You should cringe whenever you hear, very often these days, that the United States is calling on some government to do this or that. It usually means that the US has found no way to convince, incentivize, or pressure that government to do what needs to be done (from the US’ viewpoint). Indeed, ‘calling upon’ is often a public affairs cover-up for inaction. Thus, most recently Secretary of State Tillerson called upon the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, now that the territorial war against ISIS is being won, to “go home.” (It was unclear whether he meant to Iran—or to their homes in Iraq. Although the militias are armed, guided, and financed by Iran, the foot soldiers are Iraqi Shias). The Iraqi Prime Minister did not even dignify this call with a courtesy demurral, something along the lines of ‘this is something to consider.’ He stated flatly that these are “Iraqi patriots” and hence presumably to be venerated and maintained rather than disbanded.
This is hardly an isolated incident. The Iraqi government, which would not exist were it not for thousands of Americans who gave their lives and half a trillion of US tax payer dollars, was not invested in making Iraq into a democratic regime over the span of fifteen years. It is a Shia government that again and again spurned US calls to reconcile with the Sunnis, which is a major reason ISIS flourished in the Sunni parts of Iraq. It is a government that increasingly heeds Tehran much more than Washington. The US has found no way to stop this loss of influence over Iraq. Indeed, after Prime Minister Abadi basically gave Secretary Tillerson the finger, Tillerson had little to say apart from making another appeal.
He called the Abadi government and the Kurds “to enter into discussion and dialogue.” The Iraqi government paid no mind to this appeal any more than to the previous one. This is particularly troubling given that the Kurds were by far the most effective anti-ISIS military force, shed a lot of blood to defeat ISIS in Iraq, and are the most reliable pro-Americans (next to Israel) in the region. The US is abandoning them now that the fighting is over. The most it is willing to do is to call upon the government of Iraq to make nice with them.
Secretary Tillerson also made a stop in Afghanistan. Here he called on the Taliban to renounce extremism. What is missing is a strategy that would pressure Pakistan to make its intelligence service stop promoting and supporting the Taliban and—prevent the regions on the border of Afghanistan to stop providing training and supply bases for the Taliban. I hasten to acknowledge that Secretary Tillerson did not ignore Pakistan. However, rather than show that the US tilt towards India is meant to contain China, and is not antagonistic to Pakistan, he called on it to “… take a clear eyed view of the situation that they’re confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan.”
One notes that every time the US calls on some government or party to do this or that and its request is ignored, the US loses more of its credibility. The US hence should use all the means available to it, including stopping the flow of billions in aid and in arms, economic sanctions, and the CIA—rather than plead. In short, I am calling on Secretary Tillerson to make fewer calls—and you know how much effect such a call is going to have.
This article was originally published in The National Interest.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His book Happiness is the Wrong Metric will be published in winter 2018.