Being back in Iraq after two years’ absence has helped me to put my finger on the central question bedeviling U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East: What do you do when the necessary is impossible, but the impossible is impossible to ignore — and your key allies are also impossible?
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Crushing the Islamic State, or ISIS, is necessary for stabilizing Iraq and Syria, but it is impossible as long as Shiites and Sunnis there refuse to truly share power, and yet ignoring the ISIS cancer and its ability to metastasize is impossible as well. See: Belgium.
And if all that isn’t impossible enough, our trying to make Iraq safe for democracy is requiring us to turn a blind eye to the fact that our most important NATO “ally” in the region, Turkey, is being converted from a democracy into a dictatorship by its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who should now be called “Sultan Erdogan” for the way he is closing opposition newspapers and putting journalists on trial. But because we need Turkey’s air bases and cooperation to foster a modicum of democracy in Iraq tomorrow, we are silent on Erdogan destroying democracy in Turkey today. Go figure.
And to think that in America we have all these people competing to become president to get a chance to take responsibility for this problem. Has no one told them this is absolutely the worst time in 70 years to be managing U.S. foreign policy?
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Obama has my sympathies. If you think there is a simple answer to this problem, you ought to come out here for a week. Just trying to figure out the differences among the Kurdish parties and militias in Syria and Iraq — the YPG, PYD, PUK, KDP and PKK — took me a day.
Let’s go back to the future of Iraq. “The problem in Iraq is not ISIS,” Najmaldin Karim, the wise governor of Kirkuk province, which is partly occupied by ISIS, remarked to me. “ISIS is the symptom of mismanagement and sectarianism.” So even if ISIS is evicted from its stronghold in Mosul, he noted, if the infighting and mismanagement in Baghdad and sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis are not diffused, “the situation in Iraq could be even worse after” ISIS is toppled.
Why? Because there will just be another huge scramble among Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmens, Shiite militias, Turkey and Iran over who controls these territories now held by ISIS. So if one day you hear that we’ve eliminated the ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and lowered the ISIS flag over Mosul, hold your applause.
And here is another not-so-fun fact from Northern Iraq: Despite all that you have read about “foreign fighters” who have joined ISIS, a vast majority of the people in Kirkuk province who have come to fight with ISIS were local Sunnis, who saw ISIS as a force protecting them from the pro-Iranian Shiite government in Baghdad.
Also, many Sunni tribes in the Mosul area split, with some members joining ISIS and others not. Kurdish intelligence officials tell me there will be a lot of revenge against those Sunnis who joined ISIS, exacted by those who didn’t — if and when ISIS is defeated. Women from Iraq’s Yazidi sect who were captured and raped by ISIS fighters and eventually escaped to refugee camps in Kurdistan have told Kurdish relief workers that in more than a few cases they were raped by Iraqi Sunnis from their own hometowns.
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I don’t know what is sufficient to eradicate ISIS — and create a decent order in its place — but it is obvious what is necessary: The struggle between Sunnis and Shiites, fueled by Saudi Arabia and Iran, has to be tempered.
ISIS is a rocket whose guidance system is a direct descendant of the puritanical, anti-Shiite, anti-pluralistic Saudi Wahhabi ideology, and its fuel system is a direct reaction to Shiite Iran’s aggressive push to keep Iraqi Sunnis weak. As long as Iran and Saudi Arabia are going at it, there will always be another ISIS. Which is why the “peace process” the Middle East needs most today is between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But just waiting for that is no easy option, either. The impossible is impossible to ignore because ISIS is wicked and wickedly smart. The longer it hangs around, the more dangerous it becomes. Britain’s Independent newspaper recently reported that ISIS militants were plotting to take a Belgian nuclear scientist hostage in order to get access to Belgium’s nuclear research facility.
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Obama is probably doing about the best one can with ISIS: Degrade it, contain it and downplay it, and keep nudging Sunnis and Shiites to come to their senses. But I have a bad feeling about the ISIS boys. They are networked, and they have cast off all civilized norms. And we don’t have the answer for them.
It takes a village. Only Arabs and Muslims can truly take down and delegitimize ISIS, and right now their village is too divided, angry, ambivalent and confused to do it.
Follow Mr. Friedman on Twitter @tomfriedman.