Extremists have taken over much of Iraq, spreading medieval theology using modern weaponry, leaving hundreds of corpses and severed heads in their wake. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has been disowned by the umbrella that spawned it, al-Qaeda. ISIS is said to be more extreme and more anti-American than al-Qaeda. Extremism seems to have taken an even more extreme turn.
The ostensibly democratic government in Iraq that resulted from the American intervention there ended up being dominated by Iraqi Shi’ites, which is part of the reason the Sunni extremists of ISIS have been met with, if not a hero’s welcome in parts of Iraq, at least with little resistance. The lack of resistance is partially due to the propensity of American-trained Iraqi soldiers and police to drop their weapons and flee in the face of ISIS, which observers say is a reaction to a lack of commitment to the ideals of democratic government – a product of the failure of the government to live up to the hopes of the post-Saddam Hussein era. It is also a reflection of just how brutal ISIS has been in its onslaught.
While the capital city of Baghdad was not under immediate threat by ISIS (as of press time this week) Iraq as a country seems effectively inoperative. All of the effort, lives, injuries and expense of the American and allied intervention there may prove to have been for naught. The new reality is far from clear, but all appearances suggest things are worse than ever.
So desperate is the situation that Iran may be our new ally in the conflict. The Shi’ite extremists who run Iran have come to the aid of the American-installed, Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad, sending Iranian Revolutionary Guards to help fight the Sunni ISIS. U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading hawk who no one accuses of being soft on Tehran, accommodates the new bedfellow by comparing the situation with the West’s alliance with Stalin during the Second World War.
A wild-eyed optimist might even see this bizarre situation as a backdoor route to a new entente with the heretofore-implacable Iran. Were this catastrophe to have a silver lining of bridging the chasm between Iran and the West, it would be based on our mutual interest in an intra-Muslim sectarian conflict – and it is hard to see how anything good could come from our getting mired in something like that. In fact, the engagement of Western forces in Middle Eastern and Asian situations we really do not well understand may be the greatest lesson of this entire mess. The determination of George W. Bush for “regime change” in Iraq (something his father had, in hindsight, the wisdom to stop short of) unleashed a firestorm of consequences. Saddam was a murderous tyrant, but the current situation presents for Iraqis all the horrors of his dictatorship and more – plus unprecedented instability for the entire region.
Where we go from here is something the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and other allied leaders are pondering now. And they may be as baffled as the rest of us. Given the West’s past failures in the region, it is hard to be hopeful.