Talking Turkey: A crisis of will and direction
By a strange alchemy of circumstances, the American mood towards the world, especially West Asia, is changing. If the advent of US President Barack Obama and his presidency marked an era of war-weariness and a desire not always to be the global policeman, Washington’s actions or inactions, particularly in Syria, are bringing back the warriors metaphorically manning the barricades.
It is as if the American people want both things at once — the ability to reorder the world and to avoid costly entanglements that come with the territory. True, the expenditure of blood and treasure expended by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan was exorbitant by any standards. And the end result in both countries has largely been failure — writ large in Iraq’s case.
Indeed, the cause of the present American disquiet is the nature and rapidity of Iraq’s descent into chaos and civil war. American guns are pointed at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for running a highly sectarian government by marginalising Sunnis and Kurds. For the present, Kurds are sitting pretty in their northern semi-autonomous state having taken over the envied and disputed oil town of Kirkuk by the simple expedient of Baghdad’s military forces running away from the advancing ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).
What Americans find difficult to stomach is that after spending billions of dollars and much expertise on building and equipping an Iraqi Army, it should simply melt away leaving its weapons and uniforms in the face of ISIS fighters. They are, of course, being helped by disaffected Sunni tribes and ex-Baathist fighters and the country’s north-west is the Sunni heartland. But it has been the same story elsewhere in the takeover of border towns near Syria and Jordan and the conquest of the largest oil refinery and in approaching the capital Baghdad.
It would appear that the crisis goes deeper in the lack of national will to fight and, even beyond that, of new nationalisms wrapped around the Shias, the Sunnis and the Kurds. For the United States and the wider world, a brutal fundamentalist Sunni organisation in the shape of ISIS taking control of large swathes of Syria and Iraq is frightening in its implications.
For America, it represents a national crisis of will and direction. Dutifully, President Obama has been reminding his countrymen of the diminishing world stature of the US, still the most powerful country in the world, and diplomacy and multilateralism, rather than injecting US military, is the preferred option. But the lightning ISIS advance in Iraq has changed the national mood.
President Obama is using palliatives in response to his countrymen’s disquiet — the decision to send 300 military “advisers” to Baghdad, repositioning the American armada in the waters near the action with the threat of airstrikes (a dangerous proposition in cities and towns) and generally sounding the big alarm. But these are provisional and tactical moves to calm the American public, rather than attempts at a solution.
The neoconservatives of the George W. Bush era are resurfacing out of the woodwork and hogging American television channels. Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister and enthusiastic supporter of the 2003 Bush invasion of Iraq, is pleading for all he is worth that the invasion itself is not to blame.
The Republican Party, with a newly energised Tea Party faction, is blaming it all on President Obama’s “weakness” in pursuing the country’s interests. The prime example given is of his staying his hand in Syria in the face of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
This comes against the backdrop of the two main parties beginning the long campaign for the next US presidential election, with Hillary Clinton producing a magnum opus of her years as secretary of state and a national book tour as a prelude for her expected bid for the Democratic nomination. The Republicans do not yet have a matching candidate but many are hoping that President Obama’s second term in office would provide a launching pad for a Republican victory.
Geopolitically, there are good reasons for American concern over ISIS because it affects the whole region, particularly such important allies as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, apart from its crucial ally Israel. Overtures to Iran in this regard have been duly noted, despite their otherwise hostile relationship.
It is clear that the United States will not permit the whole of Iraq to be taken over by ISIS and its Sunni supporters.
Baghdad and the South are largely Shia territory and will be fiercely defended by Shia militia, in addition to Iraqi troops. But how long can Washington and its Western allies, apart from the Sunni kingdoms of the region, tolerate the capture of large chunks of Syria and Iraq by ISIS?
This is a question the West, in particular the US, is pondering over. President Obama, in political terms, is on the edge of a precipice. He must satisfy his countrymen that he is not a weak President, as his critics allege and as he has proved to be for many Americans. But having been elected and re-elected on his promise of ending two wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — he does not want to end his final years in office by involving his country in another ambiguous war.
How he squares the circle remains to be seen but the dilemma facing him has no easy answers. As it is, the President’s decision to send 300 military “advisers” can prove fateful. Many Americans will recall that that is how the bloody Vietnam War started.
Even if one assumes that Prime Minister Maliki’s forces, composed of the Army and fanatical Shia militias, will be able to safeguard the capital and the South, how can Iraq reverse the advances of ISIS without substantial foreign help? It is no secret that the Gulf monarchies have been funding Sunnis in fighting the Assad regime in Syria although they are more discriminating now. Indeed, the new American mood and electoral compulsions are giving a new twist to the prevailing crisis.