Like Humpty Dumpty, Iraq has had a great fall and can’t be put back together again. Like the egg-shaped nursery rhyme character, its fall and its fracture were all but inevitable.
That’s because Iraq, like Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, was always an artificially constructed unit of incompatible parts, created by European nations from the remains of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago and mainly maintained by the powers of kings and dictators.
When Iraq’s last warlord, Saddam Hussein, was removed, the country fractured and, despite valiant efforts by the United States and its allies, seems increasingly unlikely to survive as a united entity.
Many analysts say that’s already happened. One of the region’s most astute journalists, NBC’s Richard Engel, recently called Iraq a “fictitious democracy.”
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That’s the unfortunate bottom line after the United States has squandered thousands of lives and billions of dollars in what increasingly looks like a failed enterprise.
About the worst thing the United States could do now is to re-commit many thousand troops. In the long run, it would be neither politically feasible, nor economically sustainable, nor strategically effective.
This dire prospect puts a tremendous burden on President Barack Obama and his prospective successors, since the demands of global leadership require a continuing U.S. effort to curb the spreading, radical Islamic State force also known as ISIS or ISIL.
But Obama, determined to maintain his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, remains reluctant to go much beyond authorizing U.S. airstrikes, providing military hardware and training, and seeking regional political cooperation.
Leadership demands might require a modest increase in the numbers of airstrikes and American ground spotters to help target air attacks. But Obama recently blamed insufficient Iraqi “commitments” for slowing development of a broader anti-Islamic State strategy and the overall situation argues against anything beyond what might only be a delaying action, barring an abrupt reversal of Iraqi intentions and willpower.
Meanwhile, the domestic debate continues to reflect today’s partisan politics, with Democrats blaming the fallout from President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion and Republicans citing Obama’s completion of a total U.S. troop withdrawal nearly a decade later.
Both arguments have validity, though the most devastating blow to Iraq’s stability was Saddam Hussein’s removal, and the U.S. dismantling of his military and political structure. The 2007-08 Bush “surge” was never more than a temporary Band-Aid, because Iraq’s troubles are inherent, rather than transient.
Obama is continuing to press for Iraqi government leadership to maintain a united country. But his vice president, Joe Biden, might have been right in 2007 when he urged its division into three self-governing entities, reflecting its Sunni, Shia and Kurdish populations.
In essence, that has happened, as the Iran-bolstered Baghdad government clings to Shia Iraq, the Kurdish north is basically autonomous, and the Islamic State controls most of the Sunni west.
“Iraq is never gonna exist as a country again,” John Bolton, Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, told a Boston radio station in April. “I think Syria has ceased to exist as a country.” He said the issue is whether the new Sunni state likely to arise in eastern Syria and western Iraq is “a jihadist radical state.”
Most Republican presidential hopefuls except Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul favor enhanced military measures, including stronger U.S. leadership to encourage the Saudis and the Turks to increase ground support against the Islamic State.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham urges sending up to 10,000 U.S. troops to increase training for Iraqi forces. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry told Fox News he wants a U.S.-led coalition to “go in and literally eliminate ISIS.”
But military solutions risk resistance from the American people who want to eliminate the Islamic State – but limit the U.S. troop commitment.
Diplomatic proposals also raise problems – Turkey, with its Kurdish population; the Saudis are uncomfortable with Iran’s increasing influence – in a region where the lack of clear boundaries and contiguous population limit solutions.
The nursery rhyme was right: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” In Iraq and Syria, that’s the reality Obama or his successor will ultimately have to confront.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.