The recent military successes of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, and the ongoing disintegration of Iraq’s “central” government have created a strategic crisis for the United States. Barack Obama’s belated, narrow authorization to use military force against the Islamic State does not constitute a coherent response, let alone a comprehensive one. The president seems curiously inactive, even as American influence in the region collapses and, not coincidentally, his political-approval ratings suffer. From the outset of the Islamic State’s campaign, his policies have been haphazard and confused, especially the halting, timid decision to intervene militarily. And, based on his record as president, there is no reason to believe a strategic vision of the Middle East’s future will ultimately emerge from his administration.
Approving U.S. military force against the Islamic State on August 7, Obama stressed two limited goals: protecting U.S. civilian and military personnel in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, which the Islamic State was rapidly nearing; and aiding refugees who had fled as the group advanced into Iraq from Syria. These are legitimate objectives, but they are far too constrained even in humanitarian terms, let alone against the serious regional and global strategic threats the Islamic State poses. The approximately 40,000 Yazidis were clearly in dire straits, but their plight had been preceded months earlier by the even greater number of fleeing Christian families. Obama stood by while the Islamic State butchered its way around Iraq.
Although the initial U.S. air strikes provided the refugees breathing space, the Islamic State still basically has the initiative. Ironically, Obama the multilateralist has not yet followed George H. W. Bush’s roadmap after the first Persian Gulf War in assembling an international coalition to achieve his humanitarian objectives. In April 1991, Kurdish refugees fled Saddam Hussein’s repression, and Bush persuaded the U.N. Security Council to adopt Resolution 688, declaring the refugee flows a threat to international peace and security. He then launched Operation Provide Comfort, later supplemented by aid to the Shiites in southern Iraq.
Today’s ongoing tragedy would have been entirely avoidable had Obama not withdrawn U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. By so doing, he eliminated a considerable element of U.S. leverage in Baghdad, one that had significantly limited Iran’s ability to expand its influence inside Iraq. With substantial U.S. forces still present, Iraq’s various ethnic and confessional groups were more likely to make progress knitting together a sustainable national government and to lessen their profound, longstanding mistrust, which existed well before the Islamic State erupted from Syria.
We must now decide on U.S. strategic objectives in light of the dramatic, albeit still-tenuous, territorial gains by the Islamic State; the unfolding disarray in Iraq’s government; the grinding conflict in Syria; and the looming threats to stability in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. This will require some unpleasant choices, as well as recognition of the obvious reality that many policy options are simply unavailable until Obama leaves office in 2017.
America’s basic objective is clear: We must seek to destroy the Islamic State. It is simply not enough to block the group’s threat to the Kurds or other vulnerable minorities in the region. The risks of even a relatively small “state” (or “caliphate,” as they proclaim it) are chilling. Leaving the Islamic State in place and in control only of its current turf in Iraq and Syria (including northern-Iraqi hydrocarbon deposits and associated infrastructure) would make it viable economically and a fearsome refuge for terrorists of all sorts. Just as Afghanistan’s Taliban gave al-Qaeda a base of operations to launch terrorist attacks culminating in 9/11, a similar result could follow if the Islamic State successfully erased and then redrew existing boundaries.
But, many ask, how can the Islamic State be removed from the territory it now holds without U.S. combat forces’ being centrally involved? Aren’t we too “war weary” to do much of anything? Perhaps, but this is surely a debate worth having. And that debate’s central “organizing principle,” as Hillary Clinton might say, is this: The United States must prevent a new terrorist state from emerging in the Middle East. Period.
If there are American political leaders who are truly content to have this embodiment of evil consolidate its current position, let them say so unambiguously. The vast majority of Americans, however, will be profoundly concerned at the likely consequences for America, Europe, Israel, and our Arab friends in the region if we do nothing. After the Holocaust, we said “Never again,” not “Well, maybe a little.”
