Over the last few years I’ve taken it upon myself to read the New York Times cover to cover every morning. Whether or not that has informed or misinformed me about the world is not important; what’s important is that the train ride from southern Brooklyn to the Upper East Side is rather long, and the Times makes it manageable. One thing I’ve noticed in this unscientific, retrospective study is that Iraq stories––including reports of suicide bombings that killed 50 or more––tended to be no more than four or five paragraphs long, and seldom even made the front page of the International section. Today, after a week in which Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) captured the critical city of Mosul and began its march toward Baghdad, two stories featured prominently on the front page on the Times.
It’s clear we’ve ignored Iraq, both as a significant country and a people 4500 Americans died to liberate. After eight years of war, no one was interested, no one saw the warning signs, no one cared. The Middle East didn’t matter anymore. “Foreign Policy Begins At Home,” the best-selling books began to cry. Asia, if anything, was the future. The logical conclusion of this lassitude was the US dithering in Syria, which made the ISIL jihadists stronger. Walter Russell Mead ties recent events in Iraq to a much broader foreign policy picture:
“It is amazing what this White House does not know. It did not know that Putin was planning to take over Ukraine; indeed, it thought that its policy of a reset with Russia was paying off and that Russia was becoming a partner for peace. It did not know that Saudi Arabia was preparing to help the Egyptian army oust a democratically elected government the United States was determined to support”
We did not know. But we didn’t know because we didn’t know. There is nothing wrong with our intelligence services, at least not in terms of reading the obvious. Countless analysts from Washington’s most prestigious think tanks, journalists, and indeed former government officials and ambassadors have warned that the failure to intervene in Syria would strengthen both Assad (and his Iranian backers) and the jihadists who have now seized large chunks of Iraq. We ignored Iraq’s requests for help months ago. Robert S. Ford, our erstwhile Ambassador to Syria, wrote in a Times op-ed this week that he resigned because he could not understand the administration’s Syria non-policy.
We didn’t know because we didn’t want to know.
To be sure, the Maliki government in Iraq is totally responsible for the passive and active support ISIL has received in the conquered cities. His divisive style of rule is unconscionable, largely a result of foolish decisions made by L. Paul Bremer and the provisional government during the American occupation. But ISIL would not be where it is today without the Syrian war and its base in Raqqa. It’s evident that the Assad regime does not view ISIL as a threat or indeed an opposition group of any kind. Assad never bombs their facilities. At the very least, Assad understands that a strong ISIL means already-weakened rebel groups will be fighting on two fronts. Perhaps there is even an understanding between Assad and ISIL. The West’s failure in Syria casts a dark shadow over Iraq.
We did not intervene in the war in Syria because of Iraq. Now there is war in Syria and Iraq. We did not intervene in Syria because we were afraid of our weapons falling into the hands of jihadists. Now jihadists drive our humvees and fire our weapons.
We picked the wrong time to disengage from the Middle East. While it appears President Obama will take some action in Iraq, he will continue to largely ignore the head of the snake: Bashar al-Assad. As long as he is winning on the battlefield and butchering his people, new recruits will run to ISIL and funds will pour ever faster into the jihadists’ pockets. The scope of intervention must be deeply pondered, but this can only happen once we realize there is a regional war whose implications reach far beyond the threat of terrorism, and no speech about soft power and multilateralism will change this.