The Iraq Debacle

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from The Wall Street Journal,

An extended civil war is likely. A terrorist caliphate is possible.

The magnitude of the debacle now unfolding in Iraq is becoming clearer by the day, with the terrorist army of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, marching ever closer to Baghdad. On Tuesday the al Qaeda affiliate captured Mosul, a city with a population greater than Philadelphia’s, a day later it took Tikrit in the Sunni heartland, and on Thursday ISIS commanders announced they plan to attack the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

No one should underestimate the danger this presents to the stability of the region and to America’s national and economic security. An extended civil war seems to be the best near-term possibility. More dangerous is ISIS’s ambition to establish a Muslim caliphate in the heart of the Persian Gulf, which would mean a safe haven for Islamic terrorism that would surely target the U.S. The danger to Iraq’s oil exports of three million barrels a day is already sending prices up and global equities down.

The threat to Baghdad is real and more imminent than is widely understood. Four Iraqi divisions have melted away before the 3000-5,000 ISIS force, which is gaining deadlier weapons as it advances. One source says Iraqi soldiers who are supposed to protect Baghdad are dressing in civilian clothes beneath their military uniforms in case they have to flee. Iraq’s air power, such as it is, could soon be grounded if civilian contractors are endangered.

President Obama finally addressed the spreading chaos during a photo-op with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Thursday, noting “a lot of concern” but making no commitments to help.

The prospect of Iraq’s disintegration is already being spun by the Administration and its media friends as the fault of George W. Bush and Mr. Maliki. So it’s worth understanding how we got here.

Iraq was largely at peace when Mr. Obama came to office in 2009. Reporters who had known Baghdad during the worst days of the insurgency in 2006 marveled at how peaceful the city had become thanks to the U.S. military surge and counterinsurgency. In 2012 Anthony Blinken, then Mr. Biden’s top security adviser, boasted that, “What’s beyond debate” is that “Iraq today is less violent, more democratic, and more prosperous. And the United States is more deeply engaged there than at any time in recent history.”

Mr. Obama employed the same breezy confidence in a speech last year at the National Defense University, saying that “the core of al Qaeda” was on a “path to defeat,” and that the “future of terrorism” came from “less capable” terrorist groups that mainly threatened “diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad.” Mr. Obama concluded his remarks by calling on Congress to repeal its 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against al Qaeda.

If the war on terror was over, ISIS didn’t get the message. The group, known as Tawhid al-Jihad when it was led a decade ago by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was all but defeated by 2009 but revived as U.S. troops withdrew and especially after the uprising in Syria spiraled into chaos. It now controls territory from the outskirts of Aleppo in northwestern Syria to Fallujah in central Iraq.

The possibility that a long civil war in Syria would become an incubator for terrorism and destabilize the region was predictable, and we predicted it.

We don’t quote ourselves to boast of prescience but to wonder why the Administration did nothing to avert the clearly looming disaster. Contrary to what Mr. Blinken claimed in 2012, the “diplomatic surge” the Administration promised for Iraq never arrived, nor did U.S. weapons. “The Americans have really deeply disappointed us by not supplying the Iraqi army with the weapons and support it needs to fight terrorism,” the Journal quoted one Iraqi general based in Kirkuk.

That might strike some readers as rich coming from the commander of a collapsing army, but it’s a reminder of the price Iraqis and Americans are now paying for Mr. Obama’s failure to successfully negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with Baghdad that would have maintained a meaningful U.S. military presence.

Mr. Obama now faces the choice of intervening anew with U.S. military force or doing nothing. The second option means risking the fall of Baghdad or a full-scale Iranian intervention to save Mr. Maliki’s government, either of which would be terrible strategic defeats.

The alternative is to stage an intervention similar to what the French did in Mali in early 2013, using a combination of air power and paratroops to defeat or at least contain ISIS. But that would be an admission that Mr. Obama’s policy in Iraq has failed, that his claims of retreat without risk from the Middle East were false and naive, and that his premature withdrawal now demands an emergency intervention.

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