The new crisis in Iraq is serious. It is not in U.S. interests for a well-armed, well-funded jihadist group like the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to create an Islamist state that spans Iraq and Syria. The question is how to stop this from happening and what role, if any, the United States should play in the stopping.
American ground troops would be needed to oust the ISIS forces if we were to take on the problem by ourselves. But the fact is, the United States and Iran have a common interest in keeping Sunni radicals from taking over Iraq. Yes, forming an alliance with Iran to beat back ISIS would leave Iran — which already has huge influence over the Iraqi government — stronger still. So, we have to decide which prospect we dislike less: an Islamist state in Iraq (perhaps joined with one in Syria) or a strengthened expansionary Iran.
This business of bad choices is nothing new. The most instructive precedent in recent times is the decision by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to team up with Joseph Stalin for the sake of defeating Adolf Hitler. One outcome of this grand alliance was that, at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union controlled all of Eastern Europe. But the alternative would have been for Nazi Germany to control all of Europe, East and West, and perhaps eventually more.
Iraq is not Europe, ISIS is not the Nazis, Obama is not Roosevelt, Hassan Rouhani is not Churchill. In other words, the analogy is far from perfect. But the point is the same: Sometimes nations have to form alliances with unpleasant nations to prevent the victory of something worse.
As it happens, U.S. and Iranian diplomats are meeting this week as part of the ongoing negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. There is quiet discussion on the possibility of joint action on Iraq. If an agreement can be struck, it should be. Iran isn't the only possible ally here. Turkey, on Iraq's northern border, has a deep interest in staving off an ISIS triumph. During their rampage through Mosul, ISIS fighters sacked Turkey's embassy and kidnapped Turkish diplomats; in other words, they attacked Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's government is likely revving up to do something. Nor can the rise of ISIS be pleasing to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Egypt — all Sunnis but leery of the ISIS brand of Sunni.
However, just because nations have common interests doesn't mean they'll take common action. This is where the United States comes in. Like it or not, we are the only power that can coordinate this action.
More critically, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has to reach out to moderate Sunni politicians (while they still exist) — which is to say, he has to make good on promises, which he's made for years, to form a more inclusive government. None of this means the United States should send troops or even launch airstrikes. First, realistically, this isn't going to happen. Second, it shouldn't happen. But we can provide other assets, especially intelligence and reconnaissance. Drones are the most obvious tools, but there's also the tracking of insurgents' cellphones and the interception of their emails. (These played a big role, bigger than publicly acknowledged, during the "surge" of 2007 and 2008.)
It's a good thing that Obama stays cool under pressure. The incessant chants from his critics to "do something" clearly annoy, even exasperate him, but so far they haven't pushed him into action without thinking through the interests that compel (or argue against) it and the consequences that might follow. He's defined the "Obama doctrine," in private conversations, as "Don't do dumb (expletive)." And, looking at the record of many presidents, that's harder than it might seem.
In the new Iraq crisis, he might not have to do much. The Grand Ayatollah Sistani has called on all Shiites to come to the aid of the Iraqi nation. Iran has reportedly mobilized Quds special forces. ISIS has been halted in its drive to Baghdad.
And I wonder how many troops ISIS has left behind to hold the towns they laid waste. Hoisting a black flag on the pole at city hall isn't the same as conquering the city. Still, Obama has to do something that's limited, focused but possibly effective. The opportunities are there, with Iran, Turkey and other nations in the region to do something smart.
Fred Kaplan is the author of "The Insurgents" and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
© 2014 Slate