It’s almost Shakespearean. Since the day he arrived in Washington, Barack Obama’s defining foreign-policy passion has been to get the United States out of Iraq. As president, he had done that. Just last month, he proclaimed at the West Point commencement that “the decade of war” was behind us.
But after the radical Sunni ISIS force swept through northern Iraq, took Mosul, and threatened Baghdad, leaving the country on the edge of civil war and partition, Obama was forced to reverse course. He deployed 600 American advisers and security forces to Baghdad, along with drones and a carrier task force offshore.
That had to be an agonizing decision for him. He had no other choice, however, as American interests are in jeopardy in a Middle East consumed by revolution, violence, refugees, and war.
This is a pivotal moment in the history of the modern Middle East. Just three and a half years after the outbreak of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, nearly all of the 22 Arab states are worse off. Tunisia and Morocco may be marginally more democratic and stable. But Egypt, the region’s keystone state, has gone from toppling Hosni Mubarak to overthrowing the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, thereby executing a 360-degree return to authoritarian military rule. The Syrian civil war has grown so vicious that close to half of its 22 million people are homeless. This heartbreaking humanitarian crisis may worsen before it gets better, as Syrian President Bashar Assad and ISIS are in a fight to the death. Syria’s cancer has metastasized and now threatens Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Israel’s security has worsened dramatically. It faces serious threats on all its borders and renewed hostilities with Hamas following the murder of three Israeli teenagers outside Hebron in the West Bank and, on Wednesday, the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian youth. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned this week that “radical Islam” is on Israel’s doorstep.
These events have produced forces that carry ominous long-term implications for the entire Middle East. Foremost among them is ISIS's declaration of a radical caliphate spanning northern Syria and western Iraq; if ISIS control there endures, it could destabilize the region for years to come. In reaction, the Kurds, whose Peshmerga forces have taken the strategic city of Kirkuk, may now pursue the independent state they have long desired and long been denied. Meanwhile, the savage Sunni-Shiite war may lead to an expansion of Iranian influence in Baghdad and southern Iraq. In the worst-case scenario, the converging pressures could lead to the breakup of Iraq itself, thereby endangering the modern state system in the Middle East.
The United States faces many difficult and dangerous challenges in responding to these events. Obama is scrambling to get back into the Iraq influence game he spurned following the withdrawal of American troops in 2011. He and Secretary of State John Kerry are smartly applying diplomatic pressure first, instead of force, in the hope that Iraq’s embattled prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, will be forced to resign. Kerry is also leaning heavily on the Kurds to stay within a unitary Iraqi state and to join a new unity government. Obama is right to resist redeploying ground forces to Iraq. But if ISIS continues to advance, he may be forced to use American air power to save a weak and discredited government in Baghdad.
The turmoil in Iraq should serve as an important reminder for the Obama administration and for all of us. As the strongest outside power in the Middle East, we can’t afford to opt out of the hard, frustrating work in Iraq of diplomacy backed by US military power, as we have often done in recent years.
All this is occurring as we mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. In the wake of that brutal slaughter, the British and French carved up the failing Ottoman Empire and created four new states, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. One hundred years later, all four face a grave threat to their sovereignty, security, and future.
Suddenly, everything seems to be changing. Israel openly supports an independent Kurdistan. US and Iranian interests are converging over the defense of Baghdad. Fanatical ISIS fighters continue to march. Borders may melt away.
It’s a Middle East turned upside down.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.