Monday, August 11, 2014

What Next in Iraq?

Whatever the outcome of the current attempts to form a functioning government in Baghdad, the larger and more pressing questions concern Iraq's ability (or anyone's ability) to stop the military progress of the so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS), which obviously aspires to conquer as much territory as possible and poses a particularly acute humanitarian threat especially to Christian (and other) non-Muslim minorities in the region.. For better or for worse, this largely comes down to a question of what the United States is (1) able and (2) willing to do. That's the way it is when you are the world's one effective superpower!

Yesterday's NY Times Sunday Review featured an interesting column ("The Right War") by the persistently thoughtful Ross Douthat. As his title suggests, Douthat challenges what has become the dominant paradigm until now and argues that "this time, the case for war is much stronger, and the decision to intervene is almost certainly the right call."

As examples of what I am calling the presently dominant paradigm, Douthat cites three previous times when the Obama Administration had to make a decision about whether or not to intervene in a conflict in the Muslim world - Libya in 2011, Syria since 2011, and Iraq two months ago. As everyone knows, the UIS did intervene in Libya, but not in Syria nor (until this past week) in Iraq. "All three situations were hard calls, and the fact that intervention in Libya and inaction in Syria produced similar outcomes - rippling chaos and jihadi gains - has allowed both hawks and doves to claim vindication." That intervention and inaction could produce such similar outcomes ought indeed to five both sides in the intervention vs. inaction debate reason to pause. In fact, however, Douthat argues that "in all three debates, the noninterventionist position ultimately had the better of the argument." 

That said, however, he argues that the opposite is now the case in Iraq. whereas in those earlier cases the "humanitarian" case and the "strategic" realities were opposed, he sees the two as now "much more closely aligned" in the current crisis in Iraq. In other words, the US has both "a stronger moral obligation to act" and a clear enough military objective, a more tested ally in the Kurds and a plausible long-term strategy that could follow from intervening now."

The part of Douthat's argument that I personally find most intriguing is his view that "an independent, secure, well-armed Kurdistan could replace and unstable, perpetually fragmenting Iraq as the intended locus of American influence in the region."

While I find douthat's argument about the Kurds somewhat compelling, I am not sure that the Administration feels comparably compelled, and I am fairly certain the American public opinion is nowhere near there yet. And I suspect that public opinion in this matter weighs heavily with this Administration.

Of course, in a democracy public opinion ought to have weight. but as we all know, presidential leadership is also about forming and leading public opinion - especially in foreign affairs. That. after all is one of the things many praise FDR for - his determined effort to educate and guide the American public to form and lead public opinion in a more pro-interventionist direction. On so many levels, however, Obama is obviously no FDR. On the other had, even FDR was unsuccessful in his effort. After all, it took the Japanese sneak attach on Pearl Harbor to wake America up to the reality of the Axis threat!

Speaking of FDR, right now I have been Nigel Hamilton's just newly published book, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942. Hamilton's is obviously a great admirer of FDR's governing style and how he effectively - and successfully - took command of the Allied war effort. It is a fascinating book in many respects. But again, with all due respect, Obama is not FDR (and 2014 is not 1941). If Hamilton's book is primarily a study of FDR's ascendancy to successful war-time leadership, it is also secondarily a study of British Prime Minister Churchill's limitations as leader and, even more fundamentally, the British Empire's process of decline from a position of leadership.

The story of the decline of the British Empire is a complicated one, but one component of it was the British elite's gradual loss of confidence in their imperial mission and the ordinary British public's loss of confidence in their political elite. This, Hamilton seems to be suggesting, had a lot to do with the abysmal performance of the British in the early period of the Pacific war.

Without overstretching the analogy, I have often wondered whether something similar has been happening to the US. Isolationism has always been a danger at the door in our international relations.  American failure in Vietnam enabled isolationism to make inroads on the left - inroads further exacerbated by the failure of the second Iraq War. Moral loss of nerve and diminished capacity to make an effective difference seem to go hand in had when a Great Power declines. Each reinforces the other in an increasingly unbreakable vicious circle

I don't know whether Douthat is right about intervention with the Kurds as an effective ally. I honestly have no idea what the President should do or how to persuade the American public to go along. But I doworry that American society in general and much of the political class seem to have reached a dramatic loss of faith in America's role in the world - not unlike what happened to Britain and its empire in the 20th century. For Churchill and the British in general, having to accept a severely diminished role was made more palatable by being replaced as principal world power by the United States.  Who is there to make America's abdication palatable?

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