Media Foreign Affairs and National Security 2014.06.16
What is happening in the northern provinces of both Syria and Iraq is one of the worst case scenarios not only for Damascus and Baghdad but also for the rest of the world. Although it is easy to blame it on the weak governments of President Assad and Prime Minister Maliki, the question to be asked must be whether the U.S. has any real vision for the rebuilding of the two nations.
In Syria, ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham) has made rapid and effective military gains in the northern provinces since April, 2013. While, in Iraq, ISIS has recently taken control of the country's largest province, Nineveh, including its capital, Mosul, and is continuing with its march toward Baghdad where a newly elected democratic government has not yet been formed.
For those who have not lived in the Middle East, this may sound like a holy war story set in medieval Europe. For those who live there now, however, it is a matter of life-or-death. The leaders of ISIS truly believe in Islam in its most original and purest sense, and reject non-Islamic interventions (from the West in particular) in the world of Muslims.
It is especially shocking to see the Iraqi Armed Forces "melting away" after a decade of military investment and training by the United States. Despite all these efforts, the Iraqi soldiers took off their uniforms and returned home, as they did in 2003 during the war against the United States. This illustrates the difficulties Middle Easterners face in maintaining their own national armed forces.
Nonetheless, once a power vacuum is created, it will always be filled by other powers in the Middle East. Therefore, if President Obama and his advisers believe that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq means an end to the decade-long war, they are wrong. It may be an end for the Americans but it is another beginning for the Iraqis and their neighbors.
Unfortunately, this series of tragic events are a result of the U.S. decision-makers' ignorance and lack of imagination about statecraft in the Middle East. For instance, in 2004 in Baghdad, a few U.S. Army officers were talking about Germany and Japan inside the Green Zone where the U.S.-led "Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)" ruled the terrorism-torn country after the Iraq War.
"We succeeded in democratizing Bonn and Tokyo after World War Two. So why not in Baghdad this time," they boasted. "Wait a minute, officer!" a Japanese representative to the CPA rebutted. "Germany and Japan were democracies in the past and you just helped them regain it. But this is completely different. There is no tradition of democracy in this country."
Every decision has its consequences and the decision on whether to go to war or withdraw troops is no exception. The U.S. was miserably unprepared for the post-war nation-building of Iraq and showed structural inertia in maintaining stability in Syria. The U.S. failed to stay away when military intervention was a bad idea, while failing to intervene when it was necessary.
The situation in Northern Iraq is rapidly deteriorating and the recent ISIS attacks against Turkish targets are just the beginning. The U.S. left Iraq because President Obama must have believed that so-called "Irakiization" will stabilize the country. If he had learned from the Vietnam War, he would have known that any kind of "ization" policy will not always succeed.
We can also learn from the on-going events in Syria and Iraq. We should be careful in changing the status-quo in the Middle East, and even if we manage to change something, it may not always be for the better. This is the reality in the Middle East, even if it is very painful for us to accept and coexist with disqualified, brutal dictators or merciless oil-rich monarchies.
Another lesson we must learn is that if we are determined to maintain the status quo, we cannot stay aloof, but rather, we have to use our forces and power correctly. The recent tragedies in Syria and Iraq showed that the entire West, the U.S. in particular, failed to follow these lessons. If this is the case, we should not forget that East Asia is no exception to the rules either. We cannot afford a repeat of a similar, endless game of Whack-a-Mole in our part of the world.