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From Mission Creep to Creepy Mission

SOS John Kerry is quoted in a NYTimes story by Michael Gordon (war correspondent) thus: "BAGHDAD — Winding up a day of crisis talks with Iraqi leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the Sunni militants seizing territory in Iraq had become such a threat that the United States might not wait for Iraqi politicians to form a new government before taking military action."

If we take military action, why would Maiki and his Shiite government become more inclusive? In any case, what is the U.S. interest in supporting either Shias or Sunnis? What interest do we have in favoring one religious group over another. 

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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The interests (from our perspecive) have nothing to do with the religious differences between Shi'a and Sunni.  We (at some levels - not necessarily you and I) distinguish the practical political positions of two contesting (3 with the Kurds) groups who self-identify by their cultural traditions, whih happen to be dominated by their relgious distinctions.  On a *relaive* basis we judge our national interests as better aligned with the Shi'a dominted government that we worked to make posible than with the Jihadist factions of ISIL (who happn to be domiated (and financed) by Sunni histoprical-cutural oos.

Mark L.

At this point our interest may be to avert genocide as there will be mass killings in the Sunnis take over Bagdad. Is the terrorist angle a concern? To bring in troops would be a big mistake. But if any troops are sent, W, Chaney, Rumsfeld, Wolfkowitz and their children should be at the front. 

ML: "The interests (from our perspecive) have nothing to do with the religious differences between Shi'a and Sunni." That's not how they are likely to see our preference or act on them. This is part of our blind spot on the ME.

Bill's suggestion is the only possible reason I see for escalation talk here. Maybe the hope is to contain the horror that's going on in Syria from spreading into Iraq--prop up Maliki at least long enough to figure out whether peaceful partition or a new government or some kind of coalition group can be formed, some sort of secondary role with a quick in and out. Maybe they think the Sunnis will hold off if they think we're going to pick out targets to bomb from the aircraft carriers? 

Not sure what to make of the 100 Green Berets sent in to advise. Advise whom? Of what? Are they supposed to figure out what we can bomb that won't hurt any innocents? That's just about impossible to do in a civil insurrection. And how much ground 100 guys can cover in an entire country where battles are break out in several places stymies me.

The only strategic objective in Iraq is stable oil prices and to ensure an ally in the region to disrupt "terrorist" networks (or whoever the USA deems to be the latest terrorist group out to destroy America this time around).

it is too late now as the situation is totally deteriorated, the war is lost, and there is no way to regain what was lost without more ground troops to stabilize rand provide security until a government can be formed and created.

The US already went through this once. And what Obama should have done is amp up the political and diplomatic support to ensure that the democratic, secular, institutions were in addition to security was stabilizing the country. There is no point playing the blame game but it came unravelled under his watch so he bears the responsibility.  America is tired and has no appetite for another ground war but I see no way to really stabilize the situation without a robust security until the politics can be sorted out if ever.

They can take out as many ISIS leaders as they want but without solid democratic institutions, the whole thing falls apart.



According to this story in the NYTimes, not even the Shiites are of one mind on joining the army to save Iraq: "But one cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, who led a militia that fought the government and lost in 2008, decided instead that he too would challenge the state. Mr. Sadr revived his Mahdi Army, possibly one of the largest and most experienced battle groups in Iraq, and announced that under no circumstances would it be under the control of the government.

"His open challenge to Iraq’s Shiite establishment lays bare the latest in a series of cracks that are dividing the country’s three main ethnic groups, the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, as the Iraqi state comes unraveled. But as Mr. Sadr’s actions show, the fault lines are not strictly between religious and ethnic groups, but also within each group, a fracturing that could lead Iraq to even greater chaos and uncertainty." Full Story.


"what is the U.S. interest in supporting either Shias or Sunnis"


That's not the point, and ISIS is not the same as "Sunnis." Certainly the US has an interest in an extreme offshoot of Al-Qaeda not taking over Iraq, and creating  humanitarian nightmare (read about Christians in Mosul?). And, potentially, sending the price of oil to $200 a gallon if war spreads across the Middle East. I read today that ISIS has decided to try Amman before Baghdad.

