How to Win in Iraq

Why Air Strikes Might Not be Enough

Shia volunteers secure the area from ISIS militants in the desert south of Baghdad, July 3, 2014. Alaa Al-Marjani / Courtesy Reuters

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his decision to airlift food and water to members of the Yezidi minority stranded in the Sinjar mountains of Iraq, and to use air-to-ground munitions against formations of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) moving against Kurdish units near Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region. So far, Obama’s strategy has been well calibrated and at least partly successful; the Yezidis’ plight appears less dire than a few days ago, and ISIS’ forays into Kurdistan have been stymied for the moment, perhaps even partly reversed in some places. 

Obama’s restraint in providing major assistance to the central Iraqi government in Baghdad has likewise been prudent, since, by coming to the aid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki too soon, the United States would squander the leverage it could use to persuade the Iraqi government to find a different and better prime minister. It is, after all, Maliki who governed so badly that major Sunni political and tribal leaders acquiesced to ISIS’ advances rather than work with a man they increasingly saw as a dictator to stop the brutal group’s march. The Iraqi army will likely not be willing to do its part to restore security in Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland under Maliki, so it would be a fool’s errand for the United States to attempt too much while he still leads the country.

In other words, Obama’s critics should give him some space and some time. Over the years, most everyone in the United States, including the president, most of his critics, and certainly most of us in the think tank community, have had ample opportunity to be both right and wrong about Iraq and Syria. And, whatever those past debates, ISIS’ takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria constitutes a serious threat to U.S. national security that must be addressed on its own terms -- as the Obama administration seems to have realized.

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