Moreover, U.S. forces are already involved, and will need to be involved more substantially until the Islamic State is defeated. But the primary ground combat can be handled by adequately armed and equipped Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Sunni tribal militias in Iraq, and whatever trustworthy, moderate anti-Assad Sunni forces remain. U.S. air power, supplies, and intelligence will be central, but we should seek all possible assistance, including financial support from our allies globally. The recent combined U.S., Kurdish, and Iraqi operations to retake the Mosul dam demonstrate how this could work in practice.
Assuming the Islamic State is decisively defeated (a heroic assumption, given Obama’s passivity), what happens next? In Syria, non-radical Sunni Arabs, while still hoping to oust Bashar al-Assad, are increasingly beleaguered, both by regime forces and by the Islamic State and other radicals. In Iraq, the attempted coup of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who until recently was backed solidly by Iran, has added to the disarray. His reluctant decision to step aside as prime minister, however, has only removed him from the stage; it has neither reduced Iran’s dominance nor changed the fundamental political disarray among Iraq’s factions. Maliki’s maltreatment of Iraq’s Sunnis aroused such opposition that tribal leaders and former Baathists initially joined with the Islamic State because of their common contempt for the national government. What outcome can we now achieve that would satisfy non-radical Sunnis, not to mention us?
Iraq’s future poses the starkest choice. Obama still clings to the idea of making the collapsing Baghdad government functional. At some much earlier point, conditioning anti–Islamic State aid on the requirement that Iraq’s badly divided factions cooperate might have worked, but no longer. In effect, Washington’s preference that a unified Iraq exist essentially within the international borders it inherited at its independence in 1932 ended with Obama’s 2011 withdrawal of American forces. Iraqi “unity” increasingly seems like a mirage in the foreseeable future and perhaps forever. Just as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia fragmented into their component parts two decades ago, that is likely what is now happening in Iraq.
Unavoidably, therefore, we must identify what is doable in Iraq rather than what is desirable. We are long past the point of debating “one Iraq” versus “three Iraqs,” because fierce animosities have already split Iraq de facto into Kurdistan and the predominantly Arab remainder. The only outstanding issue is whether the Arab lands will themselves break into two, one largely Sunni, the other largely Shiite.
As things stand, helping to create three Iraqs looks to be America’s best option. Our metric today, looking forward, is not whether the Platonic ideal of a unified, democratic Iraq might once have been achieved, or might yet be achieved unknowable years hence. Instead, we must proceed on the clear-eyed basis of what America’s interests are now, choosing among less-than-ideal options.
First, it is nearly impossible to envision any circumstances in which the Kurds would agree to meaningful participation in an Iraqi central government that attempted to assert real authority over them. The parliamentary charades now on display in Baghdad — where Kurds (and Sunnis as well) agree to divide political offices among Iraq’s factions and otherwise go through the motions of central government — do not constitute serious institution-building. Instead, they merely reflect the pragmatic Kurdish decision not to break de jure from Iraq until that necessity arrives. Behind the play-acting, the Kurds are in reality already independent, and there is no going back.
The real problem for “Kurdistan” is defining its broader boundaries beyond Iraq, given the Kurdish populations in Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Amalgamating the Kurds in Syria and Iraq will be easier than dealing with those in Turkey and Iran. Once a visibly independent Kurdish government exists, excruciatingly hard problems will arise. Kurds in Turkey and Iran will not remain quiescent for long, and Ankara and Tehran will not let them escape easily or painlessly.
Second, though perhaps less definitively than the Kurds, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs show no inclination to cooperate with a Baghdad government they see, correctly, as dominated by Iran. As long as Obama and others press them to pretend that there is a possibility of restitching a national government in Baghdad, the Sunnis may do so, but primarily only to obtain assistance necessary to fight the Islamic State. Obviously, Sunni opposition to the Islamic State is critical to its ultimate defeat.
Until we effectively counter Iran’s increasing dominance in Shiite Iraq — indeed, until we overthrow the ayatollahs in Tehran — we cannot ignore the reality that Iraq’s Sunnis simply will not tolerate domination by an “Iraqi” government Tehran controls in every material respect. Similarly, as with their opposition to al-Qaeda in Iraq during the 2006–07 “surge,” most Iraqi Sunnis have no desire to trade Iranian-backed repression for Islamic State repression.