At this point, of course, it may be 4 or 5 years too late....

Helping to defend Jordan makes sense. But what makes us think that we can help an Iraq that is so fractured? Would we not have to invade it and govern it under nmartial law to "pacify" it? What sense does that make?

Ms. Steinfels - wrote and posted this earlier elsewhere but some is relevant to the comments of Bernard and Carlo:

But, what is even more interesting is to compare US Administration decisions/reasoning from 1954-1964 to Iraq 2011 - 2014.

a) Eisenhower allowed France to ignore the 1954 Geneva Convention (US did not sign); he set up and recognized the Diem government, and sent in 200 advisers with military aid. The Geneva Accords recognized two simple facts: 1) French Empire was gone; 2) this was a nationalistic civil war that needed a political resolution and set up elections. Eisenhower ignored elections and allowed Diem to become a brutal dictatorship that went after certain Vietnamese tribes, ethnic groups, Buddhists. Why this choice/reasoning - 1) No Second China; Korean War hangover; no understadning of the Vietnamese culture, peoples, religions, distinction between Viet Minh and Viet Cong.
b) Kennedy inherited this policy along with contending with the Bay of Pigs, Berlin Wall, and staff that were biased toward military intervention and who did not understand Vietnamese cultures, context, etc. Best resource - remember watching special TV report- Vietnam White Paper that stated: No Second China; No Korea; enshrined the Domino Theory. They failed to see that this was a civil war; that it was nationalistic at the core (not China directed); and supported Diem - a failed, brutal, and totalitarian regime.If you study Bernard Fall, Senator  Guerning's book (he was one of the lone votes against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution), The Pentagon Papers - you note that Kennedy's Cabinet/advisers - LBJ, McNamara, Rusk, Rostow, Westmoreland & Maxwell Taylor- misread the situation and wanted military intervention. Just like the Cuban Missle Crisis - Kennedy was the one, sane control element. He had become disillusined with Diem, with the endless military requests, and then the Diem assassinations and began to pull back. Unfortunately, with his death, LBJ jumped in.

Similarities and Comparisons:

- Vietnam and Iraq are nationalistic, self determination situations
- Both were civil wars created by decades (centuries) of ethnic, sectarian, religious differences
- Vietnam and Iraq were both created by European Treaties and were colonies
- Vietnam - one resolution in the 1950s would have been the Geneva Accords and elections
   Iraq - have had a number of elections since the overthrow of Hussein but no resolution
- in both cases, the powers to be ignored the local cultures, tribes, etc.; and imposed governments - Diem/al-Maliki that were brutal, biased, and totalitarian
- in both cases, the US has tried to support via military means rather than focus on the poltical      needs
- in both cases, we have advisers/Congress who see military action as the only solution (and since 1945, military action in Vietnam only resulted in failure; and to date, the same is true with Iraq whether 1st Bush, 2nd Bush, etc.

-  Instead of LBJ, Rostow, McNamara - we have McCain, Graham, Fox News, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Bremer, etc.
- we had Vietnamization in Vietnam that led to the collapse of South Vietnam; in Iraq we trained and provided high tech weapons.....who knows the outcome to date?
- Conclusions - US has to move past simplistic, jingoistic statements such as McCain, Graham, Fox News, Tea Vietnam, they understand nothing about the peoples, country, etc. and just want to exert military intervention. Just as the Domino Theorgy was a failure so any policy that simply underlines stopping terrorism will be a failure. It is a symptom but not the disease.

It will be interesting to see the next few decisions.  In some ways, it appears that Obama is playing Kennedy all over and balancing US reponse between the hawks and the doves.  Agree that the Sunni-Shia divide is not black and long ISIL can control the various Awakening Tribes; whether it overreaches (e.g. Jordan); the role the southern Iraq oilfields play along with international/US companies; can Kerry mobilize international support e.g. Iran, Saudi, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Eygpt, European, Russian to allow time to begin a political solution (July 1st???). 

