Marino de Medici: History threatens to repeat itself in Iraq

By Marino de Medici

The United States has multiple ways to dump the heads of allied countries that after receiving long, abundant and mostly undeserved support have become a liability. It happened to heads of state like the shah of Iran, who was unceremoniously abandoned to his destiny, and to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, whose overthrow was secretly approved by President John F. Kennedy.

There were plenty of theories that by unloading Diem, Kennedy thought that the overthrow would have facilitated American withdrawal from Vietnam. Just before being assassinated, Kennedy said that the South Vietnamese would have to “hack it” themselves. We now know that both he and his brother Robert felt that South Vietnam could not be defended.

Which leads us to repeat the question in a contemporary setting: can Iraq be defended? Way back then, Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk kept repeating that defending Vietnam was in the American interest. They gave a long series of reasons, from the danger of a Communist take over of South East Asia to the absolute need to demonstrate the strength and reliability of the American pledge of support to friends and allies all over the world. We all know how it went: there were no falling dominoes, Vietnamese nationalism finally triumphed and after a decent interval the United States not only realized its mistake in intervening in the land mass of Asia — something that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had warned against — but that economic and strategic interests would one day bring the United States and Vietnam to be partners in Asia.

History threatens to repeat itself in Iraq where the present day head of the government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki , is under the Damocles sword of an American decapitation. He is being fingered as the man responsible for the blatant inability of the Iraqi army, fielded by American money, training and equipment, to stop the advance of ISIS, the radical Islamist group that is currently on the rampage in Iraq.

Al Maliki, of course, is the man who rejected the Status of Forces agreement that would have allowed U.S. troops to stay in Iraq. Nonetheless, the U.S. is committed to fighting al-Qaida, one of the components of ISIS, and the emergence of a radical Islamist state in the heart of the Arab world that would pose an existential threat to some of Washington’s close allies in the region, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. This echoes the old arguments about the need to defend Vietnam, with one important difference, that at that time the enemy was Vietnamese nationalism, while today we lament the fact that Al Maliki and the Shiite leadership in Baghdad are unwilling to adopt a nationalist approach that would allow the Sunnis and the Kurds to share power and the exploitation of resources, of which Iraq has plenty.

Unlike Vietnam, there is no way out of the mess in Iraq that can be directly traced to the Bush Administration and the pro-war faction of the neo cons.

Obama can hardly stand by while the militants impose the Sharia regimen in Northern and Western Iraq. Getting rid of Al Maliki, like the U.S. did with Diem in 1963, will not guarantee the development of a democratic state in Iraq. And while it is true that Al Maliki cultivated deeper ties with neighboring Iran, thus further inflaming the Sunni tribal leaders that he had practically disfranchised, the situation is far more complicated than it would appear.

Ironically, both ISIS and the United States seek greater political representation for the Sunnis and both want to minimize Iranian influence in Iraq. If the radical al Qaida forces have seized control of large areas of Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit, it is because they found willing allies in large sections of the Sunni population, and particularly among the former Baathists.

There is a story out that the taking of Mosul by ISIS was accomplished after Baathist officers abandoned their posts, leaving the military force without any leadership and causing the collapse of the city’s defenses. The picture of the future of Iraq is quite murky but the transition that seems to be shaping up in the minds of many is one that leads to the three state solution: Shiites in the South, Sunnis in the center and Kurds in the north. In the last analysis, this could explain why Obama is doing close to nothing.

Marino de Medici is a Winchester resident and formerly the dean of foreign correspondents in the United States.