President Obama's remarks at the White House today about Iraq were hardly surprising. The president said that America would not be sending ground troops back into the country to fight in support of Nouri al-Maliki's authoritarian Shiite regime, and in opposition to ISIS, the extremist Sunni group that is moving through Iraq at frightening speed. But Obama did say that America may offer other types of military support in the "days ahead."
I am not a military strategist or Iraq expert, so I cannot speak to the best policy going forward. But there was one particularly vexing line in Obama's remarks:
"So the United States will do our part, but ultimately it's up to the Iraqis as a sovereign nation to solve their problems," he said. "We can't do it for them."
The second part of this may indeed be objectively correct, but there is something galling about the idea that, hey, it's the Iraqis' country and they need to work their issues out. For starters, the conflict in Iraq is already rife with foreign fighters and foreign weapons. Iran is getting even more deeply involved. And who knows how long it will be before other states like Turkey enter the fray in a significant way?
But what makes his remarks especially galling is that we helped create this problem. We tore Iraq apart. And we coddled and supported the Maliki regime, which has worsened the country's sectarianism. (Obama mentioned the small-mindedness of Iraq's leaders, but not our decision to coddle them.) Thus, for Obama to say that this is an Iraqi problem and Iraq "as a sovereign nation" (whatever that now means) must solve it involves a gigantic shirking of responsibility.
Yes, even if this is our problem, it's not clear what America can or should do, which is why remarks like those from John McCain, who called this "an existential threat" and seems to want some sort of huge response, are alarming. But that doesn't let the United States off the hook, and certainly not at the rhetorical level. Would Obama say that the Cambodian genocide was ultimately up to the Cambodians to solve, after America bombed and destabilized the country? Was the genocide in the former Yugoslavia a Bosnian problem, even though the West kept an arms embargo on the Bosnians, essentially preventing them from defending themselves?
Perhaps America should choose to involve itself less in the quarrels of others. But once America does so, it cannot then exempt itself from responsibility on whatever timetable it pleases. We involved ourself in Iraq, and with the Iraqi people, long ago. The disaster unfolding in the country is a lot more than "their problem."