BEIRUT: As the U.S. gears up for its third round of “coalition”-based military intervention in Iraq in less than a quarter-century, experts are questioning whether Washington can achieve anything meaningful when it comes to core political issues such as reducing corruption and reversing the slow collapse of central governments.
Unlike 1990 and 2003, when Washington assembled multilateral coalitions under two presidents named Bush to battle the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, this time the enemy is a nonstate actor, the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS, and Barack Obama is leading a very different fight, analysts say.
ISIS, with its control of territory in both Iraq and Syria, is the announced target of the U.S.-led coalition but the challenge involves radically reforming politics in Iraq, where the group first emerged, experts say. And the Obama administration has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness and inability to see such efforts through to the end, they warn.
Yezid Sayegh, a Defense Fellow with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Daily Star that politicians’ repeated references to “inclusive” governments in Iraq to address the Sunni community’s marginalization under Shiite-led political parties have only clouded the real problem, namely corruption.
“The Iraqi state has been poorly governed. Sunnis have been included in every single [post-2003] government; there was lots of inclusion but it wasn’t effective because some Sunni politicians proved to be just as corrupt [as their colleagues],” Sayegh said.
“Shiite areas have also been marginalized,” he added.
Sayegh argued that the question for policymakers leading the latest coalition involved whether the “massive” levels of corruption could be reversed.
“If the U.S. takes the ostrich attitude of ‘hope for the best while we focus on our strength – airstrikes,’ it’s not going to work,” he said.
“The U.S. isn’t in a great position to make the Iraqi state be more responsive,” Sayegh continued, citing the failed, post-2003 attempts to do just that when Washington had a massively larger military presence in the country.
Iraqi politicians, he warned, could adopt the attitude of “you need us, so don’t push us” on implementing the kind of reforms that would rally support for the central government as it looks for widespread public support against an insurgency that combines both ISIS and other, purely local groups.For Gregory Gause, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brooking Center in Doha, the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is shaping up to be a much more limited engagement than the previous two rounds of hostilities in Iraq.
The Obama administration, he told The Daily Star, has “no great desire to restructure the politics of Syria and Iraq,” after showing enormous reluctance to become directly involved in the war in Syria in the last few years.
He noted that the U.S. had only stepped up its intervention in Iraq this summer, through airstrikes, after fear spread that the Kurdish capital of Irbil was in danger of falling to ISIS militants.
As for military intervention on the ground, the White House wants other parties, such as the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional authority, to do the actual fighting.
“Oil is still one of the most important reasons that the U.S. still cares about the Middle East,” Gause said. “ISIS was doing things that were just as bad in Syria, and no one in Washington cared.”
Gause, a professor of international affairs at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University, noted that the interventions of 1990 and 2003 had been driven by completely opposite goals, while 2014 was shaping up to be a repair of the damage started a decade ago – but by an administration that was doing its best to limit its own involvement.
“In 1990, it was about restoring the status quo, or going back to before Saddam invaded [Kuwait], while 03 was a 9/11 war,” Gause said. “It was part of a general belief in the U.S., and not just by the neoconservatives, that the Middle East had to be fundamentally restructured ... which was a profoundly wrong diagnosis of 9/11.”
“It can be argued that the failure of the 2003 occupation of Iraq led to the election of Obama,” Gause said. “Obama knows this, and is unlikely to go beyond a measured escalation” in the region.
This time around, the root of the problem is the collapse of state authority in many Arab countries, Gause said, listing Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen as examples.
Meanwhile, a “regional cold war” is seeing countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia trying to exert their influence in the conditions of vacuum that have emerged.
“The U.S. can do nothing to reconstruct this [central state] authority; it doesn’t have the desire or the resources, and would likely fail,” he continued, predicting a “long-term crisis of political authority that’s probably going to be played out on the battlefields of these countries.”
In 2014, a “coalition of convenience” is being mobilized against ISIS but it won’t be able to produce profound changes because the members of the coalition profoundly distrust each other. Gause referred to the “unique ability” of ISIS to bring together parties that really had very little in common.
“The earlier coalitions had more to do with American global power; this time it’s who’s threatened by ISIS, which is a lot more limited.”
Juan Cole, an Iraq expert and the director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan, told MSNBC Monday that Washington’s failure to enforce its own lofty slogans over the last decade was responsible for today’s deterioration in Iraq.
“The small terrorist group ISIS, which maybe has 5,000 to 10,000 fighters, didn’t take over northern and western Iraq; they coordinated with urban masses to conduct an uprising against the Shiite-led government,” Cole said. “Unless you can undo that political coalition, then killing a few of these fighters with airstrikes is useless.”
The last time 100,000 Iraqi Sunnis were mobilized to fight Al-Qaeda, with Washington’s backing when it occupied the country, they were left “twisting in the wind,” Cole said.
In 2014, he said, ISIS is “widely hated” in the Arab world but the real problem is that in Iraq and Syria, large swaths of the populations haven’t been treated well by the central governments, meaning they will ally with any side that can mount an effective resistance to the authorities.
Whether a U.S. administration that remains unsure about the capabilities of its prospective partners against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, can achieve victory while overseeing a coalition whose members have widely divergent interests remains a thorny question.