Today, one third of Iraq is under the control of Islamist terrorists. Nearly as much of Syria is dominated by the same jihadists, a group that calls itself the Islamic State. Many are advancing in stolen American military vehicles, killing with stolen American arms and ammunition, and taking major cities like Mosul that American troops fought and died to liberate.
All of this, and more, has come to pass since June – the triumphant summer, as the terrorists see it, that gave the modern world its first caliphate. It will surely go down as a storied time in the annals of jihadism. Jihadists from around the world have flocked to Iraq and Syria to join in the offensive, called to a movement that is now bigger and better financed than al Qaeda ever was. Thousands of innocent civilians – classified by the Islamic State as “nonbelievers” – have fled their homes, endured a mountain siege or else were left behind and met the worst of fates. Entire villages have been “purified” of “infidels” by means of crucifixions and beheadings in nightmarish scenes proudly-photographed and posted online by the killers themselves, along with vows to bring the bloodshed to America.
The danger for the United States and other Western nations may still seem remote. And for many Americans, understandably, just about the last thing we want to think about is more conflict in Iraq and what it might require of our country. But we cannot ignore reality. We have come to a seminal moment when America’s action or inaction could be equally consequential. If anything is left of the old bipartisan tradition in American foreign policy – that basic willingness to unite in fundamental matters of security – we need to draw on that spirit now in a big way.
Yes, many on the left will say it would have been better had we never gone into Iraq in the first place. Yes, many Republicans (myself included) would argue that the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq left hard-won gains at risk because it was forced by ideological calculations, not strategic ones, and instilled a false sense of finality and safety. And, yes, still others will tell you that no matter what comes next in Iraq, it’s no concern of ours – we gave it our best effort over there, and we’re done.
To add a further obvious point, it is plainly true that serious presidential attention to the gathering threat of the Islamic State months or even weeks ago would have spared innocent Iraqis a lot of grief and made today’s challenges less demanding and dramatic. Significant material support formoderate rebels in Syria could have helped them gain the upper hand against the Assad regime and could have spared many lives while preventing Syria from becoming an Islamic State stronghold. The White House’s lofty declarations that “Assad must go” weren’t supported by meaningful action.
Rather than rehashing the causes of today’s crisis, we need to focus on outcomes still within our power to influence. We know the jihadists’ objectives in Iraq and in Syria, and we need to be clear and unequivocal about our own. Irbil, a strategically crucial city in northern Iraq and home to an American consulate, must not be allowed to fall. The momentum of the fight must be reversed, so that cities overrun by the Islamic State can be taken back by Iraqi troops. And in Syria as well as Iraq, this terrorist army that boasts of plans to strike within the United States must be confronted as the serious threat it is to our people.