While liberty and democracy can and should be protected with military force, they generally cannot be spread by force – believing otherwise was among the primary conceptual errors that led the US into the Iraq War. It takes a polity a long time to incubate a culture that respects democratic processes, along with individual and minority rights, and the rule of law; such values cannot be imposed from outside.
However once such a polity is established, it is well worth defending. As the Field Guide has asserted, liberalism is not pacifism. The world grows demonstrably richer and more secure as it grows more liberal and democratic – it is in the long-term interest of people in liberal democracies to defend kindred states.
Thus the case for defending Iraqi Kurdistan is strong. Liberal and democratic, it cannot be allowed to succumb to the disease of theocracy, whether in the form of Islamic State (IS) or otherwise. The case for defending the regime in Baghdad is however much weaker.
As Obama observed during the fight for the dam above Mosul, the wolf is at the door for the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Years of bad politics have alienated Iraq’s Sunni minority; IS insurgents have exploited the rift between them and the ruling Shia to take control of a huge swath of the country. The end of Nouri al-Maliki’s premiership may be too little, too late to unite the two factions. Iraqi Kurdistan is gone already – it is an independent country in all but name.
Since June, IS has been in control of Tikrit, population 200,000, just 85 miles north of Baghdad. Since January, Fallujah, population 300,000 and just 40 miles west of Baghdad, has been controlled by IS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and-or Sunni tribesman antagonistic to the Baghdad regime. IS insurgents are literally an hour’s drive away from Baghdad’s Green Zone.
US military support for the Baghdad regime has come recently in the form of airstrikes against IS. But it is not clear that air power alone will be enough to prevent the IS tide from washing over Baghdad and the Shia population to the southeast. If the US were to use infantry to head off the IS advance, in the absence of an effective Iraqi military, they might have to remain indefinitely. Comparisons with Vietnam are unavoidable, where the US effort to prop up the government of South Vietnam failed in the absence of popular support for that government, much less a competent military to defend it.
US intervention in Iraq will occur not because the regime in Baghdad is worth saving, but because a humanitarian disaster looms. IS has already performed mass executions of fellow Sunnis who were not sufficiently devout or submissive; one might consider their savaging of the Yazidis to be a warm-up act, and expect IS’s penetration into Shia territory to result in a Rwanda-scale civilian massacre. This is something the international community cannot countenance.
The US has no good options. Beefing up the Iraqi military is no longer a viable course, because past transfers of weapons have found their way into the hands of IS, worsening the situation. The US should immediately begin building a coalition, and be ready to launch a ground intervention on short notice, should it become necessary.
Going forward, the original plan for a single federal Iraq should be scrapped, in favor of a three-country solution, for Kurds, Sunni and Shia. Unfortunately, while splitting the country now might shore up the Shia southeast – perhaps to see it become a viable, functioning state – it would leave central Iraq to decide its political future at a time when the region’s dominant force are Sunni Islamists. The timing could not be worse.
For the moment, we should hope that al-Maliki’s successor will have better success at building consensus, while the US makes preparations to head off the humanitarian disaster now threatening to unfold.
Editor’s Note: Having spent most of the past month on international issues, the LFG will next week return its attention to domestic affairs. While liberal principles are vitally important to arrive at optimal foreign policy positions, we recognize that many good liberals approach such matters on a “gotta eat my broccoli” basis. To those of you who digested the Guide’s various musings on Israel, Iraq, Syria and Gaza – we congratulate you on your diligence. To those who gave it a skip – welcome back – the Field Guide loves you anyway.