Is a third Iraq war imminent?

The latest Iraq war is between Iraq’s pro-Iranian Shiite government and pro-Al Qaeda Sunni rebels. It boils down to Iran vs. Al Qaeda, radical Shiites versus radical Sunnis. The first rule of foreign policy is if your enemies are killing each other, don’t step in to stop them.

What we’ve seen in Syria, and now in Iraq, is the early phase of a 30-year civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, which will go from region to region, country to country, tribe to tribe. Fighters will become increasingly radical and brutal, and they will be fueled by Arab oil money. For them, it is a fight about religion, power, geography and resources. And it could well be a fight to the finish.

America has a choice: We can be caught in the middle of this generational war, propping up this side or that, sometimes switching sides. Or we can figure out what our underlying strategic interests in the region are and find a way to achieve them that doesn’t involve U.S. forces or military assistance.


Sadly, our leaders are spending their efforts blaming each other for what went wrong rather than finding a way out of the mess. It’s like listening to your kids arguing, “It’s not my fault, he started it” . . . “No, it wasn’t me, she’s the one who started it!”

Iraq is descending once again into a brutal civil war, and what’s Washington doing? Wringing its hands and blaming the other guy! Bush supporters say it’s all Obama’s fault for failing to leave a residual force in Iraq after we won the war. Obama supporters say the original sin was Bush’s flawed decision to invade Iraq over a decade ago.

Enough already! Let’s just agree it’s everybody’s fault. Bush shouldn’t have gone into Iraq and Obama shouldn’t have gotten out. There is plenty of blame to go around for past mistakes, but we are where we are and the question now is, what do we do?

An important but often forgotten test for American foreign policy decisions is what is in our country’s national interest. It’s not about what is best for Iraq or Afghanistan or anyone else. The question is what’s best for America. We have three sustaining vital strategic interests in the Middle East: oil, terrorists and Israel. We want their oil, we don’t want their terrorists and we want Israel to survive in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. 

As the region descends into generational civil war, Shiites and Sunnis will target each other’s oil fields and refineries. Unless we’re prepared to occupy the entire region for decades, we should face the fact we, America plus the world, are not going to get our oil from a war zone. Arab oil will no longer be cheap, abundant or secure, and it is unlikely to be so ever be again.

At a minimum, America needs to be energy independent. We should work with our Canadian and Mexican allies to create a North American energy corridor. In the last several years American technology, perseverance and ingenuity have developed ways to find, extract and bring to market our own oil and natural gas. American shale energy is so plentiful it will satisfy our own needs and soon be enough to make us the energy supplier to the world. American oil and natural gas can replace Arab oil and gas, but only if we have the political will to take the shackles off the American energy industry. There is violence today in Iraq, and experts are talking about a new floor of $5-per-gallon gasoline. We can no longer hold our economy hostage to warring tribes in the Middle East.

Fracking and horizontal drilling can be done safely and environmentally responsibly if we require the best industry practices. Approving the Keystone XL pipeline, immediately, would show the world that America has set out on a different course and is committed to developing an alternative to Middle East oil.

Some say we must re-engage in Iraq to prevent Al Qaeda from seizing control and using it as a launching pad for attacks against Americans. That’s the same argument the same people used to justify our decade-long, unsuccessful, nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has established a presence in dozens of countries throughout North Africa, the Middle East, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, all the way to South Asia. Al Qaeda can use countries from Libya to Syria to Pakistan to threaten Americans; an American military presence in all of them is unrealistic.

To keep terrorists from our shores, we must commit to securing our borders and focus our intelligence-gathering on possible terrorists rather than the broad American public. Our airline security system gives Granny from Grand Rapids, who is taking the grandkids to Disney World, the same level of scrutiny it gives a young man who has traveled multiple times to the tribal regions of Pakistan. We gather intelligence on hundreds of millions, rather than zeroing in on those with terrorist profiles. By focusing on everyone, we’re focusing on no one. Our current system wastes time and resources. We need to fix it.

We may not have a formal defense treaty with Israel, but we do have moral and strategic interests in helping it survive in a dangerous neighborhood that is about to get even more dangerous. We should do everything possible to give Israel the tools it needs to defend itself. Period.

Some say we’ve paid too high a price in Iraq to lose it now. Nearly 5,000 Americans lost their lives and tens of thousands were injured in the Iraq War. They and their families will bear the mental and physical scars of battle for their lifetimes. We’ve spent well over a trillion dollars in American treasure in oil-rich Iraq. All of that is true, and it’s tragic. But it is also in the past. There is nothing we can do to erase that, and very little we can do to “save” Iraq.

The brutal truth is we wanted Iraq to be a democratic and free nation more than the Iraqis did. There are 65,000 American-trained and equipped soldiers in the Iraqi Army running away from 2,000 Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) marauders. The sight of Iraqi soldiers taking off their uniforms and throwing aside their weapons in hopes of blending into the crowd as Al Qaeda/ISIS advances says it all. The Iraqi military and government are not failing for lack of numbers, funds, training or equipment. They’re failing for lack of will. We handed them democracy on a silver platter, and they didn’t want it.

Our main concern in Iraq today is the 20,000 American civilians who are still there. They are vulnerable, and we should do everything possible to bring them home quickly and safely. No one wants to see the YouTube video of black-masked, machete-wielding Al Qaeda terrorists ready to strike at blindfolded, kneeling Americans.

What we have failed to understand throughout our wars of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan is that we see war and peace through a different lens than our enemies do. Americans see peace as the normal state of affairs, with war occurring when peace breaks down. When war does break out, we believe it is temporary and that peace will be restored when it is over. We believe in wars that have winners and losers and, perhaps most importantly, that every war eventually ends.

The people we have been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq do not see war and peace the same way. For them, war is never over. Peace is merely a pause while both sides regroup to fight again.

Some of our brave men and women who bore the brunt of battle in Iraq are now questioning whether their sacrifices were in vain. What they must remember is they weren’t fighting for Iraq, or for its various tribes. Our soldiers and sailors and marines and pilots fought for America. They fought nobly, and bravely. If there is any failure, it is not with America’s military, but with our political leaders.

I was a young National Security Council staffer working in the West Basement of the White House the night we evacuated the last American forces from Vietnam. My colleagues and I pledged that we would never again see Americans fight and die in a war we couldn’t win, in an effort to impose Western democracy on a country halfway around the world that didn’t want it.

But America made many of the same mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan that it did in Vietnam. Americans are once again war-weary, and once again determined not to send our troops to fight for dictators who don’t like us in countries that don’t matter. Hopefully the lesson sticks this time.

Just because there is no U.S. military solution for Iraq isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for President Obama to do nothing. All too often he sets up the straw man argument: We don’t want to go to war, so therefore we do nothing.

The United States has vital strategic interests in the region – oil, terrorists and Israel – that will not be met if the president uses the excuse of no boots on the ground to do nothing. Lobbing a few missiles into Iraq or bombing a few areas may look like “action,” but neither will do anything to change the battle’s outcome. America’s national security does not always mean sending in the Marines, but it does mean taking concrete steps to guarantee our vital interests.

If the president fails to do so, he cannot hide behind the excuse that Iraq was Bush’s war, and losing it was Bush’s failure. If he fails to take the steps available to him to develop American energy resources, to protect Americans from terrorist attacks and to offer full support to our ally Israel, it will be on his watch, and on his head.