Third, the Islamic State’s territorial conquests underscore the fragility of all the region’s existing boundaries. By hiving off parts of both Iraq and Syria to create a “caliphate,” the group is portending even more significant redrawing of boundaries, as an unambiguously independent Kurdistan would also do. While we must prevent the Islamic State from forming a new, independent terrorist state composed of Sunni Arabs, there is an acceptable alternative. In broad strokes, a transborder state carved out of Iraq’s and Syria’s current territory is far from undesirable, and is in any event increasingly likely. If rightly established and led by Sunnis acceptable to the United States and our regional allies, a new Sunni state is entirely realistic.
It would mean partitioning Syria, an outcome some have predicted, and leaving Assad with essentially an Alawite enclave in Syria’s western and coastal regions. A stable, “moderate” Sunni state with control over oil assets in northern Iraq equitably divided with the Kurds would also serve to protect Jordan’s eastern border. Northern areas with significant Kurdish populations could join Iraqi Kurds in their new state, and Sunni Arabs would have the rest.
Concededly, this is easier said than done, and drawing new boundaries will be arduous and perhaps ultimately futile. Moreover, creating a new Sunni state will not solve the problem of Iran’s continuing to dominate the regimes governing the rump portions of Syria and Iraq. These projections of Tehran’s power would still threaten those states’ neighbors and provide Iran much-needed allies. Unfortunately, however, Syria’s Assad dictatorship and Iraq’s successor to Maliki will remain relatively secure until the ayatollahs lose power in Tehran.
Regarding Syria, many who advocated aiding the anti-Assad opposition will now contend that, once the Islamic State is on the run, we should seize the moment to topple the dictatorship. The hard reality, however, is that for over three years the Syria conflict has been a strategic sideshow in the larger struggle against Iran. If a moderate, transborder Sunni state emerged, fighting an Assad regime confined to an Alawite enclave would not be worth the risks of Obama’s stumbling around simultaneously confronting Russia and Iran, which both back Assad. If Iran’s ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guards were to fall and be replaced by anything like a sensible government, Assad (not to mention Hezbollah and Hamas) would lose his biggest source of financial and military support. To be sure, Russia would still see Assad as an ally, but without Iran, even Moscow might recalibrate its stakes in Syria. And until Iran flips, as long as Assad retains Russian support, Obama cannot be trusted to face off competently against Moscow.
Any real opportunity to stitch the pieces of Iraq back together will come only when the mullahs next door are eliminated. Unfortunately, however, while most Iraqi Shiites oppose Iran’s domination, they have been ineffective in preventing it, and there is little prospect that this pattern will change.
Obviously, the central problem is not Iran’s surrogates, but Iran itself, America’s main regional adversary. And until the United States confronts the ever more pressing need for regime change in Tehran, we can hardly expect others in the region to have the strength or the will to arrange things to suit our interests. Obama’s obsession with securing a nuclear-weapons deal means the odds that he would support overthrowing the ayatollahs approach zero. The regime is determined to possess nuclear weapons, so appeasing it in Syria, as Obama has done, was never going to cause Tehran to modify its positions in the nuclear talks. Far better to concentrate on regime change in Iran by overtly and covertly supporting the widespread opposition and watch Assad fall as collateral damage thereafter.
These possible outcomes constitute working hypotheses for U.S. objectives flowing from the destruction of the Islamic State. They are not philosophical abstractions, but practical suggestions that could well change as regional circumstances change. What we must not do is take our eye off the critical first step of destroying the Islamic State. Nor can we let theories about the kinds of regimes we would like to see emerge in the region blind us to what may actually be achievable.
Perhaps most important of all, we simply must stop blundering around in the vacuum of strategic thinking Obama has created during his presidency. Real progress must obviously await Obama’s 2017 departure from office, but we should plan now to replace his failed policies.
— Mr. Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He is the author of Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad. This article appears in the September 8, 2014, issue of National Review.