Expert's take: Turmoil in Iraq

Violence in the Middle East becomes more intense each day. James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and E. W. Richardson Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, lends his expertise to understanding what prompted the turmoil, and what the situation means for the U.S.:

What triggered the sudden violence in Iraq?

First of all, it???s wrong to say that there was a trigger and sudden violence. This is more like a pressure cooker that???s been building for many, many months. We are on about our fourth predictable crisis, where it was very obvious something was going to explode, and the administration either did nothing, or next to nothing, or even pretended to ignore or hide the fact that a crisis was coming.

It was true when Libya exploded in Benghazi, it was true in the Ukraine, which everybody saw coming, it???s true in Iraq, and now we have this max exodus going on at the border with Ecuador, Guatemala, and El Salvador, which again, was a very predictable crisis. This administration has established a track record in the last two years of taking strategic warning and ignoring it, or putting their head under a pillow and hoping it???s going to go away.

This is not sudden and it???s not unexpected. What it???s a result of is a couple things: One, without question is  that the Maliki government has been increasingly sectarian in their approach up to and following the last election. And that has contributed to the dissatisfaction of Sunnis in general. The other major factor is that ISIS and other extremist groups got a foothold in Syria, and the Syrian civil war is really bogged down, [and] they weren???t making great advances; there wasn???t a lot of opportunity there.

In large part, this administration got caught with the hollow threat to bomb Assad. They then opted for cutting a deal with the Russians to get rid of chemical weapons, but all this really did was strengthen Asaad???s hand and stabilize the regime. With the Russians and Iranians really re-enforcing Asaad, the Syrian front was looking really, really bad. What they did was shift their focus and their direction into Western Iraq. I met with some very senior Kurdish officials and asked them what their number one security concern is, and they said it???s al-Qaeda and Western Iraq. They???re very blunt about that.

I think we???re done in Iraq because we wanted those negotiations to fail and the administration wanted an excuse to leave. They were looking to take all the forces out, and I think those forces would have prevented Maliki from being more sectarian; it would have provided backbone and support for the Iraqi army so it wouldn???t have to cut and run; it would have given us really good intelligence on what was going on with al-Qaeda and Syria and ISIS so we would actually help prevent that problem to begin with.

I do think the lack of those troops, [is one of the] core reasons why this thing has crumbled and is falling apart. A U.S. military presence over the last four or five years could have potentially nipped all those problems in the bud before we got to the crisis that we???re in today.

What are our options now? Obviously we can get involved or not get involved. What are the consequences of each option?

The only thing the president has done so far is strategically irrelevant: A few hundred troops in terms of whether Iraq stands or falls is competently irrelevant. We haven???t done any bombing or drone campaigns, but if we did, I think at this point they???d be largely irrelevant because we don???t have targeting, we don???t have intelligence. The problem is, if you don???t have a force that???s willing to hold ground, just bombing and shooting at guys in the countryside really doesn???t accomplish very much.

Another thing that enormously concerns me is this notion that we???ll cooperate with the Iranians. That???s a horrible idea. Saying the U.S. and Iran have common interests in Iraq is like saying a bank robber and a bank teller have a common interest in a bank. Our interests are very, very different, and by appearing that we???re cooperating with the Iranians who have no interest in defending Kurds, and have no interest in defending Sunnis, you???re going to give [them] a lot of foothold in the country which is destabilizing. Plus the message that you send to everybody else in the Middle East is that you???re taking sides between Sunni and Shia. It???s also forcing you to make additional concessions to attain a nuclear deal. I think that???s a disaster.

So far we haven???t seen the administration do anything that would actually ameliorate the situation. In terms of what needs to be done, I think laying out the task or essentials is pretty easy. This is more like a roadside accident, and the first thing you do when the emergency responders get to the scene is to stabilize the situation. And I think that???s what???s called-for here.

What would you have to do to effectively stabilize the situation? One thing is, you have to keep the Kurds in the fight. The Kurds are an independent, pro-Western, very positive force in the region; the last thing you want to do is see the Kurds go under. So you have to support the Kurdish population. You really need to keep the government in the fight. The collapse of Baghdad and the collapse of the Iraqi government would just literally mean chaos. You have to do everything possible to keep Iran out of this. You have to be very, very concerned about Jordan, which would be the next target, and there???s a very precarious situation as it is with a flood of refugees from Syria, now they???re going to have a flood of refugees from Iraq.

Another thing is the only partner in the region where you could strategically align and accomplish some good is Turkey. I think the U.S. and Turkish interests need to be brought into alignment. If I were the president, those are the tasks I would be focusing on to accomplish.

What do we risk by not getting involved?

The range of bad outcomes are pretty predictable. One is you could have a very large-scale civil war in Iraq which could then lead into a regional conflict which I don???t think is in our interest. The second is, even if ISIS is stopped, you???d have the potential to have, basically, the equivalent of Afghanistan, September 2010 in the middle of Iraq, which is actually more problematic because it???s a state which already has leaders who are avowed at attacking the West, and they???re even closer geographically, in terms of airlines and everything else, at getting at the west.

I???d think the third thing you risk is to see Iran become a more emboldened actor in the region, and I think they???re so committed to getting nuclear weapons, they???re committed to using terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. Their totalitarian government dominates their regional partners. This can lead to much more destabilizing conditions if any of those things happen.

Obama???s approval as far foreign policy goes has been terrible and getting worse. Is he incompetent, does he have bad advisors, an agenda that doesn’t match up with American ideals, what?

If you look at the Obama doctrine, the way he???s approached foreign policy, it has been to withdraw American influence and to limit and de-emphasize American military power. The problem with that is it???s predictably created space and gaps and opportunities for other people to move in and exploit, and his answer for that has been, ???I???ll talk to them and negotiate with them, so that won???t happen,’ but predictably, it???s happened in every, single area of contention.

We used to say that at its core, Obama???s foreign policy looked like Jimmy Carter???s foreign policy and that if Obama got re-elected, you???d basically get to see what Jimmy Carter???s second term would look like, and I think that???s essentially played out. The United States??? policy is essentially creating a vacuum, and not having an answer for that and what???s happened is other people have filled those gaps and it???s created more violence, more instability, not less.