Opportunities Abound in Iraq to Reset US Middle East Policy

By Kirk J. Beattie

The crisis induced by ISIL’s advances in Iraq presents tremendous opportunities for the United States, and the U.S. government should move quickly to take full advantage.
ISIL represent the worst of the worst forces involved in the Iraqi imbroglio. Its members’ values are totally at odds with those of an enormous percentage of Iraqis, including those of their fellow Sunnis. Sunni forces who cooperated with the US to help defeat al-Qaeda are now rallying to Prime Minister’s Maliki government to take on ISIL. The ISIL should be defeated; and from all appearances, those involved in the recent advances in Iraq could be routed by a coordination of US air strikes and Iraqi forces, preferably from the regular army.

Defeat of the ISIL in Iraq will be salutary in and of itself, but will also send positive signals to a number of countries in the region:

In Iran, Pres. Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, has been seeking an improvement of relations with the United States. Iranians Shi’ites obviously have no interest in seeing ISIL’s Sunni extremists consolidate control in Iraq, and would be greatly beholden to the US government for taking action against ISIL. This would prove beneficial in making advances in the realm of discussions about Iran’s nuclear pursuits, but it would also reinforce the already strong, pro-American sentiments held by most Iranian citizens. In multiple discussions with Iranians in Paris, it has clear to me that the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran is “dead” in the minds of most Iranian citizens, and this is manifested in many forms of private and public behavior. Looked at from a different angle, one can say that most Iranians’ values are more consonant with Americans’ values, certainly more so than what one finds in much of the Arabian peninsula, and especially among power holders there. The size, wealth and relative stability of Iran, combined with the sentiments of a huge percentage of its citizenry, make it a nation that should be brought back into a closer, cooperative relationship with the United States. An incisive response to the Iraq crisis will accelerate change in this direction.

The Saudis, Kuwaitis, and other Gulf governments must understand that times change, that reactionary conservative values cannot be maintained forever. More progressive values are easily found among their own citizens and in the religion of Islam itself, and would be bolstered by concrete American action against Sunnis religious extremists. An overture to Iran will send this message in a very clear manner. This does not mean that the Saudis and other conservative Gulf countries should be abandoned, rather that a line against Islamist extremism, a line that they themselves have officially endorsed, should be drawn, and that the American government should continue to stress its desire to maintain its relationship with a future-oriented, progressive-minded Saudi leadership. A succession simply cannot be too far off in the future of the country, so the opportunity exists to help steer the next generation of Saudi leaders in a sound direction.

In Israel, the orientation of the current Israeli leadership is also dubious. The Israeli electorate continues to shift in a rightward direction, so that even the hard right Prime Minister Netanyahu is under growing pressure not from the Left, but from extreme right wing elements. An American rapprochement with Iran is not what Mr. Netanyahu and company have in mind. They have long preferred to see the US attack Iran in the hope of eliminating a nuclear threat from that country, but perhaps even more so because this would return US-Iranian relations to the deep freezer for many years if not decades to come. If Israelis are genuinely concerned about an Iranian nuclear threat, that threat has a much greater likelihood of being defused via an American rapprochement with Iran than through a military strike against that country, whether by the United States and/or Israel. While the current Israeli government, therefore, would likely disapprove of such a rapprochement, Israelis in general cannot be opposed to a US effort to diminish the power of radical Sunni extremists in the region.

US support to Iraq to combat the ISIL’s advances need not involve US ground forces, and will prove beneficial to establishing a new power balance in the region. Improved relations with Iran could also have a positive knock-on effect vis-à-vis the situation in Syria, as well as in Lebanon. There is every reason to expect that our European allies and pro-democracy people around the world would take heart in such developments.
I realize that many actors with dubious track records have been mobilized in support of the Iraq regular forces. That is unfortunate, but in the end, support for the elected government trumps taking a back seat and watching unelected, unrepresentative, and totally nefarious forces from carrying the day.

Kirk J. Beattie
Fulbright Fellow in Paris, France
Simmons College, Boston

I am a longtime scholar of the Middle East, a University of Michigan Ph.D., Professor at Simmons College in Boston, and have been a visiting professor at Harvard University, Wellesley College, and The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I am writing you from Paris, where I am completing a 4.5 months Fulbright fellowship on French foreign policy in the Middle East.

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Related Video added by Juan Cole

VOA: “US Readies Options for Iraq Conflict”

14 Responses

  1. “…Israelis in general cannot be opposed to a US effort to diminish the power of radical Sunni extremists in the region.” It matters little what “Israelis in general” oppose as long as they keep voting for politicians that favor the fragmentation of surrounding nation-states, politicians who view Moslems fighting Moslems as a good thing.

  2. So now it’s ” Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iraq?” Elegant language, Mr.Beattie, “pro- democracy people take heart” if our demonstrably antidemocratic empire continues nation building sing the same ill-suited tools because ISIS-ISIL bad. “Reactionary conservative values cannot be maintained forever”? Looked around the US, lately? Or ” our policies” as expressed inAFRICOM and SOCOM?

    Very white-paper advice. Looks, of course, that with “only” 275 new US Imperial troops, advisers we call them, on the way, and bombing soon to start, that ” more of the idiotic same” will be the prevailing policy, giving a victory to the reactionary forces in the Forever Policy War under the Beltway Imperial Dome…

  3. Bob Spencer

    We have all kinds of opportunities to create new alliances and arraignments, but does anyone dare discuss and justify our options for goals?

  4. Unfortunately, the Saudi government does NOT have the political will to suppress the religious extremists that contribute funding and support for the ISIS and similar organizations. I suspect that the King of KSA realizes that he needs to drastically reshape the culture of Saudi Arabia if it is to survive the coming switch to non-oil energy.

    While the US lags way behind, most of the rest of the world, led by China is moving quickly toward non-oil energy.

    Right now KSA is wasting over half its human resources by suppressing their women. Additionally a large part of their male population is incapable of contributing due to marginal education, work ethic or in the case of Shia, oppression.

    Eventually the oil economy will decline but due to KSA’s rather primitive culture, KSA will have nothing to replace it with. I think the King know this but can not figure out a way to get rid of the ultra conservative religious leaders that stifle the country.

    • Once their culture ceases to be primitive, the first thing to go will be the monarchy. So that’s a problem.

  5. I certainly hope there is a shift from the ‘Shia radical’ and ‘Saudi/Sunni ally’ stereotype paradigm and a realization of the origins and sentiments behind the current popular Sunni Islamist radicalism besides its financial funding from the Gulf which seems to be totally overlooked, despite over a decade since 9/11. Like that US security analyst in the Fareed Zakaria piece on the Saudi tantrum at the UN, if there was a country whose funding for terrorism he could shut, it be Saudi Arabia.

    Just watched Rubin on BBC and the a rightwing pundit on CNN (I think)…Rubin seemed to totally downplay any cooperation with Iran and put in a sentence the US standing on one side with its Sunni allies against Iran. The latter was dead set against any cooperation with an ‘evil’ regime in Iran and considered relying help from its trusted Saudi Sunni allies (the irony).

    Its one thing to say Maliki’s had sectarian policies, its another to make him out to be Saddam, an unelected tyrant (not surprisingly pro-Saddam loyalists are among insurgents), or being at the same level or intensity of anti-Shia sectarian hatred amongst Sunni populations, who are supporting (even as far away as Indonesia and Malaysia), as Jon Simpson rightly put, Islamists that want to wipe out and cleanse Shias.

    Even the Sadrists have conceded that they’re better off with the country broken apart, to save themselves from a minority Sunni backlash. Despite having a Shia majority, Sadr city has suffered daily suicide bombings and attacks by Sunni extremists.

    These aren’t two equal brutal sides. Its like comparing Democrats and Republicans. Both scum. But one more insane the other.

  6. So the solution is as simple as it is unacceptable.

    End US sanctions on Iran, which allows it to afford to pour military aid into the Baghdad regime and turn back the salafis. You want to stop the salafis, then take Iran’s side against Saudi Arabia and live with the consequences.

    There is no alternative. But the very fact that large numbers of Americans act as if they actually believe that their beloved Iraqi democracy is not a satellite of hated Iran, and that one can be helped while still waging war against the other, shows why it’s impossible to discuss sensible policy options with Americans.

    I guess this will go on until Putin, the Chinese and their SCO satellites are ready to ally with Iran to settle the Islamists’ hash. No democratic delusions in that crowd. And no shortage of manpower to do proper counterinsurgency.

    • The Iraqi political situation has traditionally been fractious and extremely difficult for the State Department or anyone else in America to understand.

      At one point, the U.S. Department of Defense wanted to empower Shi’ite Iraqi militias when the Iraqi government did not trust these militias to preserve order.

      President George H.W. Bush ordered the National Security Council to initiate comprehensive covert operations in Iraq following the close of the Persian Gulf war and paid millions for a public relations firm to promote an umbrella organization they gave a name – the Iraqi National Congress – composed chiefly of Shi’ites, Kurds and anti-Hussein Sunnis.

      There was hope that the Iraqi National Congress was going to be recognized as the government-in-exile by Iraqis – it was not.

      America’s fault in Iraq is that it took sides with Shi’ite and Kurdish elements without giving equal representation to Sunni civilians who had no connection to the Baathists. This was a recipe for disaster.

      Iraq’s situation was not unlike Lebanon – which had been in a long period of varying degrees of civil war and sectarian violence from 1975 up even to the present largely due to the lack of an equitable distribution of political power among Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christians and other ethnic/religious minorities coupled with Israeli and Syrian foreign interference in their political processes and military occupation.

      Iraq and Iran are natural allies due to their respective Shi’ite pluralities and distaste for al-Qaeda jihadists and their ilk. The U.S. should facilitate that relationship.

    • Those consequences might result in Iraq breaking up into three states, strengthening Assad in Syria, as well as helping Iran to become much stronger and perhaps the even the dominant player in the Middle East.

      I doubt the American government will take that risk and might even see ISIS as a relatively minor threat long term compared to Iran. You’re talking about a total flip-flop of American interests in the Middle East.

      What happens to ISIS in Iraq will have much bigger consequences in the whole region. If Iran pours military aid into Baghdad would they do the same thing in Damascus to help Assad defeat the Sunni extremists? Would that aid end up making Hezbollah stronger in Lebanon?

      OTOH, what happens if Iran and the U.S. don’t aid Maliki? Does taking that course of action end up with Iraq breaking up?

      I don’t think anyone knows what course of action, if any, would work out best.

  7. “In Israel………[t]he Israeli electorate continues to shift in a rightward direction…………”

    Expect Naftali Bennett, the Israeli cabinet’s economics minister, to achieve greater popular support for his call that Israel annex settlement blocs in the West Bank.

    If the current government collapses over the West Bank settlements issue, then it will be Bennett who will emerge as the conservative front runner to replace PM Netanyahu in an election.

  8. I just love this extreme form of American Exceptionalism supported by out politicians and mainstream media. Kidnappings, bombing, any form of mayhem. These people should listen to Pete Seeger’s ‘Last Train to Nuremberg’. We’re all guilty and there will be BLOWBACK!

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