LOOKS like America has got itself into a very sticky situation. No matter how hard it tries to stay away from what seems like a brewing civil war in Iraq, it cannot just turn a deaf ear to the formal request made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nourie Al-Maliki for American assistance. On one hand, America has this bitter experience of a poorly planned, overstretched and expensive war in Iraq that toppled the Saddam regime and created a power vacuum that is still to be filled by a strong, non-sectarian and credible leadership. On the other hand, being the only superpower with the capacity to project military power on a global level and some responsibility to end what it started more than a decade ago in Iraq, America needs to strike a balance between not meddling into the internal affairs of Iraq and preventing the violence from spreading to the wider Middle East.
The president is walking a very tight rope here and he is taking his time with the military advisors. What exactly are the options open to the president right now? He has already ruled out 'boots on the ground' although more than 200 American troops have been sent to protect the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. There are speculations that Obama is pondering over a number of options which fall short of total military commitment. These could range from reconnaissance flights to sending limited number of military advisors and conducting air strikes. Given the current status of morale and training of Iraqi Security Forces, such restricted involvement of the USA is not likely to produce big results. As Senator John McCain said, “Air strikes are not easy.” America does not have reliable intelligence to conduct such strikes in Iraq. ISIS is not your typical target for air assaults. It doesn't have specific command and control centres, military bases and air defense sites. So, American air strike at this point might cause civilian casualties and destruction of properties.
But the technical nature of possible American engagement is not the only dilemma facing the Obama administration right now. General David Petraeus, former Director of CIA and Commander of the ISAF, has warned against any American action that might favour one fighting sect over the other in Iraq. If US assistance is viewed by the Sunnis as giving the Shiites undue favour, then the whole situation might turn for the worse. Especially when the US failed to intervene in Syria, any American action that might give the Shiite militias and Shiite dominated Iraqi Security Forces an edge over the Sunnis will add fuel to the fire of sectarian violence.
America realises that it might have to do the uncomfortable job of working with Iran in containing a common enemy in the Middle East. Iran has already proved eager to intervene in the situation. Talks have been held between the two countries. If America is not going to be drawn into the whirlpool of violence in Iraq, it might need to pick a side in this 'proxy war' between Iran and Saudi Arabia that has taken the form of a sectarian feud. Obama also knows the peril of cooperating with Iran. Not only will it affect the nuclear talks, but also enrage thousands of various factions of Arab Sunni extremists who would love nothing more than taking up arms against their Persian foes. It's not like Iran is very fond of Al-Maliki. It knows all too well that stronger Shiite militias in Iraq might not serve long term Iranian interests in maintaining a strong hold on Baghdad. Although the exact nature of US-Iranian cooperation over Iraq has not yet been finalised, the talks of it have already made Israel nervous. nThe Israeli Strategic Affairs minister voiced concern over a compromised position of the US over Iran's nuclear issues due to the recent developments in Iraq.
But if America does not get involved in some assertive capacity in Iraq soon, it would not be immune from the effects of violent changes taking place there. ISIS has already taken control of the largest oil refinery in Iraq and this is definitely not good news for secure supply of petroleum. Energy security is not the only thing that should make America concerned. While the city of Baghdad has the capacity of 'swallowing' armies and might not fall in the hands of the ISIS as easily as it is feared, the prospect of long term violent civil war is very real. As Obama weighs his options in Washington, he might have to do the difficult task of 'choosing the lesser evil' as none of his choices are free of controversy. Using Al-Maliki as the scapegoat for all the troubles in Iraq will not improve the situation. This is a test case for the 'Obama doctrine' that postulates less direct involvement in the distant corners of the planet and more security for the Americans. It remains to be seen how prudently Obama handles the situation without causing further deterioration of America's global leadership position or stirring criticism and opposition at home.
The writer is Assistant Professor at Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.