Ms. Steinfels - have you seen the interesting article in the Atlantic which documents Saudi Prince Bandar and his diversion of funds and arms that eventually went from the Syrian Free Army to ISIL; he was fired in April and it appears that the US was involved in this Saudi decision by the king.  This is an example of how any effort can be abused, misdirected, etc.  (remember, we armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and then had to go up against some of our own weapons). 

It also appears that al-Maliki has lost the support of Iran - supposedly, a very frank and direct public browbeating from the QUUDS general to al-Maliki.  Will the al-Maliki situation play out like the Diem took an assassination.  Diem would have stalled, delayed, etc. while the situation crumbled.

Mr. Lancelotti: ISIS is made up of Sunnis, perhaps of a more fanatic sort than the Sunni Baathists deposed by Paul Bremer. It appears that there is an alliance, at least of convenience, between Sunnis of different political outlooks. At some point, this alliance will come to an end and Sunnis will be fighting one another. As the Shiites will be fighting one another. Preventing terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. is an important national interest, but involving ourselves militarily in what looks increasingly like a civil war seems to me to compromise that national interest.

Jordan: Israel will defend Jordan!

B dH: All very interesting, very familiar, and very complicated. Lessons learned? After Vietnam, I felt assured we'd never make that mistake again. Alas!

Patrick Lang's blog has been following the events, the uncertainties and the disinfo very carefully. One of the regular poster has this to say: " the policy issue should be one of containment. We can't remake these societies, they have to do it for themselves. The strategy should be to support our friends and allies, like Jordan and Turkey, as well as sort of friends like Lebanon, so that they can withstand the turmoil and they are themselves not destabilized by either refugee flows overwhelming their capacity or attempts to exploit their own internal divisions. This can include humanitarian aid, foreign internal defense support, as well as a variety of civilian and military (civ-mil) build partner capacity. The domino theory of Communism spreading turned out not to be a very good one, a domino explanation for a destabilized Levant may be a more apt use of the analogy. Personally, I would not like to see it put to the test!Here's the link to that discussion, but the whole site has followed events very closely: Here

Ms. Steinfels.

a) I never argued that the US should involve itself militarily. I just pointed out that several US interests (economic, political and humanitarian) are indeed at stake.

b) hopefully many of the several million Iraqi Sunnis are neither Batthists nor fanatics nor interested in a certainly terrible civil war, and could be convinced to participare in a political solution

Arming ISIS in Syria and going after them in Iraq.

We are at war with Eastasia, we have always been at war with Eastasia!


Madness as Clipton says at the end of The Bridge over the River Kwai.



It seems like only yesterday (actually it was December 2011) when Obama rhapsodized that "we" meaning, one can only assume, he and his administration, were handing over "a sovreign, stable and self-reliant Iraq".  As I recall, he referred to it as an "extraordinary achievment".  Indeed.

He is also creating an ungodly mess on our southern border, with illegal alien children being trucked there so as to achieve pretty much instant amnesty, and,  ultimately, citizenship.  Lots of new democrat voters.

Then there's the IRS scandal percolating along nicely at the House investgation.  And Bengazi, and Bergstrom, and...

Looks like Obama's goal to "remake" America, (or is it "fundamentally transform" ?) America to his liking is coming along well.


The President must certainly appreciate your acute observations and implied good wishes. Cheers, Bob.

Ms. Steinfels,

You asked what *we* were doing choosing religious sides.  That the people of Iraq often self identify by their religious subset is true, but a different matter.  Do we risk their interpreting our actions differently than we intend?   Of course.  I don't think this is at all a blind spot - it follows from decision-making under uncertainty, given the structure of society in Iraq.

My correspondents in Iraq ad UAE want to kow why we are not acting?  So there are risks of being misunderstood if we do not choose, as well.



There is no misunderstanding. It is real simple. Keep oil prices stable, handle your fanatics, and don't fly planes into skyscrapers. 

For the vast majority of people all these rivalries are simply interesting exotic wine and cheese chatter.

America just needs to be transparent and clear about its interests and drop them whole "exceptional" mythologizing and then things will become much clearer.

The UAE has an army. Last time I checked they are part of the Arab League.

George D.

"There is no misunderstanding. It is real simple. Keep oil prices stable, handle your fanatics, and don't fly planes into skyscrapers."

