Desperate but not serious

Katina Slavkova | October 31, 2014

“The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. There is no path that can guarantee success, but the prospects can be improved.”

A select few foreign policy and Middle East experts will quickly recognize the origin of this sobering assessment, but for the most casual observers of world events this statement perfectly captures the latest crisis that is unraveling in Iraq today. In fact, the quote above is from almost eight years ago and it was the very first sentence in the Executive Summary of a slim volume called the Iraq Study Group report. Remember that Iraq?

The Iraq Study Group, which was officially known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission, only came about because concerned Members of Congress were appalled at the rapidly deteriorating security situation during the Iraq war. Following the infamous bombing in February of 2006 of one of the holiest Shiite shrines, the Askariya mosque in Samarra, the sectarian bloodletting in Iraq degenerated into a full blown civil war. But only eight months earlier former Vice President Dick Cheney had famously declared on CNN that the insurgency in Iraq was in its “last throes.” In reality, however, the insurgency was picking up strength and was further inflaming the vicious sectarian hatreds in Iraqi society. By March of 2006 Congress had enough and at the urging of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), suggested the creation of an outside bipartisan commission that would offer recommendations to policymakers for resolving the conflict in Iraq.

The report by the Iraq Study Group was released in December of 2006. After a dramatic shift in military strategy in early 2007 that included the highly contentious “surge” of 30,000 additional troops and five more years on the ground, the Iraq war was finally over at the end of 2011. Yes, there is no denying that the politics of the surge and the overall Iraq strategy were quite divisive and partisanship ran high on both sides of the aisle. But Congress was engaged and, for the most part, was genuinely trying to find solutions for ending the bloody and intractable conflict.

Today Iraq is on the brink again. Owing to a vicious civil war that has been ravaging neighboring Syria since 2011 and that has further facilitated the rise of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, Iraq is dangerously close to plunging into the abyss yet again. But this development should not have come as a surprise to Congress. After the dramatic takeover of Mosul by the IS militants in June of this year, Members of Congress reverted to instinctively blaming the Obama Administration for abandoning Iraq and failing to safeguard the fragile security environment there after the withdrawal of all American combat troops at the end of 2011. While there are certainly legitimate points to some of that criticism, Congress would do well to recall the saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

The truth of the matter is that it wasn’t only the Obama Administration that neglected Iraq since 2011. Congress also completely checked out of the Iraq debate a long time ago. The Islamic State group that started out as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and then morphed into a more sophisticated and battle hardened terrorist group that now controls vast swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq did not simply spring out of nowhere. And Congress would have known that had they paid attention to what was happening on the ground in Iraq.

Throughout 2012 and 2013, the Islamic State (calling itself at the time the Islamic State in Iraq and later the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) was gradually amassing strength by executing daring prison breaks and terrorizing Iraqi security forces and Shiite residents. Suicide bombings and sectarian killings were on the rise again to a level never witnessed since the bloodiest 2006-2007 period of the Iraqi civil war. Media coverage of the deteriorating security situation in Iraq was relegated to small paragraphs in the world briefing sections. And throughout all of this turmoil Iraq barely registered a blip on Congress’s radar.

Even more incredulously, on June 11 of this year, only a day after IS militants seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a nomination hearing for ambassador positions to Egypt, Iraq, and Qatar but failed to convey the urgency of the threat emanating from Iraq. One would have thought that this would be the perfect time to ask probing questions about the spectacular failures of the Iraqi Army that had literally melted away in the face of the terrorist takeover. And what about the billions of American taxpayer dollars that were already spent on training and equipping the Iraqi security forces only to see them unceremoniously take off their uniforms and abandon the expensive military equipment provided by the United States.

But alas, this was obviously not the most pressing concern on Members’ minds. Rather they were far more interested in the controversial exchange of the five Taliban prisoners for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Iraq seemed to have become a distant afterthought for which Congress simply did not have the energy nor the desire to discuss publicly. It finally took the barbarous acts of beheading of the two American journalists to focus the attention of Congress. But it is election season on Capitol Hill so the serious debate that Members of Congress need to have about what to do in Iraq and Syria will have to wait yet again. In the meantime, IS militants could not care less about congressional politics and the election calendar.

Katina Slavkova is a Fellow and Director of the Certificate Program at the Government Affairs Institute

Categories: 113th Congress, Foreign Affairs, Military Operations, National Security, Revise & Extend, Updates