The perils of arming Iraq to beat back Al Qaeda

For almost every foreign policy problem, John Kerry has an “easy button.” Unfortunately, hitting that button usually doesn’t do the trick.  And sometimes, it leaves the world worse off.

And so we would do well to consider the prospect of success for the “easy button” identified by the Secretary of State as the way to keep Iraq from teetering into a full-blown civil war.

With Al Qaeda-affiliated militants on the ascendancy in Anbar province, the Secretary recently declared, “We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground….We will help [the Iraqis] in their fight, but this fight, in the end, they will have to win, and I am confident they can.”


Fighting, you see, is hard. So the U.S. will help, according to Kerry, by accelerating arms shipments -- including sophisticated gear like surveillance drones -- to Iraqi government forces battling the resurgent Islamist terrorists.

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    But “easy” now can make for harder times ahead.

    In dumping arms into a region that is starting to make the Balkans bloodbath of the ‘90s look tame, the U.S. runs the risk that American weapons will wind up being put to no good.

    Handing out arms to unstable allies is always a chancy business. Remember when we filled the arsenal of Pakistani military–strongman Agha Yahya Khan?

    The U.S. built up that country’s military as a firebreak against the expansion of Soviet power in South Asia.  But in 1971, Khan used American tanks and planes to wage genocide on East Pakistan.

    As the violence spun out of control, the White House made matters worse, doubling down on aid to keep “their man” in power, rather than pressing Islamabad to back off.

    The end result: disaster. As many as three million may have died in the civil war. Millions more fled as refugees to India. Eventually Pakistan and India came to blows in one of the sharpest and most destabilizing surrogate conflicts of the Cold War.

    Then as now, the act of sending arms to troubled places is not necessarily problematic. What matters more is the policy behind the armaments shipments.

    Yes, handing bucket-loads of weapons to shaky allies is risky business. Virtually any strategy involving civil-war-like situations risks all kinds of hazardous outcomes. Even doing nothing can be risky.

    Afghanistan was a case in point. Once the Soviets bugged out in the 1980s, the U.S. cut off aid and stopped caring about what happened in the Hindu Kush.  That neglect pushed affairs directly onto the road to 9/11.

    More important than determining how many artillery rounds should be delivered to Baghdad is establishing a prudent and realistic path for American leadership in the region.

    Frankly, that is what Americans really ought to fret about.

    After all, Iraq would probably still be peaceful if the Obama administration had not been in such a hurry to pull U.S. troops out of the country. (Nobody can seriously believe the U.S. could not have gotten a Status of Forces Agreement to keep troops there had it really wanted one.)  Instead, armies are marching once more to retake Fallujah.

    In addition to the precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, the administration has been little more than a bystander in the Syrian Civil War.  That conflict is now attracting and funneling Al Qaeda fighters into Iraq.

    It would have been bad policy for the U.S. to make open-ended commitment to stay in Iraq. But, the White House should have finished job.

    Likewise, it would have been a mistake to jump with both feet into the Syrian civil war.

    But, in both cases, if we had done the right thing instead of nothing, John Kerry wouldn’t be trying to put an arms-deal Band-Aid on Sunni Triangle.

    Arms aside, what we need from the White House is leadership that reestablishes America’s ability to influence outcomes in the region for the good -- rather than trumpeting easy “fixes” while doing as little as possible.

    A sound regional strategy would start by rebuilding ties with the Egyptian government and cheerleading for freedom, rather than being an obstacle to efforts to rebuilding the political process. The White House should also concentrate on strengthening our alliance with Israel, rather than desperately trying to broker a peace deal that would weaken that country’s security.

    Additionally, the U.S. should:

    • Redouble its support for Jordan,
    • Crack down on meddling by Iran and Hezbollah throughout the region, and
    • Work with the Europeans to shut down once and for all the pipelines funneling Islamist fighters from that continent into the Middle East.

    Finally, the administration should commit to rebuilding the U.S. military so that we remain a force to be feared in the region.

    All these steps would make for a sound regional policy—one in which handing arms over to Baghdad would be worth the risk.  And within the context of a strong regional strategy, U.S. arms just might turn the tide in Iraq. More importantly, a confident U.S. strategy could more effectively pressure Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to do the right things in his country.

    Absent such a strategy, however, America just risks fueling another civil war. Or empowering another would-be regional despot to set-up a one man, one vote, one time regime.