The rapid (although not unpredicted) entry of radical Sunni jihadists into Mosul, Tikrit and other largely Sunni areas of Iraq, and their movement toward Baghdad, has prompted cries from left, right and center about the failure of U.S. policies in the region. And failure it is, although not of the "Bush should never have gone there," or "Obama should never have withdrawn from there," or – perhaps most oddly, "If Obama had only armed the 'moderate, secular opposition' in Syria, this never would have happened" sort.
It is a failure to look back, look forward and look around. It is a failure to ask the truly existential questions, "What can the United States tolerate in the world – what MUST we tolerate because we are not prepared to stop it?" and the corollary, "What can the United States simply not afford – not now, not later, not ever – and how are we going to keep truly intolerable things from happening?"
- The United States can afford for Iraq not to be a "democracy." In fact, we can afford for no truly democratic Arab governments to emerge in the Middle East. It would be a shame for the millions of Arabs and Muslims who aspire to better, but the scrabble of dictatorships, religious and secular, emerging and falling, are a running pattern that is much older and better entrenched than is the constitutional form of government with which we are familiar.
- This should prompt a "reset" of U.S.-Egyptian relations. Sisi is doing no more than identifying the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential Islamist threat, like ISIS, and doing what dictators do to retain power; in this instance, power that has never threatened U.S. interests.
- The United States can afford a cutoff of Middle Eastern oil. In fact, if it resulted in the return of Qatar and Saudi Arabia to sand dunes, perhaps so much the better – given that they have been the source of much of the funding of Sunni jihadists, until the jihadist groups figured out how to steal large sums themselves (including perhaps $1.5 billion in Mosul). The oil cutoff would devastate some countries and inconvenience others, but the United States is in a position not only better to weather the storm, but to profit.
- It might also encourage those who rely on American naval power to ensure their supply of oil to consider the cost. Japan, South Korea and China import the majority of their oil through shipping lanes that we patrol on their behalf. China? Maybe they would like to build a pipeline to get that Iranian oil across Central Asia, through Uighur-controlled territory and on to their east coast.
- The United States can afford for Iran to be the leader of the Shiite side of the post-Mohammad-Islamic war in which Sunnis and Shiites have been engaged since the Battle of Siffin (657 CE) and which intensified after the Battle of Karbala (680 CE).
If we can tolerate (because we cannot stop it) the ongoing Sunni-Shiite war, and if it does not require us to choose sides (because there is no side that is our side), what are the requirements for long-term American interests?
Look back. American successes in alliances are enormously important. NATO changed the pattern of behavior of Europe as well as collapsing the Soviet empire, and South Korea and Japan are democratic powerhouses – but they required our long-term physical presence and political will even, and especially, when they were failing. What if the Russian-sponsored "Zero Option" to prevent the installations of U.S. Pershing Missiles in Europe had prevailed?
Our failures come when we assume others can and will stand without us. "Vietnamization" should have been a clue. But the United States has continued to arm and train other people's militaries in the hopes that they will do it our way without us.
The Palestinian army is a very expensive case in point. The U.S. provides nearly $115 million annually for security services, separate from "aid" to the Palestinian Authority [PA], in the hope that the PA military will a) cooperate with the Israel and b) fight Hamas. The first is not a steady proposition, and the new Palestinian unity government may preclude the second.
In Mali, we created an army, then pulled our political support from the government for its failure to meet "democratic norms". This refusal to be involved precipitated the Tuareg/al Qaeda war that, without French intervention would have given al Qaeda a base in a new part of Africa.
In Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Yemen, we armed, trained and spent larger and smaller fortunes for general failure. The Gulf States, at least, paid for their own equipment. Egypt, thus far, has proven to be among our best returns, although the current U.S. Administration doesn't seem clear on the point.
Look around. Arming a rump opposition group in Syria and a) expecting it to have any impact on Assad's military and b) expecting it THEN to turn away the well-armed, well-trained, professional forces of ISIS was always a pipe dream. The U.S. did ship weapons to the opposition – from stores in Libya, and to our dismay, we are still finding out what was in some of those shipments. There are now reports that ISIS has Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Pentagon sources simply say, "The U.S. provided no such missiles to Iraqi military forces." Well, maybe not, but they provided "such missiles" to the Libyan opposition.
Also, please notice who comes "home." British security authorities say "volunteers" returning from fighting in Syria can be arrested and have their passports confiscated – a start to limiting the damage they can do at home.
Look ahead. Stick with your friends, including friends in this hemisphere, and make life as difficult as possible for those who get in your way, including Russians, Chinese, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. Or Saudis and Qataris. Put them on notice: the United States will not do everything – we cannot and do not want to – but we will protect our irreducible interests which are, in fact, quite narrow: a) the ability and will to punish egregious infractions of international norms, including the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations; and b) the utter unacceptability of nuclear weapons in the hands of radical Islamist factions.
The game-changer in the long religious war now wracking the region is the possible introduction of nuclear weapons by Iran. Conventional wisdom is that Iran wants nuclear weapons either to destroy Israel or to enhance its position as hegemon of the Persian Gulf to discomfit and oust the Americans. If conventional wisdom is right, Iran cannot be permitted to be a nuclear power. If conventional wisdom is wrong and Iran plans to use nuclear weapons, or threatens to, "only" to balance the "religious scales" (Shiites comprise only 11-12% of the world's Muslim population), Iran still cannot be permitted to be a nuclear power.
Either way, irreducible bottom line, no nuclear Iran. The U.S. retains a still-vast ability to meet its national defense priorities. The open questions are: the political skill to define them, and the political will to ensure that the greatest threat to regional and world stability -- Iranian nuclear capability -- is stopped for good.