There’s been a lot of hand-wringing coming from pundits and US policy makers past and present surrounding the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to ISIS and the marshalling of Iranian-backed Shiite militias to try to take back the town. A lot of the usual sorts of suspects have been once again making the case that: 1) Letting the Shiite militias do the fighting will both empower Iran and likely worsen already bad sectarian tensions; and therefore 2) The only alternative is for the US to once again wade into the fray, even if that means reintroducing American combat troops on the ground. The discussion on this morning’s Diane Rehm Show is a good example of what’s passing for debate on the subject.
Of course there is another way of looking at this, and it is one that the US is pretty familiar with, especially in this part of the world. Follow the advice of Ken Watanabe in the latest reboot of Godzilla and “let them fight.”
The Godzilla-vs.-the Mutos analogy is not a bad one when thinking about the struggle for regional dominance that has been playing out for decades between the US, Iran, and Iraq. This is basically the strategy we pursued during the brutal Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, letting the two beasts (one of which we marginally preferred over the other) savage each other for as long as they possibly could, with a little help to both sides from us, expecting that at the end of the fight the winner would be far too weak and damaged to pose any real challenge to American preeminence for years to come.
So thinking about Iran, Iraq, and ISIS today, would it be so terrible for US interests to just let them fight? Let Iran invest more time, energy, resources, manpower, etc. propping up an ineffectual Shiite-dominated Iraqi state. Continue providing just enough combat air support so that we stay in the good graces of the Iraqi regime but not so much that we pave the way for an easy victory for Iran’s proxies. Let them savage each other.
Is this a cold-blooded strategy? Sure. But would it be out of character for the US, especially in that part of the world? Hardly.