The Best Defense

Watching Iraq on the edge, and wondering what the United States will do

By Emma Sky

Best Defense bureau chief, Iraq

The famous Iraqi sociologist, Ali Wardi, wrote about the dual personalities of Iraqis. For many of us who served in Iraq, this is something we also seem to have developed.

I spent the weekend in Texas, staying with American friends I served with in Iraq. Although we had not seen each other in years, conversation came easily. Our shared experiences away at war had created life-long bonds. We reminisced about our time together -- the sense of purpose, the camaraderie, our small victories. We laughed. We drank. We ate unhealthy fast food. We gossiped about people we knew. Together, we visited the memorial at Fort Hood to pay our respects to the 450 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division killed in Iraq.

But all weekend I also surfed the Internet for news and chatted with Iraqi friends. Iraq is spiraling out of control. Following the arrests in December of the bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, Sunnis took to the streets, revealing their widespread sense of alienation in the new Iraq and demanding the end of what they consider a government policy to marginalize them. As with other protests in the Arab world, they were initially driven by legitimate grievances. But against the backdrop of provincial elections, little was done to address the concerns of the protestors -- despite calls to do so from the top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani. Politicians instead exploited the demonstrations for electoral gains. President Maliki took the opportunity to distract attention away from the lack of services and rampant corruption, presenting himself as the defender of the Shia, in the face of Sunni regional powers intent on overthrowing Shia regimes -- Syria first, then Iraq. Sunni politicians, for their part, sought to benefit from the demonstrations to rail against government oppression to gain support for their own electoral campaigns.

Last week, the Iraqi Army entered Hawija, near Kirkuk, to arrest people accused of attacking Iraqi Security Forces. In the ensuing violence, 200 people were killed. There are reports of desertions from the Iraqi Army. Kurds have moved peshmerga into positions in the disputed territories. Tribes are forming militias to protect themselves from the Iraqi Army. Five Iraqi soldiers were killed in Anbar -- and the province has been put under curfew. Ten satellite channels, including al-Jazeera, have been banned, accused of spreading sectarianism. Bombs exploded in Shia towns. The speaker of parliament called for the government to resign and for early elections.

By seeking to eliminate his Sunni rivals, Maliki has removed the wedge that the U.S. military drove between Sunni extremists and the Sunni mainstream during the Surge, at such great cost. There is a growing sense that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are merging into one, with Shia regimes, backed by Iran, battling against Sunnis, including al Qaeda elements. We may be witnessing the breakdown of the post-WW I settlement and the nation-states established under the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Many Iraqis still cannot fathom how the United States could lose interest in Iraq and simply walk away after so much investment. They explain it in terms of conspiracy theories: a "secret agreement" between the United States and Iran; a "deal" between Biden and Maliki to divide up Iraq.

Will our legacy from the Iraq war be a regional power struggle ignited by the resurgence of Iran, the contagion of sectarianism into Syria, the horrific violence of jihadist groups? Is this in our national interest? Can we not do more to make Iraq a more positive influence in its neighborhood?

As the situation deteriorates, I wonder, will the United States proactively develop, articulate, and adopt strategies to engender a better balance of power in the region -- or reactively respond to the inevitable fallout with tactical measures.

Emma Sky is a senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute. She served in Iraq 2003-2004 as the governorate coordinator of Kirkuk for the Coalition Provisional Authority, and 2007-2010 as the political advisor to General Odierno.

Lady Emma Sky

The Best Defense

Time to get serious about national service

By Col. Margaret Cope, USAF (Ret.)

Best Defense guest columnist

After serving 30 years in the Air Force, I am passionate about our country providing the opportunity for young men and women to serve. Since the draft ended, the American public has become disconnected from the men and women in the military.

Even our former secretary of defense Robert Gates stated that our citizens view our wars as an "abstraction" that does not affect them personally. After 9/11 our country missed an enormous opportunity to engage the citizenry, particularly folks in the 18-26 age range who are beginning their adult lives and have the ability to contribute the rest of their lives.

Our country has a democratic form of government, which by definition is a participatory government, not a spectator government. All citizens must be engaged or we risk losing our democracy. Our founding fathers believed all would participate as stated by George Washington, "It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it."

Currently less than 1 percent of Americans serve in our military. The rest of the population -- 99 percent, for the most part -- is unaware of the military. Although other forms of national service exist, with the budget constraints, now is the time to consolidate and provide more structured, safer, and meaningful opportunities.

My concept of the national service framework is comprehensive and bold; it's not for those who like small steps and fear transformative, big ideas. National Service will be voluntary and must include the military -- the most committed, professional, well-trained example of national service.

This framework is based on voluntary participation and provides a menu of opportunities for citizens between the ages of 18-26 to serve. All volunteers will serve a minimum of two years and will receive lodging, uniforms, healthcare and food allowances, stipends, and upon completion of their term of service, numerous government incentives tied to performance, to include at least an education debt reduction or an education allowance similar to the GI Bill and other options to support the national service mission, its culture. Libertarians who don't want to serve would be ineligible for some government incentives including student loans, to be given upon completion of the term of service.

National Service will be the umbrella organization for the entire enterprise with the pillars being: the military, which would include recruitment, orientation training, and upon completion of service, the same national service benefits along with military benefits; the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) organizations including Americorps, VISTA, Equal Justice Works, Teach for America, and Children's Corps; the Peace Corps; a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps; a medical corps; a legal corps (move Equal Justice Works from CNCS); an administrative corps; a cybersecurity corps; and others. All of these functions could support our military and serve on military reservations.

As a nation, we cannot underestimate the importance in a moral democracy to serve. We must engage our greatest resource, our young citizens, to serve others and uphold our democratic principles to attain opportunity and inspire hope.

Margaret Cope, a retired U.S. Air Force logistics colonel, serves on the Executive Committee at the Reserve Officers Association (ROA), consults, and is a former senior advisor at the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR).

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