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News Opinion Editorial

Obama's Iraq mistake [Editorial]

Under intense pressure to do something about the collapsing Iraqi state, President Barack Obama announced that he will send up to 300 special operations forces there to assess the situation and provide training and support to Iraq's armed forces. Meanwhile, he has positioned warships in the area and left open the possibility of air strikes in a battle zone that straddles the Iraq-Syria border. We worry that even this degree of involvement is a mistake.

The conflict is transnational and sectarian, with Sunni Muslim groups that had been fighting the murderous Bashar Assad regime in Syria spilling into Iraq to fight the Shiite-dominated forces of President Nouri al-Maliki, whose policies have been oppressive toward the Sunni minority there. Mr. Obama insists that his aim is to help the Iraqi people and not the Maliki regime. That may sound good, but in practice it's hard to see the distinction.

Even if Mr. Maliki is replaced as the head of state, certainly a possibility if the newly-elected Iraqi parliament can convene and select the nation's leaders, there's little chance that the resulting government would heal all wounds. The reason that Iraq's security forces collapsed so quickly in the face of advances from the group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, though sometimes also known by the acronym ISIL) was not a lack of training or materiel but a lack of will on the part of many fighters, particularly Sunnis, who deserted rather than fighting for the cause of the Iraqi state. What is tearing the country apart at the moment appears much stronger than what's holding it together, and ultimately no amount of American military engagement can change that. There is no multi-ethnic, non-sectarian side on whose behalf we can intervene.

And even the tepid step Mr. Obama is taking is not without risk. It's not exactly unheard of for the involvement of a relative handful of military advisers to turn into something bigger, and as the central government in Iraq becomes further and further diminished, the pressure both from our ostensible allies there and from hawkish members of Congress for a bigger role will be intense. But not only would a greater military presence in Iraq be perilous in its own right, it would have much broader consequences in the tangled politics of the Middle East.

Propping up the Shiite-led government in Baghdad would greatly benefit Iran, which is Mr. Maliki's chief benefactor. Diminishing ISIS would also have the side effect of bolstering the Assad regime in Syria, again to Iran's benefit. Extending our intervention into Syria through greater assistance for more moderate rebel groups there or perhaps even establishing a no-fly zone, as some insist is necessary, would put us untenably on both sides of the region's geopolitical conflict, all at a time when our focus needs to be on the real threat to America's allies and possibly to America itself, which is Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon.

America's invasion of Iraq 11 years ago did not lead to the flowering of pluralistic democracies in the Middle East, and there's no reason to think intervention now would produce a better result. We need to confront the very real possibility that the present conflict across the Syria-Iraq border will result in a rescrambling of the national boundaries imposed on the region by colonial powers a century ago, and that the result will be any number of regimes we may not like.

President Obama is right that the only possible resolution to the conflict in the region is a political one. But voicing that observation does not create any will among the combatants in Iraq and beyond to produce one. The presence of American advisers isn't going to change that fact and may even make Iraq's sectarian leaders more intransigent out of a hope that the U.S. will quash their political problems through military force. In making a show of doing something about Iraq, President Obama may have only succeeded in making matters worse.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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