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Between Iraq and a hard place
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In the past few weeks, conditions on the ground in Iraq have gone from bad to worse. The Sunni militant group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) entered Iraq from Syria and began its rampage through northern Iraq. It quickly captured cities and towns, capitalized on the spoils of war, and swelled its ranks of fighters along the way.
What happened to the Iraqi army we thought we had trained, equipped, and supplied to protect Iraq after we left? So far, it’s failed to meet even our low expectations. It appears better at folding than at fighting, with reports of Iraqi military leaders abandoning their posts and their soldiers, and fleeing for their lives.
Meanwhile, President Obama finds himself “between Iraq and a hard place.” No matter what action he takes, ISIS continues to advance toward Baghdad, largely unopposed by the hapless Iraqi military. A handful of American advisors and drones is unlikely to rally Iraqi troops into blunting the ISIS offensive.
Despite the murky situation in Iraq, one thing is clear. The problem there is not just with the Iraqi military. The real problem is a political one, starting with Prime Minister Al-Maliki himself. Despite assurances of being a “uniter, not a divider,” to paraphrase President George W. Bush, Maliki has deliberately and systematically favored his Shiite cronies and purged the Sunnis and Kurds from the inner councils of national government and politics.
Given this political reality, no amount of U.S. military advice and assistance will matter much. Unless Maliki changes his ways from exclusive rule to a more inclusive regime that puts country above ethnic and secular differences, he’s a goner. Even if he does make overtures to his opponents, there’s no reason to believe his successor will honor them.  
For the USA, Iraq’s latest descent into bitter, internecine civil war should be another lesson learned about the folly of American intervention in foreign lands in the name of “nation-building.” But, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” After U.S. forces left Iraq in December, 2011, President Obama declared, “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”
Barely 30 months later, we’re witnessing what may be the end of Iraq as a nation, and the beginning of even more horrific “holy wars” between Sunnis and Shiites within and beyond Iraq. So much for wishful thinking.
Unfortunately, Americans, including our political and military leaders, tend to forget the past, including the ancient animosities of rival religious factions in the Middle East.
As a secular nation, we take pride in “separation of church and state,” which works for us, but not for Islam, which is all about the fusion of church and state. Islamic cultures are poor prospects for progressive nation-building, however well-intentioned by us. Besides, we could use a good dose of nation-building right here at home and right now.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at