The Iraqi government has finally come to the aid of the beleaguered Kurds in their fight against ISIS. Prime Minister Maliki, alarmed by a string of ISIS victories in the north, sent his air force to support the Kurds.
The air force began by bombing targets Sinjar, the most significant town captured by ISIS in the region so far. It then expanded its operations to a broader area, before returning to Baghdad.
Apparently, fear of seeing ISIS gain control of Iraq’s largest dam spurred Maliki into action. The dam remains under the control of the Kurdish fighters for now. But these fighters still lack ammunition, thanks to the unwillingness of Baghdad and Washington to provide them with it.
Hydro-electricity may be one driver of Baghdad’s policy, but oil is the primary one. The Maliki government and the Kurds are embroiled in a legal war over the sale of crude oil from the Kurdish region. Until now, it seems, Maliki has been willing to use the threat of ISIS to coerce the Kurds into turning oil revenue over to Baghdad.
The Obama administration has sided with Maliki. Its position, as stated by Brett McGurk, is that the oil belongs to the entirety of Iraq and that, consistent with the Iraqi constitution, the revenue should be shared.
This position may be reasonable in the abstract. In practice, however, it gives Maliki the whip hand, even though he has shown little regard for the constitution or the rights of minority groups like the Kurds. Ironically, Maliki’s abuses towards Kurds and Sunnis generally were the Obama administration’s excuse for not doing more to help his government fight ISIS.
For Obama, the touchstone to Iraq’s constitution seems to be this: which approach will justify U.S. inaction. Sadly, his approach to our constitution is equally unprincipled.
The Obama administration could have supplied weapons and ammunition to the Kurds on an emergency basis without taking any position on the merits, constitutional or otherwise, of the dispute over oil. And now that Maliki has finally provided air support, Team Obama’s excuses for not assisting the Kurds seem even less meritorious.
There is a huge disconnect in Obama’s Iraq policy. The administration’s rhetoric, and its behavior towards the Kurds, is all about avoiding partition of Iraq. But Obama has never been willing to do the hard work required to keep Iraq together.
By pulling completely out of Iraq, Obama lost the ability to influence policy there. Immediately upon our departure, Maliki began violating the constitution and alienating Kurds and Sunnis to the point that partition (once proposed by then Senator Joe Biden) became attractive, if not essential, to these groups.
Then, ISIS began its military drive. Obama’s response? None, until ISIS had already partitioned Iraq, with a large chunk of it now a terrorist state and that chunk becoming larger by the week.
Under these circumstances, for Obama to refuse military aid to the Kurds on “constitutional” grounds and in the name of avoiding partition is deeply cynical and spectacularly self-defeating.