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editorial: Standing on a precipice

As the world watched the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sweep through major cities in Iraq this week, the political fingerpointing in Washington, D.C., has already begun.

The actions of the jihadist militants are undoing what stability Iraq has been able to create for itself in the wake of the U.S.-led Iraq War, but it is Iraq’s elected leadership that served to provide the environment that allowed it to happen.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s partisan efforts to secure Shiite dominance in the divided nation have left large swaths of Iraq vulnerable to this aggressive attack.

Military and intelligence officials with experience in Iraq say the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and other northern cities to ISIS “has been the predictable culmination of a long deterioration brought on by the government’s politicization of its security forces.”

Al-Maliki’s administration has presided over the gutting of the Iraqi coalition troops that were key in nearly driving out al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s forerunner, during a 2007-2010 military drive.

Al-Maliki has systematically removed some of the strongest leaders of that coalition, members of the Sons of Iraq, that happen to be members of the Sunni sect of Islam and packed the military with less capable Shiite leaders, ignoring U.S. advice to the contrary.

“By 2013, the Sons of Iraq were virtually noneexistent, with thousands of their sidelined former members either neutral or aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in its war against the Iraqi government,” wrote Derek Harvey and Michael Pregent for June 13 for CNN in “Who’s to blame for Iraq Crisis.”

Harvey is a former senior intelligence official and Pregent a former U.S. military officer and senior intelligence analyst. Both worked in Iraq.

So Iraq’s elected leader has destablized its military, opening the door to the rapid jihadi advances in the north. ISIS may well face formidable military resistance in the Shiite-held regions around Baghdad, but al-Maliki is already effectively left with a divided nation. If it solidifies its hold around Baghdad, it effectively cedes much of the rest of Iraq. If it moves to combat ISIS in the north, it risks destablizing the south.

In the meantime, U.S. President Barack Obama is huddling with his national security staff, pondering a course of action. Military families, battered and embittered by almost a decade and a half of Middle East combat, are understandably on tenterhooks as the prospect of more military action looms.

Officials close to the president say he is actively considering airstrikes against the militants. At this point, Obama said, no option is off the table.

Obama’s challenge now is to come up with a course of action to present to Congress. This is no time for the imperial presidency to emerge. Under the laws of the nation, Congress must be consulted if the U.S. military is to be involved in yet another war — and that is exactly what this appears to be.

This would be a good time to consider the effects of past U.S. involvement in the Middle East arena.

Over the years since 2003, the United States has actively supported — to greater and lesser degree of influence and success — the overthrow of a handful of key strongman leaders: Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muamar Ghaddafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The outward aims of the Arab Spring were noble: oust political and military dictators from power so that democracy could take hold.

The outcome has been far different: bloody civil strife and warfare throughout the region and a ripe field for jihadi groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Another question the U.S. should ask itself at this precipice is whether and what kind of help it should give an Iraqi administration whose actions have significantly contributed to its own downfall, at the heavy cost of more lives lost to this geopolitical quagmire.

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