Kennedy School Faculty, Fellows Offer Perspectives On Iraqi Insurgency

June 18, 2014


Harvard Kennedy School faculty members and fellows are offering a variety of perspectives on the violent insurgency in Iraq.  A sampling of viewpoints is provided below. 

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Meghan O'Sullivan, Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs
"In Iraq, Obama Has Two Terrible Choices"
Politico, June 22

"In his efforts to save Iraq, President Obama is right to demand more power-sharing and other political reforms from Iraqi leaders before the United States offers more military assistance. But Obama should not think he can hold off offering such assistance until he secures those reforms—not if he wants to prevent the bloody breakup of the country and a wider regional war. As sensible as a conditional approach seems, the president simply doesn’t have that option open to him.

"That’s because Obama doesn’t have the time. The crisis created by the Sunni terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, continues unabated, and Iraq is now on the verge of full-blown civil war."

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Nicholas Burns, the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations
Special for the HKS.edu website, June 17

“This is a dangerous moment for Iraq and for the Middle East. Three ominous trends are converging this week in Iraq: 1) the emergence of a radical Sunni Caliphate in northern Syria and western Iraq; 2) a possible opening for an independent Kurdistan; and 3) a strengthening of Iranian power in Iraq. The United States has an interest in preserving a unitary state in Iraq and to avoid a fracturing of the country with unpredictable consequences for Jordan, Syria and Israel.

"President Obama is right to tread carefully.  It may make sense for the U.S. to use its air superiority to blunt the ISIS offensive in Iraq.  But, as the White House has noted, the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Maliki should commit first to a new national unity government and real power sharing among Shia, Sunni and Kurds.  Maliki’s misguided policies in excluding the Sunnis from the central government are at the root of this conflict.  Ultimately, I believe the U.S. will back Baghdad as we have a clear interest in containing the expansion of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.”

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Charles Cogan, Associate, International Security Program, Belfer Center
"Iraq, Syria: The Way Ahead Is Limpidly Clear"
Huffington Post, June 16 

"There are so many cross-cutting relationships in the Middle East today that one might just get confused as to what to do. The U.S. is against the Shiite-related Assad regime in Syria, it supports the majority Shiite regime in Iraq, and it is beginning to climb down, tentatively, from a 35-year freeze in its relations with Shiite Iran. 

"The Iraqi regime of Nuri al-Maliki is suddenly threatened by a Sunni jihadist movement, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that has overlapped over parts of the two countries and now includes elements of the former Saddam Hussein regime. 

"To me, the way forward is limpidly obvious. It consists of two parts: one, increase aid to the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA); two, do not intervene in Iraq."

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Payam Mohseni, Research Fellow, International Security Program, Belfer Center
"ISIS Challenge in Iraq: Why America Should Work with Iran"
The National Interest, June 16 

"The US should seize the opportunity presented by the Iraq crisis to reach out and engage Iran. The threat posed by ISIS and radical jihadism as well as the potential for further regional instability represent important areas of mutual strategic concern for both countries.  By engaging the Iranians, the US will gain the critical ability to shape the course of events without getting bogged down in the conflict.  It will also help the US build a working relationship with Iran that could ease the current nuclear negotiations forward and lay the groundwork for future cooperation when a successful deal is reached."

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Nussaibah Younis, International Security Center, Belfer Center
"Iraq: The real battle is to persuade Sunnis they can be truly equal citizens"
The Guardian (UK), June 14 

"The revival of civil war in Iraq is not about ancient sectarian hatreds – that is what the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Isis – wants you to think. It is a hardcore ideological group exploiting the political disaffection of one community to stoke sectarian war. Iraq's broken political system and the failure of its political elite to prioritise reconciliation over personal gain has led to a collapse of faith in the political system, leaving Iraq vulnerable to this sectarian propaganda. But if the Iraqi government buys the Isis narrative and treats Sunnis as implacable opponents of Shias, Isis will have succeeded in stoking the civil war it has so desired."

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"In his efforts to save Iraq, President Obama is right to demand more power-sharing and other political reforms from Iraqi leaders before the United States offers more military assistance. But Obama should not think he can hold off offering such assistance until he secures those reforms—not if he wants to prevent the bloody breakup of the country and a wider regional war," writes Meghan O'Sullivan, Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs.