President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama, June 4, 2014. Photo by Reuters
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American commentators agree that Al Qaida-linked fighters are on their way to taking over Iraq; that Washington's man in Baghdad, Nuri al-Maliki, is hopeless; and that stopping the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militias may be hopeless, too. They also agree that the consequences of such an ISIS victory – first in Iraq, later maybe in Syria – will be terrible for U.S. and pro-democracy interests. Where the commentators disagree, however, is on whether the United States should go back into Iraq and try to stem the jihadist tide, with liberals overwhelmingly saying "no" and many conservatives saying "yes."

The New York Times' Thomas Friedman writes that Maliki brought the current disaster on himself by acting as a sectarian Shi'ite leader and alienating the country's Sunnis; he maintains, "We owe him nothing." Friedman argues that the United States cannot fix a country that is committed to sectarian infighting, and concludes, "[I]s anyone there even fighting for our interests: a minimally stable Iraq that doesn’t threaten us? And whom we can realistically help? The answers still aren’t clear to me, and, until they are, I’d be very wary about intervening."

The Washington Post's David Ignatius suggests that the United States could seek a "new security architecture" in the Middle East by convening a "regional peace conference" including the Shi'ite power broker, Iran, and its Sunni counterpart Saudi Arabia. Ignatius acknowledges that "re-stitching the fabric of Iraq and Syria may be mission impossible." But he sees no such inclination in U.S. President Barack Obama anyway: "[W]ith its focus on counterterrorism and weapons supplies, the Obama administration seems to have decided to treat the region simply as a shooting gallery."

Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center writes in CNN that he expects Obama to order air and missile strikes on Iraq's jihadists, if only to fend off his critics who are blasting him for inaction in the face of an implacable enemy. But Miller warns that safeguarding Iraq from an ISIS takeover would "require a comprehensive reengagement strategy, even without boots on the ground. And President Barack Obama should not be drawn into a veritable Iraq War III."

The hawks

On the conservative side, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute writes in the New York Daily News: "We face a simple choice: We can either rejoin our demoralized Iraqi partners in the fight against ISIS or we can watch as this Al Qaeda franchise solidifies its control over several million Iraqis and Syrians, completes its plundering of military bases and continues to build up, train and equip an honest-to-goodness military."

Kagan insists that this does not mean "re-invading Iraq," though it would mean sending air support and commandos to help the Iraqi army retake the key northern city of Mosul from ISIS. He acknowledges that if that weren't enough in Mosul, "a small contingent of U.S. ground forces would be required."

In The National Interest, James Jay Carafino of the Heritage Foundation writes: "The White House must make a concerted effort not to lose Iraq and the rest of the region along with it. The United States needs to triage its Iraq policy. It has to keep the government in Baghdad and the Kurds in the fight to save their country." However, Carafino offers no advice on how to accomplish this.

In the Weekly Standard, military affairs writer Max Boot agrees with Kagan's prescription for military aid to Iraq, but adds that Maliki must be elbowed out of power and replaced with someone "who could begin to heal Iraq’s divisions rather than exacerbate them."

Boot continues: "This would need to be combined with action in Syria to roll back Islamist advances there, meaning principally providing more arms and training to the non-jihadist opposition to Bashar al-Assad. This could be coupled with American airstrikes directed not only against Assad’s forces but also those of ISIS and other Islamist organizations such as the Nusra Front."

He admits that success is a "long shot," then concludes, "But it’s the only chance to stop Iraq’s descent further into the abyss."