If ISIS, the al Qaeda offshoot currently rampaging around Iraq, is the threat that the Obama administration says it is, why have there been no U.S. air strikes? Is it because we are once again falling for the fallacy of nation-building, a lengthy process hoping for a better result than the fruitless endeavors of the past because liberals are doing the negotiating this time?
Is it another case of analysis-paralysis, a common syndrome in self-consciously intellectual administrations?
Or is the ISIS threat overblown?
Unlike a guerrilla organization, which emerges from the indigenous woodwork to strike a blow before fading back, frequently among the people a Western power seeks to makes its friends, forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) roam across the countryside as a motorized infantry, presenting many clear targeting opportunities out in the open as it strikes for vast swaths of territory and valuable economic assets, including Iraq's biggest oil refinery.
Secretary of State John Kerry declared Monday in Baghdad that "the future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq's leaders to come together." Meanwhile, in the real world, other things are happening.
President Barack Obama says that the current state of Iraq can't be defended against the threat of ISIS, which seems more interested in dissolving the old colonial lines that include what we now call Iraq than in taking over Iraq per se, without a process of political reconciliation in which the pro-Iranian, largely sectarian regime of our longtime ally Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stops promoting Shia and harassing Sunni and present a unified democratic ... I have to stop right there.
Have we learned nothing during our adventures in the Middle East and Central Asia? We don't succeed in changing these societies to make them more like us. The religious, cultural, and ethnic imperatives that drive these societies not only far predate the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 through which Britain and France agreed to remake the Middle East after their own fashion after seizing it from the Ottoman Empire in World War I, creating what we call Iraq in the process, they far predate the existence of our own Republic.
We can't even get the Israelis to do what we want, as we've just seen with the disastrous latest iteration of a Middle East peace process, and Israel is a heck of a lot more like us than its neighbors.
Yet there is Secretary of State John Kerry, fresh from the diplomatic debacle in the Middle East -- the only clear result of which was a new unity government for Palestinians that joins the terrorists of Hamas with the more moderate old PLO types of the Palestinian Authority -- in Baghdad seeking to broker a more perfect union amongst "Iraqis."
This, of course, after forging the big anti-Russian coalition around the Ukraine crisis which has labored mightily to produce, quite predictably, nothing much. Aside from further irritating Vladimir Putin with another round of essentially useless "sanctions."
Ruling out the use of U.S. troops in ground combat against ISIS forces, though he has dispatched hundreds of security troops to protect the vast U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and hundreds more special forces folks to advise, train, and generally buck up the reeling Iraqi army, Obama says that any U.S. military action in what we'll laughingly still call "Iraq" can't be effective without changes in the central government.
Meanwhile, diametrically opposite facts on the ground are being established on a constant basis.
It's possible that Obama and company are engaged in an elaborate Kabuki dance to demonstrate why Iraq is going to become, in fact is swiftly becoming, three separate de facto if not de jure states along religious and ethnic lines. As I discussed last week, there is Kurdistan, still a pro-America place and potentially a very valuable ally in pursuing the limited but hardly easy objective of quashing actual transnational jihadist threats to the US; there is Shiastan, essentially the inward core and collapsing shell of what has been the Maliki-run Iraqi government; and there is Sunnistan, which with ISIS in the lead winning victories across a wide swath of what has been Iraq and Syria, is distressingly close to becoming a super-rich terrorist mini-state.
It's certainly possible to overstate the threat of ISIS, but since it was part of Al Qaeda before being thrown out for its extremist and violent tendencies, we already know it agrees that the US needs to be defeated.
After a two-hour meeting with Maliki, the committed Shia sectarian on whom he urged the more inclusive approach, Kerry promised that US backing for the Iraqi central government will be "intense and sustained." (If we don't force the replacement of Maliki, his friends in Tehran might. Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, now overseeing the defense of Baghdad, reportedly calls Maliki "an idiot.)
But presumably that "intense and sustained" new US commitment will materialize only if some sort of political reconciliation occurs. As if any ultimate cobbled-together agreement would be worth the disappearing ink it would be written in.
Do we really want an "intense and sustained" partnership with a failing Iraqi central government? That seems absurd.
Meanwhile, ISIS becomes stronger, and richer, by the day.
Which brings us to the question of the Baiji oil refinery.
One would expect Sunni-oriented cities, towns, and border crossings along the old border with Syria to fall to ISIS and its anti-Maliki regime Sunni allies. That's part of the scenario of the devolution of the post-Ottoman Iraqi state held together by Saddam's dictatorship and the post-Saddam U.S. military occupation. And it is part of the scenario of the evolution of the de facto Sunni state, with or without ISIS in command.
While some of that is very problematic -- ISIS can now easily move men and materiel in from Syria, where it's been part of the Syrian civil war fight against the Assad regime that Obama nearly stumbled into last fall -- much of it seems a natural process.
But the question of the Baiji oil refinery, which comprises one-quarter of Iraq's refining capacity, is another matter. For it produces one-third of the gasoline used by our friends the Kurds. And it's been under heavy siege by ISIS forces for the better part of a week, with several reports that it had already fallen.
Which means that it used to produce one-third of the gasoline used by the Kurds. It hasn't been producing anything during the siege of Baiji.
Having identified ISIS as a big threat down the line to the US and having re-engaged with Iraq in this moment of deep crisis, the Obama Administration is going to look awfully foolish if it lets this giant economic prize fall into the hands of ISIS because it was preoccupied with its precondition of negotiating agreements with the Iraqi central government that will probably be even more empty than the old agreements.
Can successful U.S. air strikes be mounted against the ISIS forces besieging the Baiji facility? Absolutely. And very quickly at that.
That would deny a very major prize to ISIS and greatly aid our friends in the emerging Kurdistan. And, if we are to be so foolish as to pursue nation-building in Iraq, again, it would show the Shias that Obama actually is serious about pulling the trigger of U.S. military action, with the advantage of not yet having done them any real favors.
ISIS, not incidentally, need not come out on top in a new Sunni state in the former Iraq. So why make it easier for them while pursuing the chimera of political reconciliation in "Iraq?"
As for the rest, well, the Shias can hold on to much of what has been Iraq. Baghdad need not fall, at least not so long as Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force and longtime power broker in Iraq and across the Middle East, is on the scene. So long as Baghdad stands, that huge US embassy, largest in the world, built by the Bush/Cheney Administration to run US operations throughout the region, won't be the site of a Saigon-style "Sauve qui peut" as the helicopters take off from the rooftops.