Crisis in Iraq

June 17, 2014

The situation in Iraq is shifting: Sunni insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have seized a number of cities and small towns and are heading toward Baghdad. The situation is complicated, with implications that extend beyond Iraq’s borders—but you wouldn’t know that from Republicans’ simplistic calls for American military intervention. Here’s what you need to know and how to talk about the escalating conflict in Iraq.   


The only thing Republicans should be saying right now is how truly sorry they are for sending our men and women to fight in Iraq.
This had nothing to do with 9/11. Republicans led the charge into Iraq and forgot about bin Laden. President Obama got us out of Iraq and got bin Laden.
Bush signed an agreement that pledged all US troops would leave Iraq by 2011. Now Republicans are angry that Obama followed through.
Before the Bush administration invaded, they said there was no reason for concern about Sunni-Shia conflict. But they made it all but inevitable.
  • After we invaded, Bush dismissed the mostly Sunni army, but let them keep their weapons.
  • Then they left the government in the hands of Shia who repressed Sunnis.
  • No wonder then our brave men and women got stuck babysitting a Sunni-Shia civil war for the next decade.
President Obama got us out of the Iraq war, which was really three different conflicts rolled into one:
  • Our war against Saddam, which we won;
  • Al Qaeda’s war of opportunity against us, which ended when we left; and
  • The Sunni-Shia war President Bush (re)started, which is not ending any time soon.
The problems reemerging now were caused by the bad decisions and poor planning behind the original invasion.


The first thing we should do is learn our painful lesson: this is not something that will get better by sending American troops to the Middle East again.
As Hillary Clinton says, this is “a wicked problem.” It is not something we should rush into again.
ISIS has advanced rapidly through Sunni areas, where they were welcomed (“greeted as liberators”) by local Sunnis. But Baghdad is Shia, and Shia forces can and will defend the city.
But this is not our fight. This is the same Sunni-Shia fight that has been going on there for centuries. We should look for ways to be helpful, but we should know by now that political one-upmanship isn’t a good foundation for effective foreign policy.

 KEY:  Connect with your audience |  Make your case |  Show how your opponents differ


ATTACK: “Obama is doing nothing!” 


  • The Obama administration is looking hard at a number of options that don’t involve combat troops: the US could provide intelligence support, coordination and logistics support, special ops forces to assist at command and control centers, and even air strikes. In the meantime, Obama is sending 275 troops to secure the American embassy in Baghdad.
ATTACK: “American forces should have stayed in Iraq. We had the war won.” 


  • Bush signed an agreement that pledged all US troops would leave Iraq by 2011.
  • So keeping troops in Iraq wasn’t going to happen. After how badly the Bush administration bungled Iraq, neither Iraqis nor Americans wanted us there anymore.
  • Neither President Bush nor President Obama could get Iraq to agree to a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would have provided the legal basis for troops to remain there. The only way for us to have left troops there would will to have been as an occupying force in open conflict with the Iraqi government and people.


Republicans do not know what they are talking about. Things that they have wrong include:

  • ISIS is not Al Qaeda, they are two different groups that are actively feuding. They also have different objectives presently: Al Qaeda’s objective is to spread terror, kill Americans, and ultimately start a war between Islam and the West. ISIS’s objective is to take and hold territory, and their main enemies are Shia Muslims.
  • It’s kind of shocking that the Republican Homeland Security Committee chair, Rep. Michael McCaul, doesn’t know the difference between Al Qaeda and ISIS. That’s not like confusing the Yankees and the Mets, it’s like confusing the Yankees and the Jets—they do different things.
  • This is like President Bush all over again: when he decided to invade Iraq, he didn’t know thedifference between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam.
  • This is exactly why I’m so glad Republicans are not running our foreign policy anymore. Not only did they let Bin Laden walk away and forget about him, they fundamentally don’t know what they’re talking about.

One Republican was right when it came to Iraq back in 1994. Unfortunately, he later changed his mind:

  • In 1994, Dick Cheney said they had not invaded Iraq in the first Gulf war because it would have created a quagmire and he was right. He changed his mind when it was his call. We can’t say for sure why, but it did put Halliburton in position to make many tens of billions of dollars.


  • She has called it a “wicked problem” for a reason. She would have handled it differently, but she also knows that it might not have worked out any better the other way, because this problem — a thousand-year-old religious conflict in a part of the world that generally doesn’t like us very much — is hard to solve. She is generally more hands-on than Obama, but she is candid and realistic about how hard these things are to solve.
  • Politically, she does not need to distance herself. She is just calling the situation like she sees it so people can get comfortable with what it would be like to have her in charge.


  • ISIS or ISIL? The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is sometimes called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Both refer to the same group of militants. The Levant is a geographic and cultural region that is broader than just Syria.
  • Back in 2006, then-Senator Biden and Leslie Gelb proposed an idea to create mostly autonomous ethnic zones. At the time, the Sunnis would not buy the plan because most of Iraq’s oil is concentrated in the Shia south. Given current conditions in Iraq, this idea’s time may have come.
  • A lot of our long-time allies (wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) in the Middle East fund ISIS.
Category: Foreign Policy