Do you expect that the Obama administration's Mideast policy (which included an essentially complete disengagement from Iraq since 2011) will achieve such goals?

Somehow I don't feel confident at all.


I already stated that he is largely to blame for this. I agree that he mishandled the diplomatic end (which was supposed to be his strength) badly. He should have made sure it was much stable and been more engaged. Bad for the country when such sacrifices financial and human are made for what looks like a waste of time and energy. I doubt that anybody has a lot of confidence in the USA now and that is a loss. But leadership has to emerge from somewhere so why not the Arab League, the UN or even Russia. No matter what people think of Putin, he is a master geo-politican

George D.

all right. Basically I hear you saying that in order to hope for a not-too-disastrous outcome in the Middle East, we may as well give up on Obama and place our hope in ... Putin.

No, I am saying stylistaically and substantively at least Putin can be counted on to act in Russia's self interest. As Churchill said, It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.

I think the only realistic thing that can be done is what Obama is doing now. Re-engage. Assasinate ISIS leaders and give Maliki another shot.

But leadership has to emerge from somewhere so why not the Arab League, the UN or even Russia.

I am wriggling into my Pollyanna suit (it fit better when I was younger) to ask yet again: why are the UN diplomats on one of their eternal lunch breaks during this crisis?  Iraq may be plagued with difficulties, and the US bears some responsibility for that, but it seems to me that the basic picture is: a functioning democracy, which is no small thing in the Middle East however it was born, is in grave peril, and from what I can tell, it is in virtually nobody's interest that Iraq descends into a Syrian-like civil war.  If the UN was not created to address such a situation, then why don't we just shut it down and let Donald Trump develop the Manhattan real estate it's currently consuming?


JP: UN: I am guessing that the UN has not been called upon because it's unclear who would call upon it. Iraq itself? Seems unlikely. Hard to imagine that U.S./Russia could get it together in the Security Concil. But say someone did call upon it. What would the UN do?


JP - you state - "....a functioning democracy..."   Really???  Do you have any idea of how and what the al-Maliki government is like?  You might want to ask a Sunni in Baghdad.  Part of the whole issue here is the ISIL finds a receptive and willing audience throughought Sunni Iraq because of the totalitarian, oppressive, and bigoted al-Maliki government.

Even after meeting with Kerry, al-Maliki is refusing to form a broad based democratic government.

If only there was someone to keep the country stable, say, somone like Saddam Hussein.

Bill - no, I haven't been to Baghdad.  I know what I read.  Turnout in the most recent Iraqi election was 60%.  al-Maliki's party won a plurality in the most recent election, but that plurality adds up to a relatively small minority.  Iraqi parties will need to form a governing coalition.  al-Maliki seems to be in a stronger position than anyone else to form such a coalition (a calculus that, I understand, the US would dearly love to change).  For good or ill, this is what the voters of Iraq have chosen.  I assume Claire's comment directly above is tongue-in-cheek.  Surely the way forward for Iraq, and ultimately for every nation in the region, is to strengthen its young democratic processes, and work toward more inclusive and broad-based government.


Margaret - what would the UN do?  Keep the peace?  Prevent genocide?  Isn't that one of the things it does?  Even though it has been ineffective at doing these things at times in the past, should we assume that it can't improve its effectiveness?  (As I say, the Pollyanna corset is tightening.)

al-Maliki is not an admirable leader, but he has democratic legitimacy.  Isn't that something that the UN would want to support and foster?  

Whatever else ISIS is, surely it represents a foreign incursion that is causing havoc and worse in at least two countries.  We've seen Jordan and Lebanon named as being at risk.  I don't doubt that there are scenarios that would involve even more widespread instability.

How can the UN NOT have relevance for a possibility like that?  (Has the relevance of the UN surpassed its expiration date as a force for peace?)

I'm wearing my Catholic social teaching hat here.  It's an article of Catholic social teaching that there be international bodies that work for peace and stability.  Several teaching documents have named the UN as a concrete realization of this principle.  From this Catholic point of view, I'd much rather see the UN take the lead on something like this than see the US commit 300 advisers to fix the problem unilaterally.  From this point of view, I don't object to it being the Arab League rather than the UN.  


