Sorry, Iraq: the United States is not the ally it used to be
by Gwynne Dyer
“The Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It’s bullshit.” That was Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski, who was secretly taped in early 2014. Discuss. Use only one side of the paper.
The publication of Sikorski’s comments in the Polish weekly magazine Wprost will not help his bid to become the European Union’s foreign policy chief, but there are senior foreign policy officials elsewhere who might be tempted to make similar remarks (though perhaps not in alcohol-fuelled conversations in well-known restaurants where they might be overheard). And there are those in Washington who are saying the same thing.
Some, like former Vice-President Dick Cheney — “The policies of the last six years have left America diminished and weakened. Our enemies no longer fear us. Our allies no longer trust us” — are so discredited by their own past blunders that they can be easily dismissed. But some of America’s overseas friends and allies also are quietly dismayed by President Barack Obama’s clear reluctance to send in the troops, or at least the drones.
Sikorski’s angry remarks can be explained by the date when they were made. It was before the Ukrainian revolution succeeded in overthrowing the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and before the United States responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea by imposing sanctions on Russian leaders and sending reinforcements to NATO countries in Eastern Europe. He would presumably sing a different song now.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, however, is undoubtedly now talking much like Sikorski did last winter. After all the horrors that the U.S. invasion inflicted on Iraq from 2003-11, Maliki must feel that he has a right to expect American military help when things start to fall apart at home. But he doesn’t get it.
Maliki might get U.S. military help if Washington believed that the survival of his regime was a “core national interest” of the United States, as Obama put it in a speech at West Point Military Academy last month, but even then, that help would come in carefully measured amounts. Which is to say, no American troops fighting on the ground.
Well, all right, Obama did send 300 American troops back to Iraq last week, but they are being sent only to train and advise Iraqi troops, not to kill and get killed. He might consider using some drones and cruise missiles too, if Maliki agrees to step aside for someone less divisive — but it would only be a token gesture even then.
This is because President Obama knows two very important things. The first is that the American public simply will not stand for another large U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. The other is that neither Iraq, nor indeed even Ukraine, is a “core national interest” of the United States.
“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences,” said Obama at West Point, and he has no intention of doing the same thing. Does that mean that the United States has become a “worthless ally”? No, but it does mean that it may not always be a “faithful friend.”
The distinction is important. An alliance like NATO or the U.S.-Japanese alliance is a formal commitment to fight in support of another country in certain stated circumstances. However, very few wars that the United States has fought in the past 50 years were of that kind. They were “wars of choice,” fought in places where the United States had no legal obligation to fight.
Back when American power seemed irresistible and American wealth inexhaustible, Washington repeatedly sent U.S. troops into wars that had only the sketchiest relationship with any definable American national interest. From Vietnam to Iraq, it literally did not count the cost. But it does now, and only actual allies can count on the United States showing up when it’s needed.
How do you get to be an ally of the United States? By being a country whose independence, borders, and/or political orientation are seen by Washington as truly vital American interests. The one exception to this rule is Israel, whose hold on America is more sentimental than strategic, but for everybody else there is a very high threshold.
Poland actually crosses that threshold, because Russia, the country that obsesses the Poles, remains a major American security concern as well. Ukraine, on the other hand, lies beyond NATO’s security frontier, and not many NATO members would be willing to fight a war with Russia to save it, so Ukraine is not an ally. And Iraq is definitely not an ally.
Despite the general U.S. obsession with the “terrorist threat,” Obama may actually realize how little the outcome of the current turmoil in Iraq really matters to American security, and Iraq’s oil, post-fracking, is not even a consideration anymore. No core American national interests here. So the U.S. cavalry will not be riding over the hill to the rescue.