Commentary 2
Intervention and Nation Building: Bugging Out of Iraq the Obama Way.

Whenever one makes a big decision, it is worthwhile  to create a decision tree:

Decision tree for policy in re Iraq

I have put in more detail than is really needed since I just want to discuss the assertion that the USA should never have gone into Iraq. If we had not gone into war, then things might have improved enough over time that Iraq no longer was a cause for concern. However, the course of Iraq's development might have led it to more and more problematical conditions and eventually another decision on whether to go to war would have to be made. The main concern with delaying action would be whether Iraq might develop nuclear weapons capabilities in the interim. On the other hand, other Muslim states might beneficially intervene in the absence of US interference.

The administration of George W. Bush saw the danger of not going to war and acted on bad intelligence to say yes to war. It  quickly defeated those military forces of Saddam Hussein that were not routed. It captured Saddam Hussein. At that point, the US could have been consistent with its earlier disdain for nation building and withdrawn its troops. It did not do so.

For whatever reason, having said yes to war, the US then said yes to staying to build after the initial victory. Now the US is seeing a bad outcome and is back at the top of the chart, debating whether to fight or to get out. At the beginning of 2015, Senator John McCain et al. wanted to reintroduce ground troops into Iraq and expand their mandate to include Syria, which had already become an integral part of the struggle.

Returning to the top of the decision flow chart, President Obama had chosen to say no to invasion and war at the beginning of 2015. He had seen that if the US stays involved on the ground, then Iraqi politicians and government figures in neighboring nations would prefer that American lives be lost. They would not commit to fighting, often even if they were members of the current Iraqi military. By the end of that year more and more strident calls for direct military revenge against ISIS were heard as the fight against ISIS through local surrogates waxed and waned. ISIS was settling in and many observers thought it would be for the long term.

President Obama has made an unspoken argument to Iraqis with the intention of forming a silent contract. He has not spoken in the American imperative case and said, "You must do such and so!" He has simply created a situation in which those in power in Iraq can choose to push the US response in two different directions. He has indicated two courses they might take, and two courses that the US will take in response. If the Iraqi factions decide to put their differences aside and cooperate in fending off ISIS, the the US will continue to handle that part of the military response to ISIS for which Iraq currently lacks resources: air support. If the Iraqi factions seek to dominate each other, attack each other, etc., then even if the US were patient enough to continue its air support measures Iraq would still fall to ISIS. President Karzai of Afghanistan was right to be openly defiant of the USA, but he fell into the other pitfall, being the leader and servant only of his own ethnic and tribal interests, permitting corruption, etc. Whether the current President of Afghanistan can do better remains to be seen.

As of the beginning of 2016, many observers feel that ISIS has the zeitgeist on its side, and that the spirit of revolution against western interference will motivate anti-Western fighters to sacrifice their lives for the joy of killing enemies and the reward of furthering the cause of ISIS.

The strategic problem, in this phase of the fight, is that anti-ISIS leaders (regardless of their true motivations) can be tarred with the traitors stripe, identified as mere toadies of their Western masters.

Another implicit message to Sunni and Shia contestants in Iraq has been that if they cannot stand together and instead show interest in thwarting each other, then there are still the Kurds. The Kurds have thus far been amenable to remaining in Iraq if Iraq is viable, but if Iraq is not viable then the US may be able to help the Kurds survive as an independent entity. The status of the old national boundaries imposed a century ago is already under threat by transnational groups such as ISIS, and more and more Western observers are betting that the whole region will be reshaped by war. Doing so brings Sunni-Shia conflicts to a higher war pitch. In early 2016, Saudi Arabia and Iran are coming more and more into conflict.

Many of the ruling elites in the Middle East have been irresponsible and even potentially self-destructive. It should be clear that any system that does not respond adaptively to its environment has a high probability to fail. Saudi Arabia, for one, seems to think it can maintain a static monarchy forever. It cannot see in Syria a foreshadowing of what may soon happen to itself. It cannot see Jordan as a model for how it might preserve its royal house from death or exile and its people from fratricidal warfare. Iran is showing some awareness of the need to adapt to world conditions and has postponed its hopes for nuclear weapons even as it pushes ahead with its goal to produce ICBMs.

For the hopes of some in Islam to rise to a position of regional or world dominance, the deep well of vengeful feelings between Sunni and Shia is a great stumbling block.

Last revised 9 January 2016