It is time to partition Iraq…Iraq is basically a construction created by Britain and France after the fall of the Ottoman empire for the benefit of the West, without reference to the diverse communities that make up the population…Iraq (and Syria) should be partitioned into a Kurdish state, Sunni state and Shia state so that the security forces created by them can be trusted by the communities in which they operate. Syria is a special case; there is a large Sunni population, and a minority Alawite population more closely aligned to Shia than Sunni and some other minorities whose interests should be recognized. Such a resolution may well be supported by the other Moslem states in the region.

Claire's comment directly above is tongue-in-cheek.

Jim, it's not so clear to me. A ruthless dictator may be preferable to war, bloodshed, and foreign occupation (unless, perhaps, the dictator massively kills his own people, like Pol Pot did). I am not sure at all that the past decade would not have been better for most of the people of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In any case it was not for the US government to decide what the Iraqis wanted, or rather, what they should have wanted, what was good for them - and then, to try to force it upon them. It's another form of dictatorship.



"Margaret - what would the UN do?  Keep the peace?  Prevent genocide?"

Assuming that what is reported about ISIS is correct (that they are highly motivated, fanatical fighters bent on establishing a "caliphate"), how do you keep peace without fighting a war? Do you expect the UN to send in Samoan or Uruguayan troops to confront ISIS and keep them at bay? I honestly don't understand what you are talking about.

Hi, Claire - while I opposed the US invasion, Saddam Hussein was a dictator who did massively kill his own people.  He also started a couple of wars.  He also looted the country and in addition to perpetrating genocide, was an egregious human rights violator.  If the choice of what the US left behind is between a struggling democracy and someone like Saddam who keeps the peace using Saddam's methods, I'll take the struggling democracy.

Your point that it is not for the US to decide is one that I agree with.  I'm quite troubled that the US government is even now actively meddling in Iraq's internal political process in order to try to give Maliki the boot.  I'm surprised that there hasn't been more commentary here about it here.  


JP: Don't want to be a fuss but you didn't answer my question: Who would call upon the UN to intervene? I think that's part of the protocol. And then!!!! The UN has to supply something: Peacekeepers? Refugee specialists? The UN is busy in Jordan with Syrian refugees and in Turkey, ditto. It has and probably still has Iraqi refugees in Syria. Who would send peacekeepers, especially in the absence of peace. U.S.? Russia? Iran? Each has a chit in the game; could they be peacekeepers? All else failing the UN seems to turn to African and/or Asian countries or peacekeepers but they hardly seem a match for the ferocious fighting in play.

Is Maliki the legitimate president? Iraq has a parliamentary system, as I'm sure you know. That means that Maliki has to form a government from the parties in the Parliament. He had a plurality not a majority, hence he must work with others. If he refuses or can't get the votes, others should step forward and attempt to form a government. Parliament's can produce minority governments by creating coalitions and selecting as president or prime minister someone from a minority party (isn't Cameron in GB the head of a minority government in alliance with the Liberal Party?) Any political scientists here to straighten out my misapprehensions?

May I ask about the name of the terrorist organization we're discussing?  I've seen it referred to as both ISIS and ISIL, and I've seen at least three names: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Are any of these more or less right than the others?

Food for thought: Here is a piece (an opinion piece) arguing why Iraq is unlikely to remain a unified state: Kurdistan.

"To sum up, conventional wisdom holds that Iraq’s breakup would be destabalising and therefore should be avoided at all costs. Looking at Iraq’s dismal history, it should be apparent that it is the very effort to hold Iraq together that has been destabalising. Pursuit of coerced unity has led to continuous violence, repression, dictatorship and genocide. It is not possible over the long run to force people living in a geographically defined area to remain part of a state against their will. Iraq’s Kurds will never reconcile to being part of Iraq. Under these circumstances, a managed amicable divorce is in the best interests of Iraq, and will contribute to greater stability in the region."

Whole thing  At Juan Cole. Informed Comment.

