Gerson: Turmoil in Iraq is cause for fear – and it should be

Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON – The debate over who lost Iraq is tempting, emotionally satisfying and even, in some cases, historically instructive. But it is not the focus of serious foreign policy thinkers and former government officials I’ve encountered over the last few days. Their general response is not recrimination; it is fear. Particular, reasoned, fully justified fear.

Iraq threatens to become a mirror of Syria, with Iran supporting a proxy Shiite army and the Gulf states siding with Sunni Islamists who will fight against Shiite-Iranian dominance of the region. Some experts talk of the “de facto partition” of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite zones. This may apply to the self-sufficient Kurds. It is a rather bland description of an endless, bloody civil war between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, both determined to rule the entire country.

If Syria is any indication, the result will be mass atrocities, mass refugee movements, massive humanitarian needs and the loss of a generation of young people to dreams of revenge. But there is another outcome, more urgently related to American security: The establishment of a dangerous, lavishly funded terrorist movement (ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), in territorial safe havens across two countries, under a leader (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) with ambitions to be the next Osama bin Laden, served by jihadists from countries around the world, including hundreds from America and Europe. It is a threat that makes the Taliban-al-Qaeda connection look trifling in comparison.

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This is a foreign policy crisis in which the most disastrous outcomes are the most likely outcomes. And the proper response to such urgent national problems, after a deep breath, is to put aside partisanship, and support (not uncritically, but genuinely) President Obama and his foreign policy team in some very difficult tasks.

By difficult, I mean a series of interlocking diplomatic and military goals that would give Metternich migraines. In no particular order, the U.S. needs to: • Aid the emergence of a more inclusive and trusted Iraqi government, so that the entity we support is not a Shiite rump state. • Get the Kurds, who are gaining in autonomy (and territory and resources), to avoid declaring themselves autonomous and to strengthen the central government. • Engage the Sunni tribes with the goal of peeling off current ISIS allies of convenience. • Urge the region’s Sunni states to support an Iraqi unity government in its fight against terrorist groups that are eventually a threat to those states as well. • Inform the Iranians that America will be taking the lead in strengthening a more inclusive Iraqi government. Warn them against supporting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a Shiite army as a proxy force, which would harden sectarian divisions. Persuade them they do not ultimately benefit from continual, regional civil war. And somehow convince them that their cooperation (through nonintervention) in Iraq is not a bargaining chip in nuclear negotiations. • Pursue an effective military approach that restores our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in Iraq; conducts a vigorous counterterrorism campaign against ISIS; and eventually helps a unity government return to the offensive. President Obama is right to be hesitant about military measures that appear to side with the Shiites in a sectarian conflict.

This range of responses is not, as they say, rocket science; it is much harder than that. Even if the administration took all these suggestions, and lots of better ones, it might not work. The last time this general approach was successful, the United States had five divisions on the ground in Iraq, which gave the Sunni tribes enough cover and confidence to oppose the Islamist radicals. That level of commitment is properly off the table.

But we can’t give up on the possibility of a stable, whole Iraq, however distant it currently seems. The causal concession of “partition” is to concede a source of continual threat and potential disaster. A terrorist haven reaching from the outskirts of Aleppo to the outskirts of Baghdad, with the pretentions of a caliphate and the resources of a government, run (at least in part) by Baghdadi, would be a direct threat to London, Berlin, New York and Washington.

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This prospect does not end debates about past failures, which are often passionate and legitimate. But the current crisis should marginalize those debates, or at least postpone them. Right now, failure would cause not a party, not a president, but a nation to suffer – actually many nations. Who lost Iraq matters; helping to save it matters more.

Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.