As the nation analyzes the roots of the recent meltdown in the Middle East -- the lightning advance made in Iraq by a violent Sunni Islamic insurgency known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) -- this much is certain: the Middle East, as we've known it for decades, is on the verge of disintegrating. And while an all-out civil war in Iraq is not yet inevitable, the threat looms large in a nation that will play a pivotal role in determining the future of this embattled region.
Unfortunately, the crisis caused by ISIS -- the worst threat to Iraq's stability since the last U.S. troops withdrew from the country in December 2011 -- will not be dissipating anytime soon. The insurgents have struck swiftly and stunningly, capturing considerable territory in the northern part of Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar. Since then, they have surged south, sparking concerns they will continue on to the capital city, Baghdad, and send Iraq into a sectarian civil war that could prove long, costly and catastrophic to the long-term health of the region.
Their gains, which reflect the growing integration between the Iraq and Syrian arenas, suggest that this is not a crisis that will be resolved soon. It promises to go on months, more likely years, as part of a larger overall transition taking place all across the Arab landscape. In the short-term, Baghdad appears to be stable, and it's unlikely that the insurgent forces, which are still relatively small (about 8,000 fighters in Iraq), will be able to take over the city. Still, we are witnessing a de-facto partitioning of Iraq. Beyond this division, the crisis presents all kinds of additional risks, including, most notably, a threat to major oil resources in the region and the expansion of sectarian war across Iraq and Syria.
From a U.S. standpoint, we must ask ourselves not who is to blame, but what are our objectives moving forward. Some have stated those objectives broadly, calling for a free, stable and democratic Iraq. Frankly, that dream died some time ago. The ideal Iraq that many envisioned after the toppling of Saddam Hussein would now take decades and a massive expenditure, including money and American lives, that I don't believe we are willing to sacrifice.
Instead of broad, expansive objectives, we should aim for a reasonable stability in Iraq and specific targeted outcomes, including, first and foremost, eliminating any safe havens for extremist groups to launch attacks on Americans and keeping ISIS from seizing control over the region. We should also carefully consider all of our available options, which fall into three primary areas: military, economic and political.
President Barack Obama said this week that he will send up to 300 military advisors to Iraq to help train Iraqi forces. They will be there to take precise, limited military action, while seeking to figure out both the capability of Iraqi forces and the vulnerability of the insurgents.
The president clearly wants to try to help unite a frustrated country through a mixture of military and political pressure. Sending in the military advisors, who will gather intelligence that will help him determine what can and should be done in Iraq, is a modest step. It's also one big symbolic step back for the president to U.S. involvement, which he thought he had ended several years ago, in an unresolved, tumultuous conflict.
While we may be returning to Iraq, we don't want to get too deeply involved in a developing civil war. That said, rejecting a major military commitment leaves open the use of limited force to stabilize the situation.
Economically, any aid we provide Iraq should be conditional. We simply do not want to help Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been nothing short of a disaster as a leader and whose divisive rule has helped contribute to the current crisis. The extremists who triggered recent events have revealed the serious inadequacies of the Maliki government and its failure to fix their broken policies. We must not do anything to promote a third-term for a Shia strongman who is a major part of the problem in Iraq and has done little to gain the trust and respect of those outside his narrow political base. Simply put, Maliki must go.
Part of the political solution, then, is to pressure Maliki to step aside and bring about much-needed leadership change.
On top of that, we need to make a strong push for a peace conference, which doesn't appear to be in anyone's immediate sights right now, but is crucial for any chance of reasonable and lasting stability in the region. And it's important that all interested parties have a seat at the negotiating table, including Iran.
That we are sending in military advisors and considering other possible actions indicates that we are now past phase one of this crisis: ISIS has made its initial advances, has established momentum and has got the attention of the international community. We must move on to phase two, a long-term diplomatic effort to put an end to this conflict. Diplomacy must be part of the answer.
Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.