America’s Return to Iraq

President Barack Obama’s decision to increase the number of American troops on the ground in Iraq, and to base them in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, has sparked wide discussion. In the United States, the public debate has turned to the lessons of Vietnam, where incremental deployments led to a quagmire. But in the Arab world, the discussion is about the political ramifications of the decision: Has the US, by arming Sunni militias, abandoned hope for a unitary Iraq?

Given the scale of the threat posed by the Islamic State to Iraq and the Middle East, and its emergence at a time when the marathon 2016 US presidential election campaign is getting underway, the attention devoted to the implications of American policy is understandable. But whether the current crisis will have a happy ending – or even a tolerable one – depends far more on what the region’s players decide to do.

Since the crisis began, much has been made of whether Iraq’s Shia leaders – particularly former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his successor, Haider al-Abadi – have done enough to reach out to the country’s Sunni minority. Though Sunnis account for only around 20% of Iraq’s population, they play an outsized role in determining the country’s fate. They have been a key element of Mesopotamia’s ruling classes for centuries, and their sense of entitlement is palpable. Moreover, aside from Syria, Sunnis rule every Arab state, including where they are a minority (as in Bahrain).

Indeed, Sunnis enjoy strategic depth across the Arab Middle East. They know it, and the Shia know it as well. A Shia-led Iraq has no natural allies in the Arab Middle East.

Prior to the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq’s secular-leaning character led many to believe that the country was fertile ground for democratization. But when national political structures – even “evil” ones – are dismantled, people do not necessarily embrace democracy. Post-Saddam Iraq became a country of rising sectarian politics, and the dismantlement of the Sunni power structure accelerated that process. As Shia returned to Iraq, Sunnis fled. To this day, Sunnis vote for Sunnis and Shia for Shia.

If Maliki or Abadi were Nelson Mandela, they would recognize and act on the imperative to reach out to Sunnis and urge them to be part of the country’s future. That kind of outreach has not come naturally, though the US has done much to encourage the government to move in this direction.

As important as Shia outreach to the Sunnis may be, the real question in Iraq – and in much of the Middle East – is whether and how the Sunnis will confront their own extremists. Can Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere come to understand that the Islamic State is a greater threat to them than the Shia are?

So far, the evidence is mixed. When Saudis look around the region, they see growing Shia power, which many regard as an existential threat (while recognizing with increasing openness that Israel is not). But so, too, is the Islamic State, and Saudi Arabia’s support is critical to defeating it.

So what should the US do? As the field of presidential candidates has grown, many of the contenders have made criticism of US policy in the Middle East their daily bread.

But the reality is that US policy already includes many of the ingredients needed for success: a regional dialogue with Iran to complement the nuclear talks; encouragement of a regional coalition, including Saudi Arabia, to fight the Islamic State; and efforts to advance reconciliation in Iraq, support its armed forces, and provide aid to its Sunni tribes, predicated on loyalty to the country.

Obviously, more should be done, especially in Syria, where the early calls for regime change now seem dangerously naïve, given the lack of a political process and the character of many of the opposition forces. Overall, however, the US is addressing many of the region’s most important issues in the right way.

But the issue is not primarily one of US skill and fortitude. American policies can never be a substitute for the region’s own lack of leadership and foresight.

For all the criticism of Iraq’s Shia leadership, where is the outreach to it by the region’s Sunni governments? Does anyone truly believe the Saudis have come to accept the reality of Shia rule in Iraq and are prepared to develop the web of relationships that two neighbors in a high-crime neighborhood need to forge? Why has no regional religious dialogue been launched in an effort to mitigate the appeal of sectarian ideology? Denouncing the Shia as apostates and remaining silent in the face of continuing attacks on their holy places has only worsened the divide.

In the Middle East, the enemy of your enemy is most likely still your enemy. But, in confronting the Islamic State, the Middle East’s factions have a rare opportunity to alter the status quo. A common enemy is a common cause, which could become the cornerstone of a shared future. That is why this is one crisis the region cannot afford to waste.

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