The Blog

Obama - Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Along with the hope that "The Arab Spring" gave the world, it now seems that attempts at establishing some form of democracy in Lebanon, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere have not worked out so well for the US and the West. Perhaps it is time for the US and the West to rethink its mission as "Champion of Democracy" and "Keeper of World Peace".

"Oh, when will they ever learn?" - Pete Seeger (1955)

A bit of background on how this disaster got underway in the first place.

Anticipating a victory over Germany and the Ottoman Empire, in May of 1916, representatives of Great Britain and France secretly reached an accord called the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

This Agreement's intention was to divide most of the Arab lands under the rule of the Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence.

Under Sykes-Picot, the Syrian coast and much of modern-day Lebanon went to France.

Britain would take control over central and southern Mesopotamia, around the Baghdad and Basra provinces.

Palestine would have an international administration as other "Christian" powers, namely Russia, held an interest in this region.

The rest of the territory in question - a huge area including modern-day Syria, Mosul in northern Iraq, and Jordan - would have local Arab chiefs under French supervision in the north and British in the south.

Also, Britain and France would retain free passage and trade in the other's zone of influence.

Mother Russia, never far from being involved in this pie slicing game, signed a secret agreement with Britain in March of 1915 allowing her to annex the Ottoman capital of Constantinople and retain control of the Dardanelles - the ever important strait connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.

Sound familiar?

Russia would then agree to British claims over other areas of the vanquished Ottoman Empire and central Persia (Iran) including the oil-rich region of Mesopotamia -corresponding to modern day Iraq, Kuwait, the northeastern section of Syria.

What these greedy soon to be victors did not take into account was that these local Arab chiefs and tribal leaders had very little in common except their unique and diverse ways of worshiping.

Today's crisis is also deeply rooted in the battle for succession in Islam that created the Sunni-Shia divide in the Muslim world today.

Sunni Muslims are in the majority worldwide except in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan where Shia Muslims make up the majority of the total population in those countries.

Although all of this complexity may be a lot to absorb for the average westerner, this history is important because it reveals how little we know about the people of the region and their beliefs.

The ISIS struggle for power in Iraq now clearly demonstrates the strong religious divisions that were suppressed during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

And now they are re-emerging on a previously un-imagined scale.

When the US and the "Coalition of the Willing" went to war in Iraq the second time we opened a Pandora's Box - never be closed again.

Plain and not-so-simple: The West toppled the Sunni led Saddam Hussein government in exchange for a Nouri al-Maliki Shia led government.

The West neutralised Iran's enemy, its Sunni led neighbour Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

All in all, what's going on now in Iraq is a high stakes religious war that threatens to topple the current Maliki Shia led government in Iraq and destabilise the entire region.

Now Iran, which is Shia, would like nothing better than to join with the Shia government in Iraq and Syria to create a huge, unified Shia Caliphate

Once again the US and the West find themselves unwittingly in the middle of a tribal religious war.

No matter what political side you were on regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq, once the invasion occurred, the goals were clear: to create a "stable democracy" that would prevent terrorism like 9-11 from ever happening again and guaranty the West safe access to Iraq's and region's oil reserves.

At this point is seems we have failed on both of these counts with ISIS in control of large parts of Iraq and headed toward Baghdad.

As President Obama alluded to during his presser on June 19, Iraq did managed to pull off one election but he also alluded to the fact that it may have failed to create a representative and inclusive political process that could function and survive for the long haul.

This is not the first time we have found ourselves in the same kind of religious conflict.

This was true in Vietnam five decades ago where the US went to war to stop the "domino effect of Communism" throughout South East Asia thereby securing America's access to the natural resources of that region.

Something the French gave up on a decade before that.

Perhaps the French may have realised that Vietnam was all about religious conflict and positioning for power.

The US war effort supported a Catholic minority government run by Diem over a Buddhist majority.

In Vietnam the US lost over 58,000 of its young men and women in a war that we could never win.

Over four decades ago on March 29, 1973, when the US withdrew from Vietnam, America and her allies had to accept the fact that the Western cultural ideals of a "Jeffersonian Inspired Democracy" would not prevail in that country.

All these years later, Vietnam is in fact a unified and communist run nation who we trade with and is even a prime vacation destination for the grandchildren of those who fought and died there.

Since Vietnam we in the West continue to champion these lofty democratic notions.

Although it has worked in some countries with strong democratic traditions, we have all learned at our peril - it simply does not work everywhere.

Along with the hope that "The Arab Spring" gave the world, it now seems that attempts at establishing some form of democracy in Lebanon, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere have not worked out so well for the US and the West.

Perhaps it is time for the US and the West to rethink its mission as "Champion of Democracy" and "Keeper of World Peace".

President Obama has found himself squarely between Iraq and a hard place.

A spot where many presidents have been before - dealing with an inherited foreign conflict that threatens world security with no easy way out.

Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon all knew this challenge - what was domestically a potential political nightmare might in fact be the right choice in the long term and serve the best interest of the United States.

Obama knows he has a war weary and unwilling public but he also understands he cannot let this region collapse into a terrorist haven.

It will not only take a courageous president but an equally brave Congress to address this problem in an election year.

The stakes on all fronts could not be higher.