Why Iran Is America’s Best New Partner in the Middle East

Military analysis.
June 16 2014 6:16 PM

Why Iran Is America’s Best New Partner in the Middle East

Sometimes we must form alliances with unpleasant nations to prevent something worse.

Iraqi Military.
Iraqi security forces patrol an area near the borders between Karbala and Anbar provinces on June 16, 2014.

Photo by stringer/Reuters

It’s stunning that, as we witness the spectacle of a crumbling Iraq and wonder what to do about it, the media turn for wisdom to the junkyard oracles who helped spawn the mess to begin with.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, L. Paul Bremer—no one should care a whit what they think, they’ve been so consistently wrong about everything. (As the first U.S. proconsul in post-Saddam Iraq, Bremer issued two directives—abolishing the Iraqi army and ousting all Baathists from government jobs—that had the effect of fueling the Sunni insurgency, prolonging the war, and siring the jihadist movement that’s causing trouble today.) Yet there they are, granted airtime not on Fox News but the three major networks, spouting advice to President Obama on how to fix things.

In Monday’s New York Times, Jason Horowitz has a jaw-droppingly fawning profile of historian Robert Kagan, author of a long essay in the New Republic that criticizes Obama for abandoning what he sees as America’s mission to spread democracy around the world. Horowitz suggests that the crisis in Iraq vindicates Kagan’s critique. Alternative views are barely acknowledged. Incisive reviews of Kagan’s New Republic piece, by serious foreign-policy analysts, go unmentioned. Nor does the article (and this is an article in the news section of the paper) recite Kagan’s record as a front-line cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq (and for the use of military force in nearly every crisis) or his assurances, throughout the war, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

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Certainly this new crisis in Iraq is serious. It is not in U.S. interests for a well-armed, well-funded jihadist group like the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria to fulfill its self-proclaimed destiny, i.e., to create an Islamist state that spans Iraq and Syria. The question is how to stop this from happening and what role, if any, the United States should play in the stopping.

The New York TimesRoger Cohen, in an opinion piece headlined “Take Mosul Back,” concludes, “President Obama should use targeted military force to drive back the fanatics of ISIS,” but he doesn’t elaborate. “Targeted military force”—I assume that’s a finessing euphemism for smart bombs and drones. But it’s fantasy to believe that air power alone will “drive back” the ISIS fighters.

Bill Kristol and Frederick Kagan (Robert’s brother) go further. The only way to stop ISIS, they write in the Weekly Standard, is “to send American forces back to Iraq … not merely conducting U.S. air strikes but also accompanying those strikes with special operators, and perhaps regular U.S. military units, on the ground.”

Before Kristol and the Kagans wax lyrical on the glories of spreading democracy abroad, they might want to check out the imperatives of democratic rule at home. They’d discover that almost no Americans want to send ground troops back to Iraq. Nobody—no politician, party leader, interest group, or military officer—is clamoring for it. They also seem oblivious to the fact that, if U.S. troops were to stomp on Iraq soil once more, their boots would be plastered on the recruitment posters for jihadist fighters worldwide. The campaign might even foment a Sunni-Shiite resistance movement—not quite the unified Iraq we have in mind.

American ground troops would be needed to oust the ISIS forces if we were to take on the problem by ourselves. And that’s the main point: Kristol, the Kagans, and neocons generally want the United States to reassume the burdens of maintaining what Robert Kagan calls the “liberal world order” (and what others might call “American dominance” or imperialism).

Kristol and Fred Kagan make the point explicitly. Their solution, they write, “is to act boldly and decisively to help stop … ISIS—without empowering Iran.” (Emphasis added.) There’s the rub—and the dilemma that Kristol, the Kagans, and all the others would like to evade. The fact is, the United States and Iran have a common interest in keeping Sunni radicals from taking over Iraq. Yes, forming an alliance with Iran to beat back ISIS would leave Iran—which already has huge influence over the Iraqi government—stronger still. So, we have to decide which prospect we dislike less: an Islamist state in Iraq (perhaps joined with one in Syria) or a strengthened expansionary Iran.