The Corner

What Goes Before the Fall

Moqtada al-Sadr is a powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric. Recently, after secretary of defense Ash Carter announced 560 more U.S. soldiers would deploy to Iraq, Sadr posted the following comment on his website: “they (the Americans) are our target.

Sadr is joined at the hip with Iran.  He also leads the ironically named Peace Brigades, a group of Shiite militia, many of whom attacked American troops during the Iraq War, until they suffered heavy losses in fighting in Najaf on the south side of Baghdad in 2004. Sadr, at that point, decided if he kept fighting the Americans in open warfare he would have no militia left.

Sadr laid low during the surge, even leaving the country, but he never stopped maneuvering to increase Iran’s leverage, and his own, in Iraq. Sadr is behind most of the protests against the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is clinging to power. Abadi represents a counter, albeit a feeble one,  to Iranian influence in Iraq, and his eventual removal is therefore a top objective of Sadr and his allies. 

Needless to say, Sadr was quite happy with President Obama’s withdrawal of American units from Iraq in 2011. I imagine Sadr could hardly believe his luck that any United States President would do something so feckless. An ongoing American presence in Iraq would have created the real chance Iraq would be a stable partner for the United States in the region, and perhaps a democracy where Sunni and Shia might reasonably coexist — the last thing Sadr and his Iranian backers want.

Which tells us, as well as anything can, what in a sane government American policy would have been: to defeat ISIS in a way that stabilized Iraq and prevented Iranian control of that country. That is not as positive an outcome as might have been possible before the United States left in 2011, but it was worth trying, and it was reasonably achievable in the immediate aftermath of the ISIS invasion several years ago. Iraqi officials were in a panic then. The United States could have inserted thousands of personnel to conduct a vigorous air campaign against ISIS and provide combat support to Iraqi forces, while influencing the Iraqi government towards a political arrangement acceptable to the Sunni tribes.

But that moment has passed. The chance of an acceptable result is now very slight. The likely outcome of all the fighting now will be far worse for the United States than could even have been envisioned five years ago, and not just in Iraq.

Russia will be firmly entrenched as a regional power broker, with close ties to the Iranians. Bashar Assad, backed up by Russian power, will solidify his hold on most of Syria. What he doesn’t control will be dominated by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. ISIS will likely be defeated on the ground in Iraq, but Sunni terrorists will remain active there, will continue spreading outside the Middle East, and will seek ways to increase the number and intensity of their attacks on the American homeland. Iraq will be firmly within Iran’s sphere of influence. 

Iran, having benefited enormously from sanctions relief, will use its newfound wealth to destabilize the rest of the Middle East, after having hardened itself against punitive measures by the United States. The Iranians are already receiving elements of the S-300 anti-aircraft system, which can threaten American fighter aircraft and the men who fly them, and which Iran purchased — no surprise here — from the Russians.

In short, a new Russian/Iranian axis is destabilizing the region with the aim of gaining control, assisted by Hezbollah and Hamas, and working when expedient with the various Sunni terrorist organizations. I expect Jordan and Israel will be the next targets.

Meanwhile American power is at a low ebb and declining, American diplomacy has been reduced to a punch line, and American honor is in tatters.  All those in the Middle East who trusted the United States have suffered grievously for it. They are not likely to make that mistake again.  It’s no accident that Bibi Netanyahu is trying to make the best deal he can with Russia.  

American voters know something is very wrong. That is why national security ranks so high as an issue in the November election.  But I fear they have no idea of the terrible challenges the next president will face because of the decisions of the current one.

The great turning points in history never have a single cause. But there is no question who bears the blame for the terrible forfeits America has suffered in the Middle East: the man who was smarter than his advisors, who came to the White House determined to escape the Cold War thinking of his predecessors, who was going to reset relations with Russia, make Iran a partner, and pacify the Muslim world. 

Barack Obama’s mistakes were not just foreseeable but were foreseen; he was warned against them, and not just by conservatives.  Four years of such hubris might have been reversible with moderate measures, but eight years has been too much.   Decisions, and elections, have consequences. The Hobson’s choices that lie ahead will be all the harder because of the knowledge we brought them on ourselves.

Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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