07/24/2014 11:21 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2014

Iraq: Rise of the Gangster State -- Why We Need a Better, Bolder Response to ISIS

Iraq's a mess. President Obama has sent 300 elite troops back to Iraq, dispatched John Kerry to patch up splits in the shaky coalition supporting Iraq's government, and beefed up intelligence monitoring of ISIS, the Sunni insurgent organization building an "Islamic caliphate" in Iraq and Syria. Obama's ruled out putting U.S. forces back on the ground elsewhere, as well as drone and air strikes.

Meanwhile, ISIS continues to grow, taking the entire Iraq-Syria border, making a brief incursion into Jordan, and selling oil from captured fields to Syria for a steady source of revenue. ISIS already possesses territory as large as the state of Jordan, including most of northwest Iraq and adjoining areas of Syria. It claims universal authority over all Muslims. It is subjecting the people to authoritarian interpretations of Islam, demanding that they turn over all cigarettes and un-Islamic books and that the women veil even their faces -- policies that most Muslims say strips a believer of free will and violates God's intent that individuals be free to choose goodness or sin. ISIS has American weapons, thanks to its capture of Mosul. And it is unequivocally a terrorist organization: ISIS commandos execute people merely on suspicion of being Shi'i or Christian, a policy that led even al-Qaida to condemn the group. In response, Shi'i militias have started to reemerge, including Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. In the last six months, Iraqi civilian deaths have risen dramatically, to just under the number killed in all of last year.

Yet the administration still says U.S. involvement should be limited.

Some claim that ISIS is much less powerful than Iraq's Shi'i president, Nuri al-Maliki, asserts, and that he is using the specter of Islamic terrorism to spur us into coming back to save him, after he disbanded the Sahwa, the tribal coalition that the U.S. forces had put together to crush ISIS's predecessors in 2011. In other words, it is possible that we're being duped. If that's true, then our caution is smart.

Some claim that America has, through its actions over the last decade, sacrificed any credibility it might have had as a broker to promote democracy and stability in the region, or that we lack the leadership to "get the job done," or that our mistakes caused the war in the first place, ISIS having come into existence after and as a result of the power vacuum left by the invasion. Therefore we should stay out of this round of fighting.

Some also say that U.S. involvement will just discredit the forces fighting ISIS, allowing propagandists to depict Iraq's defenders as enemies of Islam. That's a real possibility. But doing nothing also leaves us prey to accusations of deliberate apathy and abandonment of Iraq to a chaos that we helped cause.

What we have done so far is a reasonable, cautious start: We've lent our voice to those who want to make the Iraqi government more inclusive of Sunni and Kurdish voices. We've encouraged the Kurds to apply more pressure on ISIS from the north. We are contractually obligated by our defense pact with Jordan to defend that kingdom if ISIS defeats the Jordanian forces. We might also consider a rebanding of the Sahwa tribal coalition, as that would include non-ISIS Sunni forces and avoid the impression of U.S. support for destruction of the Sunnis. As for politics, we've applauded the reform process underway in Iraq's government; acting according to their constitution, the Iraqi legislature has chosen a new speaker of the parliament, a Sunni, and two deputies, a Shi'i and a Kurd. If the same constitutional processes result in the removal of the current president, Nuri al-Maliki, we should applaud that as well: His policies are widely seen in Iraq as consolidating Shi'a sectarian power to the detriment of the Sunnis and other minorities. And if the result of government reforms is that Iraq is dissolved into ethnic/sectarian rump states (Kurdistan, a Sunni Arab state, and a Shi'i Arab state), we should accept that, and any opportunities it might provide for mending our relationship with Iran's moderate leaders. The only alternative to dissolution is for Iraqi politicians to create a nonsectarian government in which all ethnic groups and religious sects have fair representation. Until that happens, ISIS and other insurgent groups that draw their power from the disappointed and disenfranchised will always find a foothold in Iraq. Finally, we should work with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the anti-ISIS rebels in Syria to provide -- yes -- military support as they request. If we don't, Russia and Iran will.

We also need to understand and combat the economic forces that sustain ISIS and other militias. Post-war Iraq is a gangster state. As Dr. Pete Moore of Case Western Reserve University has written:

The ambient violence after the 2003 US invasion, whether resistance to occupation or sectarian infighting, has dismembered Iraq economically, creating local militia monopolies, criminal public-sector fiefdoms and regional capital havens. To say that corruption, bribery and intimidation are widespread would be an understatement; these practices are an integral part of many businesses.

Iraq's banking system has collapsed, so most business is conducted in cash. Trucking outfits that carry cash and trade goods are run by what amount to local mafias. The destruction of the Baathist state industrial complex has left Iraqi manufacturing in sad shape as well: Iraq imports most of its finished products, so private investment, such as it is, is in the black market. Oil smuggling, as opposed to legal trade, is the norm. And those who benefit from the post-war economic chaos, the new millionaires of post-war Iraq, are funding ISIS and other militias.

Maybe Iraq really doesn't need more "boots on the ground." Maybe what Iraq needs is an army of investors, bankers, truckers, and commercial developers. Maybe the U.S. should encourage the recreation of legitimate trade endeavors between Iraqi companies and their suppliers in surrounding countries, particularly Jordan, whose economy is suffering the most from the cessation of legal trade with Iraq. Maybe we should apply ourselves to helping Iraq's new government reduce the edifice of corruption on which the state currently rests. Maybe we -- even as private citizens -- can fund jobs instead of war.

To those who say the U.S. should stay out of this conflict, I say that every day provides the U.S. with a new chance to at least try to get it right.