The Iraq war’s false promises keep adding up. President Obama’s 2011 assertion that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” is proving as much a desert mirage as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq is collapsing in a spasm of violence fueled by Muslim sectarian hatred. Fighters of the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have seized control of Sunni regions, massacred Shiite rivals and cast doubt on Iraq’s survival as a nation.
Now more than ever, the Bush administration’s vision of a war that would turn Iraq into a peaceful oasis of democracy lies in ruins. At the price of more than 190,000 lives (nearly 4,500 American) and at least $1.7 trillion, the eight-year U.S. invasion and occupation has left Iraq splintered and bleeding.
With the ISIS advance, the civil war between Muslim factions burns hot again. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s marginalizing of the Sunnis feeds popular support for the ISIS insurgents’ goal of establishing a transnational caliphate, or Islamic state, spanning the Iraqi-Syrian border — a line drawn to suit British and French interests a century ago.
U.S. prospects to influence Iraq for the better appear slight. One can hope that U.S. leaders have learned the war’s most basic lesson: Military force cannot mold Iraq to Western desires. Still, the president has sent about 800 troops and military “advisers.” He should reject calls for airstrikes from those who favor escalating U.S. involvement.
The Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office urges support for diplomacy to resolve the conflict’s root causes. Diplomatic efforts must “address the concerns of all of Iraq’s communities, rather than favoring one group over another,” the MCC office advises. Al-Maliki’s alienation of the Sunni and Kurdish communities is one root problem. A governing coalition that gives Sunnis real power would be a logical diplomatic goal. More likely, analysts say, Iraq might split into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish self-governing regions. For a country with arbitrary borders drawn by Europeans during World War I, partition along religious and ethnic lines might be a realistic option.
Iraq’s crisis is humanitarian as well as political. Here agencies such as MCC can make a difference. MCC notes that more than 650,000 people were displaced by violence within two weeks in June. Its partner, Al Amal (The Hope), is providing food and water, supported by MCC funds. Action by the U.S. government also should focus on easing human suffering.
The mistake of trying to dictate by force the affairs of people divided by a 1,500-year religious rivalry should by now be clear. The U.S. should limit its intervention to humanitarian aid and diplomacy and accept the division of Iraq if its factions can live more peaceably in separate states.