While Iraq's ethnic, religious and cultural rivalries are centuries old, the current crisis is a direct result of a decade of U.S. foreign policy failures. This fact alone makes it our nation's responsibility to prevent ISIL from carrying out a humanitarian worst case scenario. This fact is the reason we can't avoid intervention in Iraq by hiding behind tired, old excuses for avoiding involvement in other nation's ethnic and religious conflicts.
Prior to August 1990, most Americans didn't know much about Iraq and didn't care. That all changed when Saddam Hussein ordered an invasion of neighboring Kuwait. The swift and decisive action shocked the world and provoked a response from an international coalition, led by the United States under President George H.W. Bush. With the U.S. in the lead, Iraqi forces were easily driven out of Kuwait and routed during their retreat back into Iraq. While President Bush and the U.N. coalition deliberately decided not to invade Iraq itself to depose Saddam Hussein, they did pass crushing economic sanctions, kept U.S. troops deployed in Saudi Arabia and patrolled two vast no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq to deter Hussein from aggression in the region or against minority groups in his own country. The formal U.S. policy was to seek regime change in Iraq; but, it would not be done through military means.
U.S. warplanes patrolled the skies of Iraq for nearly 12 years, regularly being fired upon by Saddam Hussein's air defense systems. In 1998, President Clinton ordered four days of missile strikes against Iraqi military targets. These strikes were in response to Iraq's refusal to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to have full access to suspected WMD storage and research sites.
After more than a decade of U.S. military interventions in Iraq, the American public was very familiar with Iraq in 2003, though primarily focused on Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks. President George W. Bush and top officials in his administration made the case for regime change in Iraq for several months leading up to the all-out invasion of that country by the U.S. and U.K. While the controversial decision to invade Iraq was not the beginning of the U.S.'s direct intervention in that nation's affairs, it was the decision that would make Iraq's fate our responsibility. We assume significant security responsibilities for the people of any country we invade. Our first major mistake in dealing with Iraq (aside from your opinion of the invasion itself) was not accepting this truth. We believed we could invade a country, topple its leader, install a democratic regime and go home in six months. Even in the smallest and least divided nation, this would be unlikely. In Iraq, it was comical.
A series of terrible mistakes followed: failing to secure population centers, dismantling the entire Iraqi Army and most of the existing Iraqi government apparatus, mistreating Iraqi POWs and insufficiently training Iraqi police and soldiers...to name the most obvious.
Then, the Sunni/Shia battles began. Without sufficient forces to keep the peace, the United States found itself refereeing a religious battle. With Iraq in turmoil and no one in charge, Al Qeada saw an opportunity and began engaging in terror attacks of it's own, including direct targeting of U.S. forces. Foreign jihadis arrived in Iraq from across the Islamic world to join the fight.
After years of fumbling our way through the war, the U.S. finally established some sense of order in 2007 following a surge of U.S. troops into the country, the Sunni Awakening in Anbar Province which relegated Al-Qeada to the sidelines of the conflict, the cooling of Sunni-Shia street battles and the establishment of a democratically elected government in Baghdad.
The United States invasion and subsequent tactical mistakes left Iraq an even more deeply divided country that it already was. The depth of those scars and the fact that they were made worse by U.S. mistakes meant that we now had a long term obligation to help rebuild the Iraqi political, economic and social institutions that we shattered. This was nation-building, something we never wanted to do. But when you a break a country, you have a responsibility to its people to do everything in your power to help them put their nation back together again. At the minimum you owe it to those people to provide some semblance of security while they build institutions from scratch.
Apparently, President Obama did not agree.
The first major policy error involving Iraq was not getting actively involved in the Syrian anti-Assad movement early, before Islamic extremists could hijack it. Despite the President's indignation at the suggestion Syrian rebels could have been armed and trained well enough to defeat Assad, they were already getting help from Sunni Islamic states in the region and holding up very well against Assad's forces. And while the President makes fun of the concept of farmers and teachers standing tall against a tyrant and his army in Syria, isn't that essentially how the U.S. came to be? Inexperienced civilian militiamen fighting the well trained army of an English tyrant with the help of outside forces. Sound familiar?
President Obama's decision not to actively work with the moderate Syrian opposition, even after civilians were gassed to death, was not as bad as his politically motivated decision to remove all U.S. military personnel from Iraq and abdicate U.S. responsibility to the country we broke. The President has suggested he would have kept U.S. forces in Iraq had Prime Minister Maliki budged on negotiating an agreement for U.S. troop immunity. No one really believes that. The President used the negotiations as political cover for a withdrawal, criticized by Republicans and celebrated by Democrats. Iraq's institutions and Army were left half built and half trained. The United States' anemic diplomatic efforts to convince Prime Minister Maliki to abandon his anti-Shia agenda were further damaged by our lack of leverage over Maliki, leverage we would have had if troops were still in Iraq.
Without any U.S. forces to back them up, the under trained and undisciplined Iraqi army never stood a chance in western Iraq against the ferocious, disciplined, motivated ISIL terror group.
Over the past year, ISIL has methodically seized territory and infrastructure in western Iraq and began taking larger cities in the first half of this year. Just as with Syria, President Obama and his administration took no action to change course on the original policy of non-intervention. Obama sat by as ISIL tore through town after town, routed the beleaguered Iraqi security forces, butchered residents and religious minorities and approached critical strategic targets and populations centers like Baghdad.
A decade of policy disasters that started with the invasion of Iraq and continued with the abandonment of our responsibility to repair a nation we broke has led us to this unthinkable moment: an Islamic, jihadist terror group in firm control of nearly a third of Iraq and most of eastern Syria who is now on the doorstep of Irbil, Baghdad, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The group is prepared to commit mass murder of any group that rejects their ideology or gets in the way of the creation of a self governing Caliphate.
While I believe President Obama ordered the military actions that he did last week for immediate humanitarian reasons, I also think he may be coming to terms with the fact that his decision to abandon Iraq two and a half years ago and ignore it's plight since has led to the torture, oppression and murder of thousands of innocent people. ISIL would never have been able to wage its campaign of death in Iraq if America had not abandoned it's responsibility to protect the people it liberated in 2003 until its own army was up to the task.
With so many innocent civilians already dead and tens of thousands more at risk, the President finally decided to use the U.S. military to intervene before ISIL could carry out a large scale genocide in northern Iraq. Now, the whole world is asking "how far will the U.S. go to degrade ISIL and protect Iraqis?" I don't know how far President Obama intends to go; but, the only moral answer is that we have to do whatever it takes, including some troops on the ground if necessary.
Our nation, through it's elected leaders, decided to invade Iraq more than 11 years ago, purportedly for our own national security interests. Regardless of anyone's feelings about that decision, it can't be undone. The decision obligated our nation to provide for the security of the people of Iraq until Iraqis were strong enough to defend their own nation. We don't have the right to abandon our responsibilities just because a majority of us have regrets about invading Iraq in the first place.
In addition, ISIL is a clear threat to the U.S. national security just as Al-Qaeda was when it operated with impunity in Afghanistan prior to 2001.
Iraqis will have to determine their own future; but, we must ensure they have a future. Part of ISIL's goal is to erase the name of Iraq from the world map and kill hundreds of thousands of Shia, Kurds and Christians in the process. We will have the blood of a genocide on our hands as a nation if we allow that to happen.
Because of our policies over the past decade and to defend our own interests, we have a responsibility to defend the civilians of Iraq and cripple ISIL. So, we must do so.
By any means necessary.
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