will get more deeply engaged in the contest. If not, he will turn to Iran and Iran’s involvement in Iraq will grow exponentially—and in effect the entire war in Syria and Iraq will turn into a war of Iranian expansion.There is a downside for Maliki in that; the more power Iran gains in Iraq the less secure his own hold will be. But he may be less dependent on American help than Washington hopes; we shall see.President Obama is overstating the case when he says that this is not primarily a military issue. While it is true that the political collapse of the government’s support among Sunnis reflects the failure of Maliki to develop a politically effective program of outreach and inclusion, that would matter much less if the Iraqi armed forces weren’t falling apart before what remains, in purely military terms, a small force. While the solutions to Iraq’s problems will require political change, in a policy-relevant time frame the big question is what the military outcome will be. If ISIL (which, after the President’s speech, is how we will refer to what used to be known as ISIS) consolidates its hold on the Sunni areas of Iraq, it won’t matter much what reforms Maliki proposes.And in any case, the most troubling weakness is that the predominantly Shia army is throwing down its guns and fleeing in panic. That is not about Sunni-Shia politics. That is about the internal failure of the government to consolidate a strong military based on its core supporters. Again, the root causes of this may be political, but Maliki must stop losing the war before he can worry about how to win it or how to consolidate peace when it’s done.