English » Time Magazine Cover Story: The End of Iraq

Friday, June 20, 2014

From Michael Crowley, at Time:

The Sunni radicalsu dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate–modeled on the first reign of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century–has no place for Shiuites. Thatus why Iraqus leading Shiuite cleric responded to ISISus advance by summoning men of his faith to battle. So begins another Iraqi civil war, this one wretchedly entangled with the sectarian conflict that has already claimed more than 160,000 lives in Syria. Poised to join the fighting is Iran, whose nearly eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s cost more than a million lives.

To Americans weary of the Middle East, the urge is strong to close our eyes and, as Sarah Palin once put it so coarsely, “let Allah sort it out.” President Obama has kept a wary distance from Syriaus civil war and the turmoil of postwar Iraq. But now that the two have become one rapidly metastasizing cancer, that may no longer be possible. As long as the global economy still runs on Middle Eastern oil, Sunni radicals plot terrorist attacks against the West and Iranus leaders pursue nuclear technology, the U.S. cannot turn its back.

“There is always the danger of passing the buck,” says Vali Nasr, a former Obama State Department official and an expert on Islam. “Not to say the region doesnut have problems or bad leadership. It does. But these things wonut go away. They are going to bite us at some point.” What Leon Trotsky supposedly said about war is also true of this war-torn region: Americans may not be interested in the Middle East. But the Middle East is interested in us.


Barack Obama first ran for President, in large measure, to end the Iraq War, and he takes pride in having done so. It surely wasnut easy, then, to announce that some 170 combat-ready soldiers were headed to Baghdad to secure the U.S. embassy. The White House insists that Obama wonut re-enter a ground war, though military planners are exploring possible air strikes. (For now, limited intelligence and ill-defined targets have put bombing on hold.) The likelier option is a small contingent of special forces to advise Iraqus military. But Obama wants to leverage any possible U.S. help to force al-Maliki into major political reforms. A new governing coalition giving Sunnis real power could offer the countryus only hope for long-term survival. Whether something the U.S. couldnut accomplish when its troops were still in Iraq is feasible now is another question.

Clearly, Obama was mistaken in declaring, after the last U.S. troops departed in 2011, that “weure leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” But while Washington plunged into the blame game, fair-minded observers could see that the U.S.us road through the region is littered with what-ifs and miscalculations. What if we had never invaded Iraq? What if we had stayed longer? What if Obama had acted early in the Syrian civil war to put arms in the hands of nonradical rebels? “We would have less of an extremism problem in Syria now, had there been more assistance provided to the moderate forces,” Obamaus former ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, told CNN on June 3.

Yet on a deeper level, the blame belongs to history itself. At this ancient crossroads of the human drama, the U.S.us failure echoes earlier failures by the European powers, by the Ottoman pashas, by the Crusaders, by Alexander the Great. The civil war of Muslim against Muslim, brother against brother, plays out in the same region that gave us Cain vs. Abel. George W. Bush spoke of the spirit of liberty, and Obama often invokes the spirit of cooperation. Both speak to something powerful in the modern heart. But neither man–nor America itself–fully appreciated until now the continuing reign of much older spirits: hatred, greed and tribalism. Those spirits are loosed again, and the whole world will pay a price.

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