Almost three years into the war in Iraq, FBI counterterrorism chief Garry Bald was reported in the New York Times as being unable to distinguish between Sunnis and Shia in a legal deposition.
A following Congressional Quarterly study found most Washington officials were confused between the two with another FBI executive identifying Iran as a Sunni nation.
Just recently James R. Clapper Jr. director of national intelligence admitted, “I didn’t see the collapse of the Iraqi security forces in the north coming. I didn’t see that. We overestimated the ability and the will of our allies the Iraqi army to fight.”
He refers to an “Iraq army” when it is led and composed primarily of Shia, whose will to fight is to its sectarian militias, arrayed against Sunni, Kurd, and other religious and tribal loyalties that people actually will die for.
One needs no further information to understand why America’s decades-long war in Iraq has lacked direction. It is not too extreme to suggest that the religious and sectarian divisions in Iraq and the Middle East generally are the only important things to know about the region.
That America’s leaders do not is scandalous.
It should be obvious to anyone not blind to what most people in the world think is important, namely family, tribe and religion.
As this column put it — even before President George W. Bush decided to go to war against terrorism and create a democratic Iraq — in the November 20, 2002 Washington Times, “Since Iraq was drawn on the maps of a far-away colonial office in 1921, it has generated dozens of coups, eight Kurdish revolts, nine Shiite uprisings and three pogroms, all before Saddam imposed his terrible order on the local factions.
"He then allied his secular Arab revivalist Baathists with the minority Muslim Sunnis and Christian Chaldeans, who feared a united fundamentalism more than Hussein. Revolts since then have killed 100,000 Iraqi Kurds and 30,000 Shiites. Playing well with others is not a high priority in old Mesopotamia. While of pluralism there is aplenty, it is not the benign type required for a democracy.”
Iraq is a collection of tribes of different religious and ethnic loyalties who mostly consider their opposites as heretics and evildoers. There are a majority Arab Shia in the south of perhaps 60 percent, a 20 to 30 percent Arab Sunni minority in the west, and a 10 percent Kurd — mainly Sunni — group in the north.
Historical, cultural and religious differences are severe and they have been fighting for centuries when not controlled by ruthless leaders — mostly Sunnis. The Shia gladly rallied to democracy since they had the majority and could thus rule over their Sunni and Kurd enemies — as they did and will as long as elections rule an Iraq entity.
President Obama is pleased that a new government has been formed in Iraq that includes all three major groups and insists it will “ultimately be the one to defeat” ISIL. But a Shia is still prime minister and the key slots of defense and interior police are still vacant, the same scenario that allowed the previous Shia prime minister to control both posts.
The Sunnis remain dissatisfied and the Kurds keep talking about a separate state.
What has changed in a decade and how will the results differ this time?
The U.S. could not solve the problem after a decade of occupation with hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground and will rely on the same governmental machinery in Iraq and the same historical animosities to reach a different conclusion?
Certainly something has to be done about ISIL but because Americans were horribly murdered and the U.S. cannot leave the obligation unpaid. Creating democracy in the region or even holding together its artificial states is beyond reasonable means and is not our business anyway.
It is possible however, to make ISIL pay the price in a way to discourage future such acts.
Wisdom starts with putting sectarianism first.
Saudi Arabian, Jordanian, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and even Sunni Iraqi military should be the visible force — with only the U.S. targeting from afar. With Sunni against Sunni, it is clear the target is ISIL not Sunnis generally. The Sunni powers correctly fear the result will advantage Shia powers Iran, Iraq and especially Assad’s Syria. In fact, it is in the interest of all the parties to defeat ISIL and the shift will not be dramatic, not upsetting a regional balance of power.
The U.S. job is to make ISIL pay in a way that will keep future fanatics away from its interests, independent of Shia and Sunni in the process. An indirect victory may be less satisfying but it is a real one.
And, yes, why not put up a banner on a U.S. carrier and declare victory — and get out?
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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