06/23/2014 10:51 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

To Untie the Gordian Knot

Crises are not conducive to long-term thinking. That is doubly so when a conflict involves multiple parties of varied hues - some with mixed allegiances. We need to get an intellectual fix on the main ingredients of the present situation that at least provides some reference marks for appraising what are reasonable outcomes, what is an acceptable outcome and what external parties might contribute to achieving the latter.

Two useful points of departure are the denotation of certain cardinal features of the situation. The first is that the ISIS (and its allies of tribal leaders and former Ba'athists) do not have the capability of carrying their assault to Baghdad or the Shi'ite heartland. The latter two elements of the coalition probably do not even contemplate doing so - unless there were mass defections from the remaining units of David Petraeus' Iraqi army,* the flight of the Maliki government, and the loss of will on the part of the Shi'ite militias. The second noteworthy point is that a firm accord among the sectarian and ethnic parties on Iraq's political configuration requires ironclad guarantees that go well beyond verbal agreements and symbolic gestures. That phase of Iraq's post-2003 history is over. Implicit in the latter conception are two ancillary points: Iraq's political future, if there is to be a stable political future, must take the form of a confederal structure - whether that is legally based on a new constitution or a reinterpretation of the existing constitution; the construction of new legal and political superstructure for Iraq is beyond the capabilities of the leadership that now rules in Baghdad. I leave to others better versed than I in the personalities and factions on all sides to identify other potential leaders of a disposition and authority to engage in a collaborative act of refounding the republic

Skepticism that the present crop of leaders will be so accommodating as to leave the political scene, and the suspicion that hostility among all communities is so deep seated as to deny a new crop of leaders the conditions needed to perform the delicate tasks of reconstructive political surgery, point to the conclusion that outside parties have crucial roles to play - to act as a catalyst to the process and then to underwrite its achievements. Of course, this is what the US tried to do while the American Raj still held the reins of power. A second solo try will be of limited effect - we're compromised. The Obama White House believes otherwise. It is now actively engaged in a sub rosa campaign to unseat Maliki while "casting about" for an alternative who would better disposed to seek some mode of reconciliation among Iraq's sectarian communities. They fail to realize that anyone seen to taking the bait would be disqualified in the minds of most Iraqis by that act itself unless Washington were to be uncharacteristically discreet.
The UN alternative also raises doubts since the long record of its mainly failed efforts of this sort (especially when dealing with strong willed local parties) does not inspire confidence. The UN can provide international legitimacy and useful facilitation. However, the two credible powers for the underwriter role are the United States (acting politically but not militarily) and Iran. Others, such as Turkey, can serve as secondary underwriters given its standing with the non-salafist Sunnis and the Turkomen minority. The Turks may also have some small credit with the ISIS since they were a passive accessory to the movement's development.

The ISIS fanatics pose the greatest obstacle. They are susceptible to influence by no one. Compromise is not in their vocabulary. So they probably will have to be pretty badly bloodied before they would be willing to participate in a collective political arrangement. Ideally, the bloodying should be done by fellow Sunnis, e.g. a combination of the tribal leaders and the Ba'ath elements organized under the aegis of Men of the Army of Naqshbandia (led by former army officers) both of whom who have an interest in reaching some understanding with the shia and Kurds. Moreover, they've already done the job once. Indeed, this weekend there are reports of skirmishes in the vicinity of Kirkuk between the ISIS and the Ba'athists. The probable timing of a serious split, though, is not favorable. If it does occur, it would not be until after the immediate crisis passes. So long as hopes are high that optimal goals may be reached, members of the coalition have every reason to stick together. Only when a stalemate on the battlefield sets in would the underlying tensions lead to serious frictions.
The Kurdish Peshmerga, too, are probably strong enough to inflict heavy damage. There already have been skirmishes between the ISIS and the Kurds around Tal Afar and north of Baqubah in Diyala province. both of which have strategic military value. However, a large scale direct military engagement seems unlikely for a number of reasons. If the ISIS do have grand plans for all of Iraq, controlling Kurdistan would be the last step. Why risk heavy losses engaging a secondary target, one that has American and Israeli backing. From the Kurdish vantage point, there is little benefit to them from initiating large scale hostilities since their agenda has only one item: autonomy. The Kurds may get appeals from Baghdad to join an anti-ISIS coalition sweetened with promises of quasi-autonomy in a restructured Iraqi state. Were they tempted, it would make sense to jump in when the issue already is nearly decided so as to reap the benefits at minimal cost.
A second order preference for the job is the Shi'ite led army and the Shi'ite militias. Bloodying rather than defeat (itself improbable) would be the preferred outcome. The US should stay out of the fray unless the ISIS and allies indeed seem on the brink of sweeping all before them - including Baghdad. We have been through more than twelve years wherein American foreign policy in the region has amounted to little more than the employment of violence. Killing more Sunnis, even if restricted to ISIS militants, may be a short-term palliative but its longer term political effect would be negative. That's what they call an iatrogenic treatment in medicine. For other reasons, a similar negative effect would result from an active battlefield role by the Iranian Quds battalions.

Where we need to collaborate with the Iranians is at the political level. They may be in a position to dispose of Maliki as were crucial to his survival in 2008 in a standoff with other Shi'ite factions, and again in 2010 when they twisted Muqtada al-Sadr's arm to join a Maliki led coalition.. They are in a position to block another Maliki type from emerging. Of course, they will insist on someone amenable to them. Who meets that standard depends on how they define their interests. A more rather than less stable Iraq organized confederally may serve their interests better than an Iraq in turmoil with Sunni jihadis running amok. The choice they make could be weighed in the direction of collaboration were Washington to let it be known that Iraq would be a major steppingstone toward wider ranging, multi-party negotiations on security arrangements for the Gulf region in general. A vague promise to lower restrictions conditionally on rugs and pistachios won't cut it.

Is the United States capable of taking on this sort of diplomatic challenge - and succeeding? To be perfectly blunt, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that the answer is "NO." It certainly won't happen if President Obama continues to seek strategic inspiration from discredited purveyors of strategic snake oil like Robert Kagan and Thomas Friedman at intimate White House gatherings. Nor will it happen if he fails to break free of his habitual diffidence and unless he stays in Washington for a several consecutive days to do some serious thinking and planning.

* Petraeus was midwife and nursemaid to the new Iraq army. In June 2004, Petraeus was promoted to lieutenant general and became the first commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command Iraq whose task was the recruiting, training and outfitting a new Iraqi army. For this accomplishment, Petraeus was lauded, honored and promoted. This is the army that fell apart ignominiously when engaged by the ISIS and allies.