As sectarian fighting in Iraq continued Tuesday, a United Nations commission warned that prospects for a regional war in the Middle East are growing stronger. That makes it even more imperative that President Barack Obama continue to move methodically, encourage conversations with other nations and ignore the bellicose calls for quick U.S. military action from his political critics in Washington. This nation cannot afford to be sucked into another war in Iraq.
While the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria remains miles north of Baghdad, it now holds most or all of the major cities in northern Iraq that had been controlled by the government. In the worst reported atrocity over the weekend, ISIS bragged of murdering dozens and showed no regard for basic human rights. But the ruthless attacks appear to be coming from both directions. Pro-government Shiites killed dozens of Sunni detainees Monday, although the Iraqi military claimed the detainees were killed by ISIS shelling. There are no clean hands on either side — and no clear way forward to restore some semblance of stability to the country and the region.
Former aides to President George W. Bush, who invaded Iraq based on bad intelligence and triggered a war now widely viewed as a mistake, and some congressional Republicans blame Obama's troop withdrawal for the current crisis. But the United States had spent enough financial and human capital to bring relative calm to Iraq, and ending the war was the correct decision. The responsibility for this sudden eruption of violence rests with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who stubbornly refused to share power with Sunnis and now faces a rebellion that threatens to rip the country apart. Ultimately, the future of Iraq is going to be decided by Iraq, not another mass invasion by American troops.
Yet the United States does have a national security interest at stake. A U.N. commission on Syrian war crimes points out that the combination of the civil war in Syria and the ISIS insurgency in northern Iraq can draw more terrorists and foreign fighters to the region. The creation of a radical Islamist state that stretches across portions of Iraq and Syria would pose a long-term threat to this nation as a breeding ground for more terrorism.
There are no good options. Obama is deploying several hundred troops to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the American Embassy in Baghdad, but a substantial ground force should be ruled out and air strikes should be a last resort. The president should continue to urge Maliki to be more open to the Sunnis and the Kurds and make clear the Iraqi prime minister is on his own if he refuses. He also should enlist the help of other regional players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and, yes, Iran. While Iran has long been a U.S. adversary, there is nothing wrong with back-channel conversations to coordinate efforts against ISIS. The enemy of your enemy can be your temporary ally.
The crisis in Iraq is a fluid situation with long-term consequences. Americans are war-weary and have no appetite for another invasion fueled by too much chest-beating and too few facts. The president should continue to proceed with deliberate caution, consult Congress and build international pressure for a negotiated end to the violence.