THE BLOG
08/08/2014 10:46 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2014

The President Is Right on Iraq

The president was correct in announcing humanitarian action yesterday in Iraq. He will be helping to prevent genocide. But, more than that, his announcement of limited military action, both to overtly protect US troops and installations, and tacitly support the Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State, is the correct move.

Many times, I've explained why it isn't in the United States' security interest to take sides in a Middle Eastern civil war. Most recently, our decision to arm Syrian rebels inadvertently armed the Islamic State, which in recent days has made major gains in Iraq, causing this horrific humanitarian crisis we're now seeing. It seems like every time we stick our nose in the region's business, things get worse.

And yet, when the president said, "We're also providing urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL," coupled with his announcement of authorization for air strikes, it became clear that additional assistance was on its way, not just for humanitarian reasons, but tactical military reasons, to help the Kurdish military, or Peshmerga.

In fact, today's air strikes against Islamic State forces outside Irbil serves two purposes. First, it protect US interests in a city we cannot afford to lose, lest we see another Benghazi-type situation there. Second it help the Kurds, our best ally in the region, in their efforts to prevent genocide. This kind of action is the right call. Here's why.

First, the Kurds are trained and organized. They aren't the rag-tag rebels we've aligned ourselves with in the past, nor do they have ties with groups or regimes hostile to the West. I trained the Iraqi Army, in 2011, when I went back to Iraq for my second tour. I specifically trained the Peshmerga -- their reputation is very well known, and they're respected. In short, they are truly unified with a common purpose. US Special Forces have been training the Kurds for years since they resisted Saddam Hussein, and the Kurds fought alongside our troops, quite ably, when the Iraq War started, in 2003. They will fight, like they have for generations, and are our single best ally in the gulf region.

Second, the Kurds are the only true pro-Western group in the region. It was always curious to me that the Bush administration thought Sunni and Shia would just welcome the US into Iraq, join hands, toss us candy, and all of the rest. Shia Iraq is and was aligned with Iran. It had its fair share of anti-Western clerics. Sunnis, especially Baathists, had every reason to support Saddam, as a minority that held power. Both sides had elements that were very antithetical to the West. Yet, the Kurds have a long tradition of backing western ideas -- specifically, they've embraced democracy for much longer than others in Iraq and Syria, and largely got to practice it, thanks to no-fly zones set up after the Gulf War. And, they're largely secular, when it comes to their politics.

I want to pause here, because I can already sense that the last paragraph has a lot of fingers at the ready to type some angry responses. I am not suggesting that the United States should impose its values on the region, by backing one horse. It's up to the people of the region to decide what kind of society they want. I am saying, however, the convergence of some important values makes it much easier to work with the Kurds -- especially given their desire and ability to beat back the Islamic State. With them, we do not have the same concern about splinter groups of extremists existing within their ranks, as we did with the Syrian Sunni rebels.

Third, this is the only move we have to limit the advance of the Islamic State, which is not just a security threat, but a very real humanitarian danger. The Islamic State is a group that was too radical for al Qaeda. Allowing them to take over a whole infrastructure, including power, water, a military, and more wouldn't just be a tactical threat, like the kinds of terror we've seen. This would be a much larger threat to everyone in the world, not least of which would be the people forced to live under the regime.

Is this the end all, be all to the crisis? No. Missions to support the Kurds, and the Iraqi Army, won't be decisive in defeating the Islamic State. It will just halt an advance. The rest, as always, is up to Iraqis.

Just like the surge in Iraq was an epic failure, because it never was decisive in dealing with the Iraqi political problems that led to this crisis, Iraq still must deal with those same issues, if these kinds of crises are to be averted in the future.

Currently, the Islamic State finds support in Sunni communities resistant of the central government. That isn't a result of the end of the surge, and US troops leaving. As one of the last advisors to leave northern Iraq in July, 2011, I can tell you that there was no group like the Islamic State, with the type of capability they're now displaying. Ironically, Republicans like John McCain, who are quick to blame President Obama's ending the war in Iraq for the current crisis, themselves advanced it by supporting the administration's choosing of sides, when it supplied arms to anti-Assad forces in Syria, which spurred the rise of the Islamic State.

That's why it was also heartening to hear the president say, "Iraqi leaders need to come together and forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis." Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has done very little to make the minority Sunni feel like true players in government. In fact, one of his bigger blunders was dismissing Sunni military officers in favor of Shia. So, unless Maliki, or his successor, incorporates the Sunni leadership into his government and military, the Islamic State is here to stay, leading to years of conflict. Likewise, however, President Obama must stop aiding Sunni extremists in Syria, who continue to fuel the fires of sectarian strife.

All that said, the president has started the process of doing what must be done. After experiencing the disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq, it takes a lot to convince me to get involved in any Middle East conflict -- even if it means not having to put boots on the ground. But, what is happening with the Islamic State, on the march, is more than enough to convince me. We have one shot to stop them, and it is through the Kurds. It's time to step up and help.