Less than 48 hours ago, it appeared virtually certain that the United States would have little choice but to intervene militarily in Iraq on a scale that President Obama clearly wanted to avoid.
That all changed overnight when American officials reported the thousands of Yazidis, a minority religious sect fleeing persecution by the advancing Islamist extremists rampaging through Iraq, had been safely removed from their vulnerable haven on Mount Sinjar.
Yazidi leaders and some emergency relief officials dispute that assessment. In any event, it does appear American airstrikes — and the dropping of relief supplies — paired with ground attacks by the Kurdish troops did provide some relief to the Yazidis.
The rescue effort is less likely, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reported late Wednesday.
If his assessment holds true, it will please most Americans, who thought our nation’s lengthy and costly involvement in Iraq had ended. But the situation remains dire and may soon enough require our nation’s involvement, however reluctant, on a considerably larger scale.
The sad truth is that Iraq is like a rudderless ship heading toward the rocks. If Iraq is overwhelmed by the murderous extremists, the entire region will be threatened.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be after the United States and our allies pulled out, believing the Iraqi people were prepared to govern themselves.
But now there’s a good argument for greater involvement by America and her allies. In fact, France, Britain and Germany have all decided to participate in the fight against the extremists, although not, so far, with troops.
France had opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, yet it announced this week it was sending weapons to the Kurdish fighters who are the main force battling the Islamists.
Iraq’s own troops, so carefully trained and equipped by the United States, have too often fled in the face of the enemy’s advances, leaving their vehicles and their weapons behind to be used by the Islamists.
Although Obama has made it clear he’d much prefer the United States avoid further direct entanglement in the crisis, his final decision may very well be influenced by the behavior of the Islamist fanatics, who are tearing Iraq apart and treating foes with relentless cruelty. Children are being killed, even beheaded. Christians, in particular, are singled out for torturous deaths.
These people must be stopped. They believe that those who stand in their way and don’t share their beliefs must be killed. They execute those who refuse to renounce their own faith and kidnap women to be sold as slaves.
Ideally, Iraqi military forces would confront the Islamists but sadly its army does not seem up to the task.
Similarly, the government in Baghdad should be prepared to defend Iraq on its own, but the political situation there is unstable, though it is very encouraging that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Thursday agreed to relinquish power,
Despite all the complications and confusion, the situation is not hopeless.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal this week, two experts suggest that as formidable a force as the Islamists may appear to be, they are nevertheless vulnerable to countermeasures that could be launched by the Kurds and those Iraqi forces that are still intact.
Michael Pregent, who lectures at the National Defense University, and Michael Weiss, a columnist at Foreign Policy, also argue that the Islamists’ supply and support lines are vulnerable to destruction by American F-18 fighters. Also, they say, most of the Islamists’ heavy weapons systems “can easily be destroyed from the air.”
But they also call for the United States to supply the Kurds with the equipment they’d need to defeat the enemy.
Meanwhile, David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post and a longtime observer of the Middle East, suggests that Obama should consider sending retired Gen. David Petraeus and former ambassador Ryan Crocker to Baghdad as his special envoys. That, Ignatius writes, would send a signal that the president is serious about helping the new Iraqi government. And there’s abundant evidence that such help is badly needed in Baghdad.
Had the Maliki administration been more interested in serving all the country’s people and less determined to meet the political needs of supporters, the present crisis might have been avoided altogether.
There is no undoing past mistakes, but the United States should remain prepared to do whatever it possibly can to keep Iraq out of the hands of these ruthless murderers.