President Barack Obama makes a statement on Iraq on the South Lawn of the White House on June 13, 2014. “We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces,” Obama said.

All eyes shift again to Iraq … and the sky is falling.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been out grumpily arguing that President Barack Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq was a “colossal failure of American security policy.” In other words, he’s saying: Blame Barack; dozing at the diplomatic wheel has led to the current Iraqi upheaval.

But it’s actually a failure on the part of the president’s critics to adapt to the changing geopolitical environment.

Even though we should have learned by now that the world’s too small for the United States to stomp around like an angry Hulk—and that in this day and age, we have to move through gracefully, like Tyrion in Game of Thrones—we’re still susceptible to headlines warning of “meltdowns” and “worst-case scenarios” that paint the picture of a Middle Eastern Armageddon in full effect with masked, rifle-slinging Islamic fanatics swarming across the Iraqi desert beheading everyone in sight. It’s Walking Dead in 3-D or World War Z at heart attack pace because we Americans were just, like, there … right?

But there’s nothing worst-case about this—at least not for us.

Contrary to what McCain would have you believe, an ugly realignment is taking shape—one in which chess pieces are being repositioned in an end game leaving contestants tired and grimy, yet strangely satisfied. In trademark Obama White House fashion, everyone involved gets a piece of what they want.    


It’s definitely a gamble—picture President Obama and other geopolitical players hunched over dice and cash against a South Side Chicago corner store. But it’s a smart gamble based on a much fleshier, much smarter assessment of the region and its history. The Middle East, always split between Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects, is always fractious. From country to country, it’s a divide so commonplace that it’s like a fender bender on a busy highway. Right now we’re frantically rubbernecking and holding traffic up. 

And this administration made up its mind that it didn’t want anything more to do with it. So negotiating with the Iranians over their shadowy nuclear-weapons program turns out to be an entry point for deal cutting over the current crisis in Iraq. Sunni insurgents are rolling toward Baghdad, and the administration is backing into the position that if Shiite-aligned Iranians want Shiite-controlled Iraq as their protectorate, they can have it.

Iranian troops are already in Iraq, gradually helping the Iraqi troops retake lost ground, and it happened with a precision so smooth that headlines couldn’t quite process it. Suddenly the U.S. and Iran had become unlikely partners with converged common interests. Eventually Iraqi Shiites will find themselves absorbed as a Tehran client state, and even if the insurgent forces known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—or ISIS—get their slice of land, they’ll be squeezed by Kurds and Shiites.


Meanwhile, the well-organized Kurds in the Iraqi North saw this coming. Kurds, who never liked being part of greater Iraq, and who like the ISIS extremists even less, are finally seeing the potential for their dreams of being an autonomous state to come to fruition. And to that end, months before ISIS popped off, Kurdistan brazenly cut oil deals in defiance of Baghdad’s federal mandate while looking for openings to make nice with powerful Turkey to the west.

But the U.S., blindfolded, hit the hornet’s nest when the previous administration thought it was hitting a piñata. Hence, any approach we take moving forward will have to recognize centuries-old cultural traditions and rifts thousands of years beyond our capacity to control events on the ground. That means letting Iraq slowly return to its original setting before the British Empire cut it up in World War I.

Why would we want to charge back into that mess when we can do it by drone and aircraft carriers miles deep in the Persian Gulf? We’re better off telecommuting than showing up; we’re better off working from home than burning lights in the office. President Obama just isn’t very good at explaining this, his slow tone of nuance too academic.


Once the dust settles, though, the execution of the United States’ role will have been masterful and pragmatic—should the dice roll right. No blood spilled, few dollars spent and no skin off our backs, except for an occasional drone called in and controlled from the comfort of an air-conditioned room back home. We’ll be too far away to feel it.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.