President Obama's Wednesday speech
on ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State (it keeps re-branding itself) was a rather fascinating exercise in threading the needle of saying what diplomacy demands while doing what reality makes necessary. The greatest amount of attention has naturally been focused on this statement:
ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents
The President no doubt knows as well as I do that this is utterly false. ISIL's behavior toward non-Muslims (Christians
) and those whom hard-line Sunni Islam deems heretics (Shiites
) is entirely in accord with Islamic law and tradition. Of course Islam condones the killing of innocents, even mandates it in many situations. In this, Islam is consistent with the broader Abrahamic tradition. There are several passages in the Old Testament where God orders the Hebrews to totally exterminate defeated enemy peoples, or kill all the adult males and non-virgin females and keep the virgin females for themselves. ISIL is merely taking these abstractions from the pages of ancient holy texts and letting us see what they look like in living action in the real world. If that reality shocks and horrifies, that is merely because normal modern humans, whether American or Middle Eastern, have developed far beyond the blood-soaked barbarity of the Bible and Koran which they still so shallowly claim to follow.
Of course, Obama couldn't say that. Explicit repudiation of Islam would be as shocking in most of the Middle East as explicit repudiation of Christianity is to much of the US. The idea that these are basically humane religions and that the totalitarian extremists are somehow distorting them is a delusion, but it's a very widespread and useful delusion. Obama's goal is to rally moderate Muslims to support the US against ISIL, not to alienate them by pointing out that moderate Islam is theologically incoherent, even though it is.
Less remarked, but more interesting, was the political
needle-threading also in evidence. The gist of Obama's declared plan is an intensification of the strategy we are already following -- US air attacks on ISIL to weaken it so that local, not American, forces on the ground can defeat it. But there were only a couple of mentions of those ground fighters who, in fact, have been our main partners in this strategy so far -- the Kurds. The President repeatedly referred to "Iraqi forces" and cited the "new Iraqi government in place" as an important development.
The fact is, Iraq is gone
. It was never a real nation and is no longer a viable state in the sense of being able to exert authority over, or claim loyalty from, the territory and people it supposedly comprises. The Kurdish region is independent in all but name. The Sunnis of the west and northwest are hopelessly alienated from the state, even those who don't support ISIL either. "Iraq" is a useful term to refer to the jigsaw-puzzle piece of land that still goes by that name on the map, nothing more. The Baghdad cabal ruling the Shiite center and south is increasingly dependent on the support and advice of a foreign power.
That foreign power, however, is not the United States. As the tide has turned against ISIL on the battlefield, reports have increased of Iraqi and even Kurdish forces being guided by advisers
who speak only Persian and communicate with their allies through interpreters (note that these victorious "Iraqi forces" are actually Shiite militias, not the useless Iraqi government's army). For months there has been anecdotal evidence of growing Iranian influence in Baghdad.
It would be astonishing if this were not the case. Iran, like the Baghdad regime and the area it still controls, is Shiite, and the main Shiite holy places are in central Iraq. Southern Iraq has most of the country's oil. Iran has very strong motives to seize its opportunity to establish both protection and domination over the area.
The fact that ISIL is active in both Iraq and Syria presents the US with a problem. The US is committed to upholding two positions: that the Asad regime ruling Syria is very evil (true) and that the Baghdad cabal is a viable government of all of Iraq (false). ISIL is fighting against both regimes; it is the enemy both of our enemy (Asad) and of our friend (the Baghdad government). It's going to take some serious needle-threading for the US to fight against ISIL in Syria without doing anything to strengthen Asad. The intent seems to be to focus on arming moderate Sunni rebels against Asad who also oppose ISIL. All I can say about this is that I'm glad I'm not the person responsible for making it work.
Iran has no such problem. The Asad regime has been a de facto
Iranian client for some time, and the Iraqi government is on its way to becoming one. ISIL is the main obstacle to consolidating Iranian dominance over the arc of Syria and most of Iraq. For now, Iran is quite happy to stay in the background and let the US lend its immense military power to the task of crushing ISIL -- which, remember, it is genuinely in the US interest to do. Once ISIL is broken, the US, whose people are sick and tired of dealing with the Middle East at all, will go away. Iran will not go away. It's right next door.
Baghdad understands this. The government there will take what help from the US it can get, make what concessions to the US it must, and hold what power and territory it can in the chaotic mess that Iraq has become, all the while knowing that US involvement is transient while Iran's is likely permanent.
In the long run even the US will probably reach an accommodation with this reality. Iran is embarking on a frustratingly slow but inexorable process of liberalization; it's what most Iranians want and it's being advanced on many fronts by President Rouhani, perhaps the most courageous and genuinely revolutionary leader in the world today. The successful nuclear negotiations show that Iran is willing to work with the West. If, as I've said before, the real effect of Bush's Iraq invasion is that we spent four trillion dollars to restore the Persian Empire, we may as well make the best of it. Besides, we can't stop it.
What I most hope, though, is that Obama does the right thing and ensures that in the end the Iraqi Kurdish enclave gets genuine independence as a recognized state. It's the Kurds who have done most of the hard and dangerous work of fighting ISIL on the ground. They've shown themselves much better able to manage a country properly than anyone else in Iraq has. With a population of five million, the Kurdish enclave has taken in almost a million refugees from ISIL who have nowhere else to go. They've earned genuine independence, and Baghdad will never again exert sovereignty over the enclave, whatever the US claims to believe. I note the references in Obama's speech to "Iraqi and Kurdish forces", implicitly recognizing that the two are distinct. I hope that's a positive sign.
Finally: always, always remember -- it's not about us