In 2003, President George W. Bush persuaded Congress and the United Nations to authorize the invasion of Iraq. After Saddam Hussein’s forces were quickly routed, Mr. Bush declared we had an obligation to install a democracy. Our generals agreed to undertake the role of nation-building.
By 2006, Iraq teetered on the verge of civil war between the newly-enfranchised majority — 18 million Shiites — and the resentful losers — nine million Sunnis. But by 2009, most Sunnis, trusting America as their guardian, accepted the authority of the sectarian Shiite Prime Minister, Nuri Maliki. The Sunni terrorist cells seemed to be beaten. Mr. Bush agreed to withdraw American troops by 2011, claiming the move “had the blessing of Generals Petraeus and Odierno,” and that “Maliki’s political instincts proved wise.”
In 2011, President Obama triumphantly withdrew our troops and supported Maliki in a deadlocked race to retain the post of prime minister. Both presidents proved unwise in reposing trust in Maliki, whose oppression of the Sunnis caused the resurgence of the terrorist cells.
Now Sunni Islamists have seized the Sunni Triangle and the Kurds have employed military force to safeguard their de facto state. As Iraq has splintered apart, Iran is offering military support to Maliki. Two Iranian battalions are reported to be fighting alongside the beleaguered Iraqi battalions.
The morale of the Islamists has soared inside its rump state of western Iraq/eastern Syria. Their victories ensure more recruits. The Sunni tribes and their supporters (Saudi, etc.) are embittered toward us. Depending whether you are among the winners or losers, you jeer or curse American passivity.
Mr. Obama has not indicated whether the Islamists sweeping into Iraq constitute an enemy of America deserving of military attack. Given that we are killing Islamists hiding in caves in Pakistan and Yemen, the answer may be yes. Given that we do not attack the Islamists in Syria, the answer may be no. President Obama has declared there is not a War on Terror. He personally reviews the target packages and selects whom to attack or to spare.
What can we do in Iraq? Theoretically, we have two choices. First, the president could employ air power. The Iraqi terrain lacks concealment. All fighters move by vehicles. In 1972, our air power stopped the North Vietnamese offensive in South Vietnam. We saw the 1991 results in Desert Storm along “the highway of death.” Today, our air surveillance and precision strikes provide a literally lethal combination unparalleled in history.
Our drones are currently striking Islamists hiding in caves in Pakistan and Yemen. Why not destroy more lucrative targets? Only boots on the ground can take back lost cities. But air power can repel further assaults and protect a frontline. Our air strikes would infuse the Iraqi army with hope and confidence. The analogy is what a handful of our Special Forces did in 2001 in Afghanistan.
Before dispatching our air power, we would demand that Maliki step down, as well as others designated by our diplomats and generals. Without ironclad reform, we would not provide military force. We would also need to send in advisers/monitors. Having fought there for five years, we have thousands with the requisite knowledge.
What are the risks? Maliki would refuse, and Iraqi politicians would probably dither. Politically, this means we would be rescuing the prime minister who caused the resurgence of the terrorists. He in turn would act even more harshly toward the Sunnis.
Militarily, any deployment of advisers and air controllers requires a protection force of several thousand Marines or soldiers. Our troops could become involved in city fighting.
Psychologically, the destruction from the air is certain to be circulated on the Internet by the jihadists in gruesome detail. The rickety Iraqi political apparatus may fall apart. Here at home, most Democrats in Congress would refuse to vote for the use of force.
Such a strong option really does not exist. A president who has based his foreign policy reputation upon withdrawal and retrenchment will not take those risks. Mr. Obama has already promised not to place any boots on the ground. He will continue to provide some weapons, even though we have evacuated the few American trainers who we had in Iraq. Any bombing will be mostly symbolic, with drones controlled from an air base near Las Vegas.
It is likely that the jihadist blitzkrieg will be halted on the outskirts of Baghdad by Shiite soldiers and militias. If, as reported, Iranian battalions have entered Iraq and are actually fighting side-by-side with the Iraqi Shiites, then Iran will emerge as the protector of the Shiite holy cities and of Baghdad. The U.S. will face the worst of both worlds: al-Qaeda and the Iranian military, both with footholds in the heart of the Middle East.
Our country fought a war that Mr. Obama vociferously opposed and repudiated once he was elected. In his decision to brag about pulling out all our troops, he ignored their sacrifices and achievements. An American president has chosen to become a spectator in the Middle East, a new and perilous role for the world’s superpower. We now risk fading away as a global power, morphing into a regional geographic giant, the Brazil of North America.
— Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense, has written five books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.