Today in Iraq, American advisers stay in safe shelters, while Iranian soldiers and generals fight alongside Shia militias and Iraqi soldiers on the front lines. Our bombing supports Iranian-directed movements on the ground. This bizarre situation bring into question American policy goals. Are the administration’s actions ad hoc and poorly thought out, or is there a hidden, more foreboding agenda?
In the State of the Union address, President Obama said that “in Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance.” Actually, America is following Iranian leadership inside Iraq. In 2007, when President Bush surged more than 20,000 American troops into Iraq, Iran responded with explosive devices and assassination teams to kill our soldiers. Eight years ago, it would have been risible to predict that American troops would deploy a second time to support Iran’s Republican Guard. Yet that is what we have done.
How did we get to this stage? After the president pulled all our forces out of Iraq in 2011, the majority-Shia government oppressed the minority Sunni and Kurdish tribes. The sectarian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki deployed Iraqi military units commanded by Shia political hacks into the Sunni areas. When the Sunni Islamists invaded from Syria, those Iraqi units ran away. Iran rushed in troops to prevent Baghdad from falling.
In response, President Obama has provided air strikes, while forbidding any American to engage in combat. Canadian advisers have been in combat on the front lines, marking targets for U.S. aircraft. The American advisers must stay in the rear. This is publicly embarrassing and militarily zany.
Iran is pursuing a consistent policy to extend its influence. Inside Syria, Iran has sent in its Hezbollah militia from Lebanon to fight for Assad, its client. We are bombing the Sunni terrorists. Mr. Obama has designated the Assad forces off limits. Rhetorically he declaims against Assad and Hezbollah, but he refrains from action. In contrast, last week in Syria, our ally Israel bombed and killed several Hezbollah leaders and the Iranian general who was advising them.
Inside Iraq, it is again the Iranians who display more consistency than the administration. In Baghdad, houses are searched by Shia militias, supervised by Iranian advisers. Other Iranians are on the battlefields and inside the operations centers of the Iraqi army, where they study our techniques and learn how we think and plan campaigns. Iranian aircraft are transiting Iraqi airspace to supply the Assad regime and are bombing targets inside Iraq.
Addressing those Iranian strikes, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “The net effect is positive. . . . The Iraqis have the overall responsibility for their own ground and air operations, and what they choose to do is up to them.”
How is the effect “positive” when the end state is an Iraq more closely tied to Iran? About 7,000 Iranian soldiers are committed to the fight, while 3,000 American advisers stay safe in the rear. Given its close control of Shia militias, Iran can, whenever it chooses, engineer bombings that will drive us out of the country. We stay at Iranian sufferance. That will end someday, as it did in Lebanon when Hezbollah, trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, blew up U.S. barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines. When it is in Iran’s interests, we will be pushed out of Iraq.
The 1916 map of Mesopotamia drawn by the British and French is being redrawn by the 21st-century Islamic upheaval. Iran is consolidating power on the Shia side. On the Sunni side, the Obama administration has antagonized both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while no Sunni coalition of religious and military leaders has emerged to destroy the extremist movement within Sunni Islam.
Inside Iraq, the Sunni and Kurdish tribes will not accept a return to the status quo ante. The tribal and political dynamics that caused Iraq’s disintegration remain in place. No offensive to drive out the Islamists can succeed without Americans on the front lines calling in air strikes. Obama will be forced to play that trump card before leaving office, despite his denials to date. In return, he should demand an Iraqi federation with largely self-rule for Kurds and Sunnis.
On two levels, the administration’s policy in Iraq is confusing and suspect. First, Obama will not acknowledge the religious base of our enemy. He calls them “violent extremists” while insisting that “the vast majority of Muslims share our commitment to peace.” But he refuses to join France, England, Germany, Egypt, and other nations in calling on peaceful Muslim leaders to speak up.
“They [ordinary citizens] ask how they can trust the phrase that murderers who claim to act in the name of Islam have nothing to do with Islam,” German chancellor Angels Merkel said last week. “We urgently need a clarification of these questions by Islam’s religious leaders. This issue can’t be evaded any longer.”
Obama, however, persists in evading it. As long as he refuses to recognize the self-professed motivation of our Islamist enemies, he cannot take steps to remove their support system among the too-silent majority of peaceful Muslims.
On the second level, the policy is foreboding. For Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States — all allied with America for the past half-century — our aligning with Iranian forces inside Iraq increases their concerns that America has switched sides. Obama is pleading with Iran for a deal about its nuclear-weapons program. It represents the last, best hope for his legacy in foreign policy, which he has botched. And so he will not upset Iran by frowning on its military presence and increasing influence inside Iraq. Our traditional allies in the region believe that the administration is allowing the balance of power to shift against them, as Iran consolidates its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
Congress has a role to play. The administration has asked for funding and authorization to continue to use force against the Sunni Islamists in Iraq, Syria, and other countries. Congress should insist on three provisions relative to Iraq.
First, no aid, or bombing will be delivered, unless Iraq places limits on the number of Iranian military and on their linkages with Shia militias.
Second, insist on a compact with Iraq for a long-term American military presence. We should not fight and leave the political victory to Iran. Some in our military are whispering, “Don’t worry, the Iraqi mullahs don’t like the Iranian mullahs.” Perhaps true, but irrelevant. Their power positions are scarcely equivalent. Shia mullahs rule in Iran and pontificate in Iraq.
Third, all U.S. aid must flow directly to the end recipient, whether that be the Iraqi army or a Sunni or Kurdish tribe. The Iraqi government should be notified of our aid but not given control of it.
American air, aid, and advisers in Iraq must further American interests, not Iran’s.
— Bing West served in Vietnam as an adviser and has written three books about the Iraq war. Owen West served two tours in Iraq and wrote the book The Snake Eaters about his advisory team in Anbar Province, now controlled by the Islamists.