In recent weeks, some of the international system’s unfinished business has revealed itself. We have seen that Ukraine’s fate is not yet settled, and with that, neither is Russia’s relationship with the European Peninsula. In Iraq we learned that the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the creation of a new Iraqi political system did not answer the question of how the three parts of Iraq can live together. Geopolitical situations rarely resolve themselves neatly or permanently.
These events, in the end, pose a difficult question for the United States. For the past 13 years, the United States has been engaged in extensive, multidivisional warfare in two major theaters — and several minor ones — in the Islamic world. The United States is large and powerful enough to endure such extended conflicts, but given that neither conflict ended satisfactorily, the desire to raise the threshold for military involvement makes logical sense.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point sought to raise the bar for military action. However, it was not clear in the speech what Obama meant in practical terms when he said:
“Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
Given events in Ukraine and Iraq, the president’s definition of a “nail” in relation to the U.S. military “hammer” becomes important. Military operations that cannot succeed, or can succeed only with such exorbitant effort that they exhaust the combatant, are irrational. Therefore, the first measure of any current strategy in either Ukraine or Iraq is its sheer plausibility.
The Ongoing Ukraine Crisis
In Ukraine, a pro-Russian president was replaced by a pro-Western one. The Russians took formal control of Crimea, where they had always had overwhelming military power by treaty with Ukraine. Pro-Russian groups, apparently supported by Russians, still fight for control in Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces. On the surface, the Russians have suffered a reversal in Ukraine. Whether this is truly a reversal will depend on whether the authorities in Kiev are able to rule Ukraine, which means not only forming a coherent government but also enforcing its will. The Russian strategy is to use energy, finance and overt and covert relationships to undermine the Ukrainian government and usurp its power.
It is in the interest of the United States that a pro-Western Ukraine emerges, but that interest is not overwhelming enough to warrant a U.S. military intervention. There is no alliance structure in place to support such an intervention, no military bases where forces have accumulated to carry this out, and no matter how weakened Russia is, the United States would be advancing into a vast country whose occupation and administration — even if possible — would be an overwhelming task. The Americans would be fighting far from home, but the Russians would be fighting in their backyard.
Ukraine is not a nail to be hammered. First, its fate is not of fundamental American interest. Second, it cannot be driven into the board. The United States must adopt an indirect strategy. What happens in Ukraine will happen. The place where the United States can act to influence events is in the countries bordering Ukraine — most notably Poland and Romania. They care far more about Ukraine’s fate than the United States does and, having lost their sovereignty to Russia once in the last century, will be forced to resist Russia again. Providing them support with minimal exposure makes sense for the United States.
The Complexities of Iraq
Iraq consists of three major groups: Shia, Sunnis and Kurds. The United States left Iraq in the hands of the Shiite-dominated government, which failed to integrate the Kurds or the Sunnis. The Kurdish strategy was to create and maintain an autonomous region. The Sunnis’ was to build strength in their region and wait for an opportune moment. That moment came when, after the recent election, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki failed to quickly form a new government and seemed intent on recreating the failed government of the past.
The Sunnis did not so much invade as arise, taking control of Sunni areas and to some extent coordinating activities throughout the region. They did not attack the Kurdish region or predominantly Shiite areas. Indeed, the Shia began to mobilize to resist the Sunnis. What has happened is the failure of the central government and the assertion of regional power. There is no native power that can unite Iraq. No one has the strength. The assumption is that the United States could hold Iraq together — thus the demand by some in Iraq and the United States that the United States massively intervene would make sense.
As in Ukraine, it is not clear that the United States has an overriding interest in Iraq. The 2003 invasion was more than a decade ago, and whatever decisions were made then belong to historians. The Sunni uprising brings with it the risk of increased terrorism and obviously gives terrorists a base from which to conduct attacks against the United States. By that logic, the United States ought to intervene on behalf of the Kurds and Shia.
The problem is that the Shia are linked to the Iranians, and while the United States and Iran are currently wrapped up in increasingly complex but promising negotiations, the focus is on interests and not friendship. The 2003 invasion was predicated on the assumption that the Shia, liberated from Saddam Hussein, would welcome the United States and allow it to reshape Iraq as it desired. It was quickly discovered, however, that the Iraqi Shia, along with their Iranian allies, had very different plans. The U.S. invasion ultimately failed to create a coherent government in Iraq and helped create the current circumstance. As much as various factions would want the United States to intervene on their behalf, the end result would be a multi-sided civil war with the United States in the center, unable to suppress the war with military means because the primary issue is a political one.
That, of course, leaves the possibility of an increased threat of terrorism. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and some of them are prepared to engage in terrorist activity. It is extremely difficult, however, to figure out which are inclined to do so. It is also impossible to conquer 1.6 billion people so as to eliminate the threat of terrorism. Given the vast territory of the Islamic world, Iraq may be a convenience, but occupying it would not prevent Sunni or Shiite terrorism from arising elsewhere. Defeating an enemy army is much easier than occupying a country whose only mode of resistance is the terrorism that you intend to stop. Terrorism can be defended against to some extent — mitigated, observed perhaps — but