George H.W. Bush said at his State of the Union Address in 1990, “the anchor in our world today is freedom, holding us steady in times of change.” That quote could have resonated with Europeans on the end of World War II, as much as it did on the eve of a New World Order in 1990. And it must resonate with world leaders today, because a global coalition is needed to fight ISIS.
ISIS in Iraq
In 1991, I sat at my friend Brian’s parents’ dinner table in Los Angeles as the US led, UN mandated international coalition started bombing Saddam Hussein’s invading forces in Kuwait. The “100 hour war” as it was dubbed was America’s first massive excursion since the end of the Vietnam War. The resolute and profound victory of Allied forces – which was the largest coalition assembled since World War II – set about a new and post Cold War world order. In short, it not only allowed, but required America to be the world’s police.
In 2003, I was sitting with my dad in a hotel room in London as George W. Bush invaded Iraq to “liberate” it of Saddam Hussein and remove Weapons of Mass Destruction from that country. The “War on Terror” was now a two-theatre war – Afghanistan and Iraq. As an Iranian-American, and a student of politics, I hated everything about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After all, from 1980-1988 Iraq was at war with my birth country of Iran. From 1990 until 2003, it was at war with my adopted country – America. Therefore, it’s safe to assume in 2003, I was as hawkish as they came in terms of invading Iraq. However, this post is not to debate the justification of that conflict, but its strategy and conduct must be observed in order to understand in part why a global coalition is needed to fight ISIS.
To the disappointment of many in the international community, the 2003 Iraq invasion was not a diplomatic success story like the 1990 one – only three countries helped with the initial invasion. This, in addition to the conduct of the war led to a collapse of central authority in Baghdad, and thus a political vacuum was created in the heart of the Middle East. The collapse of that authoritarian structure in Iraq, in addition to the Arab Spring, which also removed similar authoritarian rule in Libya, Egypt and has virtually destroyed Syria has resulted in the quagmire we face today, which is a region consumed by civil war and terror run amok. Islamic State (ISIS) or its affiliates control and even govern swaths of land from North Africa to the Middle East. This is a terror organization, which President Obama in January 2014 likened to a “J.V. Team”. Later that month, ISIS seized Falluja, Iraq. Earlier this month, at the close of the G-7 summit, President Obama said, “we do not yet have a complete strategy” [to fight ISIS]. While to varying degrees I have agreed with President Obama’s relatively les se fair approach to foreign entanglements, this lack of clear and forceful strategy with regards to ISIS is unacceptable.
There’s a part of me that still thinks it is none of our business to get involved. However, as I sit here now in Charleston, South Carolina, I can comfortably say two things. First, I move a lot. Second, my countries have been involved in Iraq for 34 of my 36 years. It’s time for the “Third Iraq War,” except this war needs to resemble the first Iraq War’s UN backed coalition. This war should be about getting rid of ISIS and its affiliates. This war should truly be about winning hearts and minds while helping resurrect it from ashes, so extremism is gone once and for all. If this means the partition of Iraq into three countries (separate Kurdish, Shia and Sunni controlled) then let it be by the will of the Iraqi people, not the barbarism of terrorists. This war needs the greatest coalition the world has seen since the UN backed alliance that liberated Kuwait 25 years ago.
In mid-May, ISIS captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi, roughly 70 miles west of Baghdad. As of last summer, Iran vowed it will prevent the fall of Baghdad and will protect Iraq’s Shia population. However, as the map demonstrates, these victories put ISIS in control, contested or close to many of Iraq’s main cities.
A massive Allied coalition of American, NATO, Arab, and Iranian forces can theoretically recapture territories lost to ISIS in one fell swoop. Why such a broad coalition? Because fighting the war and winning the peace requires everyone’s help. America and the Europeans must of course provide the technological superiority, while Saudi Arabia and Iran represent the Sunni’s and Shia’s respectively.
But what happens if ISIS truly does destroy the Iraqi Army and maintains de facto control and governance of those cities? US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter recently said, the Iraqi army lost its will to fight against ISIS in Ramadi, so that’s not a far fetched idea. As Ronald Tiersky explains, Iraq will be broken into three countries. The Kurds in the north will defend their territory, no doubt about it. North-Central Iraq, into Northern Iraq will become the Sunni “Caliphate” ISIS is seeking. Baghdad and South-Central Iraq, where the predominantly Shia population lives will become an Iranian protectorate. You may ask, who cares? Everyone gets their own territory. Except for four fundamentally important reasons:
- First, the instability in the region that we’ve come to slowly recognize over the past 2-3 years will become the norm. Violence and brutality destroying lives and historic artifacts that can never be replaced will become the norm.
- Second, there will be no end in site of American involvement in Iraq. Our presence, our blood, our money and the “Imperialistic” hatred that spawns will be the norm. In my opinion, there will be no escaping the Middle East for at least another generation.
- Third, and perhaps most important here at home is the direct correlation between ISIS and Al Qaeda. September 11, 2001 was not an intelligence failure; rather it was a leadership and communication failure. Al Qaeda, having teamed up with the Taliban in Afghanistan was fighting the Northern Alliance for control over the political vacuum left by the Soviet retreat a decade earlier. Time, and time again, various US intelligence reports warned President Clinton, then George W. Bush of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda threat. Jihadists worldwide revered that organizations ruthlessness and determination to take control of Afghanistan, yet President Clinton at the time only launched airstrikes to destroy “compounds” in Afghanistan and Sudan. Random pinprick disruptions of the Al Qaeda network did little to prevent the atrocities of September 11, 2001. Imagine if you will, that NATO or just the US had helped the Northern Alliance in 1999, instead of October 8, 2001? I believe those majestic towers would still be standing in NYC. Fast-forward 14 years, and the similarities are mind-blowing.
- Fourth, as seen from this map, the largest oil and gas reserves in the world will be constantly threatened. Not just in Iraq, but the Persian Gulf, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. It doesn’t take a degree in economics to understand the impact unstable oil and gas markets have on the American economy.
The United States has been at war for 14 years, and therefore some may not have the stomach, resolve, or inclination to have boots on the ground. But this is a war of necessity, not posturing or power projection. George H.W. Bush put together a strong, credible, and legally binding UN backed coalition, and so should Barack Obama.