The world was caught flat-footed when a small band of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces rolled into Iraq and took control of major cities with almost no opposition. Americans watched in disgust as news coverage showed Iraqi soldiers that U.S. taxpayers had paid to train and equip -- stripping off their uniforms, dropping their weapons, and running away. Criticism has mounted on U.S. backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki for ignoring warnings and creating a Shia-centered government that alienated the Sunnis, a sizeable population that has proven to be sympathetic and even supportive of ISIS forces as they seized control of a large part of northern Iraq. While many scoffed at the proposal Vice President Joe Biden advanced when he was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2006 to partition Iraq into separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions, it appears now that he may have been prescient.
The conversation in the news media has focused almost entirely on whether U.S. forces will return to Iraq, the rehashing of whether they should have ever been there to begin with and the circumstances under which they withdrew in 2011, and the prospect of cooperating with a supposed pillar of President Bush's "Axis of Evil," Iran. Some form of military intervention to stop ISIS from overrunning the country and to protect American assets may be inevitable, but the near singular focus on military intervention ignores what should be an obvious lesson of the past dozen years: the U.S. can't bomb its way to victory.
Sectarian acrimony in the Middle East started centuries before the United States came into existence. It was largely kept in check by a lack of resources necessary to engage in wide-spread conflicts, domination by outside powers, and authoritarian dictators who were not hesitant to use force to maintain control. Now, the confluence of wealth, the end of colonialism, and the downfall of dictators has yanked the cork from the bottle and spilled the contents. The clock cannot be rest to stop the spill from happening and it is not helpful now to second-guess what could have been done to prevent it. The focus should be on how to contain it and channel it in an acceptable direction.
Some - most notably former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz - believe the U.S. can muscle its way to a solution in any crisis. The folly of that cavalier attitude should be obvious. War hawks who have never had any skin the game have profited handsomely from sending others off to pay the price for their bravado as the men and women who served in uniform during a perpetual state of post-9/11 war often struggle to find jobs and get the health care they were promised by what was supposed to be a grateful nation that supports the troops.
Military might may be able to stem a tide for a moment, but alone it cannot change a current. What is lacking in the discussion is how to address the centuries old animosities that are at the heart of the conflict. Rather than focusing solely on whether the U.S. can bomb the insurgents into temporary submission, why not engage institutions like the United Nations, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council to foster a dialogue on a way forward to achieve greater stability that benefits everyone in the region? Too often dialogue and diplomacy are dismissed as some form of weakness, ignoring the benefits of treating the illness and keeping it in check instead of scrambling to bandage hemorrhages whenever and wherever they erupt.
Americans are war weary and many are supportive of those like Senator Rand Paul who advocate a more isolationist approach. There is an appeal to the argument that the U.S. has been too keen to jump in and fight, but given the reality of today's global travel and trade the notion of retreating to within U.S. borders is not a viable choice. Like it or not, Americans live in an international environment that requires international engagement. While some scoff at U.S. involvement in organizations like the United Nations and stoke fears of a "blue helmet" invasion, the truth of the matter is that if Americans are unwilling to pay the price to go it alone as the world's brute force responders they must embrace greater international engagement.
In his speech on Thursday, President Obama said, "There's no military solution inside Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States." He is right; the military alone cannot solve the problem. If there is to be a solution that addresses the long-term illness and not just the immediate injury it requires putting the effort and the resources into multi-lateral engagement that until now have been reserved almost exclusively for preserving U.S. military options.