The dissolution of Iraq came a step closer today — and Syria, and maybe eventually Jordan as well. With the first American airstrikes taking place in the corridor between the advance of IS troops and the Kurdish northern Iraq autonomous province, the collapse of the country’s sovereignty and very territoriality has now been acknowledged in the most dramatic means possible. By the same token, the airstrikes — which, it has been announced, will continue for months — have re-affirmed the de facto independence of Kurdistan, an extraordinary development.

It does not appear to be an outcome that Obama particularly wants. While airstrikes are being rolled out, the Kurds are not being directly armed by the United States — all arms requisitions are going though Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Or what was the Maliki government — as he appears to have been deposed by the Iraqi supreme court, with Iraqi President Fuad Masum asking the deputy speaker to form a government. Whether Maliki’s departure was a matter of genuine judicial process or a condition imposed by the US will presumably become clearer in the coming days, but for the moment they are sticking to the fiction that Iraq exists.

Militarily, it might well be wiser to fully arm the Kurds, who have defensible territory and a great deal of oil. But there’s one obvious problem with recognising the Kurds as fully autonomous — it would confer on the self-declared Islamic State a reciprocal de facto recognition for the swathe of territory they command. With that, what remains of Iraq would come apart even faster. It may well anyway, leaving the US with a dilemma: does the US begin airstrikes to defend Baghdad?

Politically, it’s one thing to defend Kurdistan, which appears to be a success — but quite another to go back into Baghdad, even by air. Northern airstrikes will be pretty much ignored by the American public, just as they ignored the Libya campaign — and were more or less unaware of the fact that the US was bombing Iraq through the ’90s to enforce a no-fly zone in the same, northern area. Politically, there seems no good option.

But to prevent Baghdad falling to the IS, Western powers will do almost anything. Newsreaders have been saying “there is no chance of boots on the ground” so often that there is, obviously. It is more than possible that thousands of “advisers” would be dropped in, to goose up what remains of the army. But who would they be working for? As I write, it is being reported that Maliki has refused to accept the change of government imposed by the court and the President, and has claimed continued legitimacy, and that the US has now decided to arm the Kurds directly.

“This is a defining situation, and the world will not come out of it as it went in.”

If true, and if the arms are in significant amounts, it represents a new stage of triage in the process. In the US it is being taken as a reversal of policy, but it is less of one than is being portrayed. Obama’s strategy, as it has evolved through his presidency, is that of gradually replacing a failed nation-building strategy with one of containment by no/low-risk (to Americans), bombing and drone strikes. The policy seems to be to simultaneously lower Americans’ expectations about what can be done while seeking to minimise risks to them, even at the cost of innocent lives.

In Australia, the Right are still banging on about the idea that Obama somehow lost the “victory” in Iraq, as if the place had not been continuously set by car bombs and everything else from 2003 onwards. It is asinine, in any case. Maliki used the cover of US occupation to consolidate Shiite power, refused a forces agreement with the US, and removed the Sunnis from such power as remained to them. Whatever was going to happen in Iraq was always only going to happen once the US left — and the same will be true of Afghanistan. The “lost the victory” is so delusional and dishonest that only Bolt is managing to do it with a straight face.

In the US, the Right has pretty much discontinued this line, transfixed by the utter failure of the Iraq project and the further horror of what is to come. In particular, the Right has been genuinely challenged by the rapid destruction of the Iraqi Christian community. Iraqi Christians, who had a measure of protection under Saddam, have been under pressure from 2003 on — when we were “winning”. Now they’ve been killed, exiled and dissipated in weeks, and it appears that the US Christian Right — empathy-challenged so far as brown Muslims go — has been gripped with genuine guilt, which has acquainted them with reality.

They are further disadvantaged by the growing isolationism of the Tea Party and the remainder of the Republican Right. Initially a minority trend in the Right, they are now dominant, and the neocon imperialists have been all but squeezed out — with John McCain their only serious representative. The leading proponent of a re-projection of US power is Hillary Clinton, who is effectively running against Obama and aiming for an immense 2016 victory.

On the Left, there’s a forceful argument that fresh involvement in Iraq is overwhelmingly to do with oil (Syria has none) — which seems to ignore both the political import of Iraq in US memory, and also the greater ease with which a frontier can be established in Iraq, unlike Syria. There seems little doubt that this latest episode will further split the previously (pre-Libya) fairly united anti-war Left. If, as is highly possible, the US begin to arm the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK), then the situation will take on a, erm, complex character.

Everyone is going to have to make a decision. Will, knowing the war aversion of Australians, the Coalition commit Team Australia to military support — when the captain gets back from pointless busywork in the Netherlands, where he’s hiding, as always, from real meetings and duties, in this case with oh, only the US Defence and State secretaries, as a decade of Anglosphere foreign policy comes apart? Will Labor risk being out of it, if the humanitarian plays? Which way will the Greens jump? This is a defining situation, and the world will not come out of it as it went in, and neither will we.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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