Iraqi Parliament: Here's a rundown of how this works. (Correction: Maliki is prime minister, not president as I said above).  NYTimes

"Mr. Maliki was both the largest vote-getter personally and has control of the largest bloc of seats. His Rule of Law party controls at least 92 seats in Parliament, with a variety of other parties having no more than 33 seats each. A majority needed to form the government is 165 seats of the 328 in parliament."

Margaret - I admit I don't have a fully fledged plan for UN intervention, but I suspect that answers could be found to all of your questions.  Who would call in the UN?  Possibly Maliki, if he perceives that the UN would help him: according to a Foreign Policy briefing that showed up in my inbox this morning, "Iraqi Prime Mininster Nouri al-Maliki has confirmed that Syrian warplanes had carried out airstrikes against mililtants near the border town of al-Qaim.  Maliki said he did not request the strikes, but welcomed any attack against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)."  [Emphasis mine].  He seems open to assistance.

You and Carlo both asked, What would a UN force be expected to do, and who would supply the resources?  Those are good questions, and let's agree that the UN probably is woefully unprepared for an intervention of the type I'm envisioning (but is that acceptable?).  Margaret, your list of possible suppliers of troops and other resources omitted all of the developed nations of Western and Central Europe, who are a good deal closer to the area than the US and have some military capability, some of which has been deployed in the last decade, e.g. in Libya and Afghanistan.

Would a UN peacekeeping force be expected to fight?  In a word, yes.  A sovereign nation ruled by a democratically elected government has been invaded, seems unable to repel the invasion, and there are reports of mass killings perpetrated by the invaders.  Let me ask again: if this is not a situation for which the UN was founded, then why was it founded? Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter seems pertinent to this discussion.

Is Maliki the legitimate president?  The short answer is, yes.  My understanding is that he was appointed president following the previous national elections, according to the legitimate processes of Iraqi government, and presumably continues to hold that office until such time as a new government is formed pursuant to the most recent elections (and it seems there is a good chance that he will continue in office, if he and his party are able to form a governing coalition). 

Let me make this point one more time: I believe, from the Catholic point of view, that there are some good reasons for the UN to assert itself and fulfill its charter in this situation.  As Catholics, we should want an effective international organization that is a force for peace and stability.  The world is in worse shape because of UN dysfunction in this regard.  Genocides have happened on the UN's watch.  It seems that President Obama, contrary to the rhetoric of his first presidential campaign, may have given up on the UN, in favor of unilateral intervention and drone strikes.  That's disappointing.  

Maybe we are in a post-UN world now.  The Arab League seems to be the regional organization that is being looked to for intervention in the Iraqi crisis (we will have to see how that pans out).   NATO intervened in the Balkan crisis during the Clinton administration.  The EU seems to be effective in certain areas of international relations.  Ad hoc coalitions intervened in Afghanistan and Libya.  Is a United Nations necessary?  I'm probably among the less UN-supportive regular participants here at dotCom, but I'm not ready to give up on the promise of the UN.  I'd rather see it reformed and fixed than consigned to irrelevance.


Peacekeepers? Maybe the Swiss Guard...They're Catholic. (just joking).

Yes, European, western and eastern all have competent peacekeeper armies. France, England, Norway, Czech Republic. Curious that they're not volunteering.

Curious that they're not volunteering.

Right.  I'm not volunteering, either!  Is Article 7 just Utopian fantasy?


JP - elections can be rigged; influence buying, threats, etc.  The Mahdi Army does not support al-Maliki altho they did back in 2007. 

Just because one figure wins a plurality - I would not be quick to say - *this is a democratic institution*

Comparison - US constantly stated that Diem in Vietnam was the duly elected democratic, years later with documentaiton we know the full story - elections were rigged; many folks never voted because of threats, polling results were destroyed, etc.

Keep in mind what happened a few years ago in Eygpt - because of the way the election was set up - the population had to vote for one of four folks.   None won a majority and by the system the highest vote getter was awarded the presidency.  Unfortunately, this person then abused his power and tried to install a religious rule - the democratic majority nevered voted for him and there was no parlimentary system so no other parties had to back him.

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