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U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Robert C. Brogan
Taking a couple of shots at President Obama over the latest round of war in Iraq, House Speaker John Boehner said last week: "This has been building for weeks."
How about centuries, Mr. Speaker? Sunni Muslims and their Shiite "brethren" have been fighting over this bloody turf since the seventh century. As once described in Great Britain’s Economist magazine:
"The argument dates back to the death in 632 of Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad. Tribal Arabs who followed him were split over who should inherit what was both a political and a religious office. The majority, who would go on to become known as the Sunnis, and today make up 80 percent of Muslims, backed Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet and father of his wife Aisha. Others thought Muhammad’s kin the rightful successors. They claimed the Prophet had anointed Ali, his cousin and son-in-law—they became known as the Shia, a contraction of "shiaat Ali," the partisans of Ali. Abu Bakr’s backers won out, though Ali did briefly rule as the fourth caliph, the title given to Muhammad’s successors. Islam’s split was cemented when Ali’s son Hussein was killed in 680 in Karbala (modern Iraq) by the ruling Sunni caliph’s troops."
That is an oversimplification, of course. Many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are divided into many smaller and usually contentious sects. Like the Christians of 17th-century Europe, Muslims have always found something to fight about among themselves. What we, if I can represent "The West," think and do about Muslim wars is limited and usually ineffective.
From the time of the Crusaders until last week, we have had occasional success in ignoring Islam or trying our best to put Muslims inside borders we have drawn, or done our best, intentionally or accidently, to set them to fighting each other and leaving us alone. If it weren’t for oil and Israel, we could be in an ignoring phase. And we are almost always in ignorant phases.
Numbers explain part of what is happening right now. Iraq has traditionally been governed and dominated by Sunnis, who are only a third of the country’s population. We put the Shiites in power, and now the Sunnis are trying to get even. Iran is 90 percent Shiite, who control everything, and the ayatollahs are likely to try to help Iraq’s embattled Shiites. Syria is about three-quarters Sunni, although the Assad family and dictatorship are attached to the Alawite sect, which is perhaps 12 percent of the population.
So the main point here, as the Sunni fanatics called the ISIS march through Syria and Iraq these days, is that most anything the United States does now will almost certainly make things worse—for the Iraqis and for us. We have done enough, destroying the Sunni (and relatively secular) dictatorship of Saddam Hussein at the cost of billions of dollars and almost 5,000 American lives. We installed Shiite governance, now led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has been pushing Sunnis around since we invaded in 2003. One of the many American mistakes in Iraq—beginning with our invasion—was the decision by our proconsul, L. Paul Bremer, to disband Hussein’s largely Sunni army. Many of the leaders of the new invaders were members of that disbanded army.
As the ISIS, outnumbered about 15-to-1, has scared Iraqi soldiers into throwing away their American-supplied weapons and uniforms, Washington’s usual belligerent voices are raising calls for the president to "do something." He probably will. Burned by criticism for doing little or nothing in Syria’s civil war, he will almost certainly send in drones and planes to kill Sunni invaders, perhaps slowing them down for a while. But stop them we can’t—not without sending back the American troops who withdrew more than two years ago. Obama had wanted to leave 10,000 trainers there back then, but Maliki vetoed that. Now the conservatives are crying that all this was Obama’s fault.
But it was not the president. It is history in the saddle.
That is the way of the world. We have seen this before. In March of 1973, American troops withdrew from South Vietnam, leaving our local allies to take over that war. Two years later the North Vietnamese reached Saigon, as the ISIS has reached the suburbs of Baghdad. Do you think we should have gone back and resumed the war in Southeast Asia? That would have been nuts, and it is nuts to go back into Iraq.