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Douglas Cohn: Kurds’ success shows US finally getting it right in Iraq

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The administration appears to have learned the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. A combination of U.S. air power and covert support on the ground drove Libyan President Gaddafi from power. The problem in Libya came in its aftermath when the U.S. and its NATO allies were unable to build up moderate democratic forces, and the country, left to chaos, became a failed state.

The potential for success in the Kurdish region of Iraq is based on the same formula, air power plus U.S. advisors plus covert action. The difference is the Kurds and their dependability and effectiveness as a fighting force, and as a key ally. What the administration learned in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya is that to be successful we can’t replace something with nothing as in Libya or something with something fatally flawed as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The voids and flaws in these countries were an open invitation for radical elements to intervene, and they did.

Yet, as bad as these situations have been, they pale in comparison to what could happen at the hands of the Islamic State (IS).

The IS video of the execution of journalist James Foley could not have been more chilling, along with reports that some European governments routinely pay ransom to free their people. Foley’s captors wanted $100 million for his release, which President Obama rejected. Foley’s parents released a statement on Facebook immediately after seeing the video, praising their son’s courage and supporting their president. It takes courage to put the national security of the country ahead of meeting the demands of a terrorist group when it could mean saving a loved one’s life.

But President Obama got it right this time. Although clearly shaken by the brutality of the beheading, and the threat that a second captured American journalist, Steven Sotloff, a freelancer for Time, could suffer the same fate, Obama did not back down in the battle against the self-declared Islamic State. Calling it a cancer on the Middle East, he said the U.S. would “do what we must to protect our people . . . do what’s necessary to see that justice is done . . . .”

Despite the gruesome nature of Foley’s death, the administration has made gains in reversing the momentum of the Islamic State. The Kurds are solid allies, and with the help of U.S. air power, they and Iraqi forces pushed the IS fighters back from the Mosul Dam, a critical piece of infrastructure that had been taken.

Kurds, in particular, are proving that if freedom-loving democratic forces want their ideas to take hold, they have to fight with the same fervor as those who hold opposite ideas. Obama in his statement Wednesday said the Islamic State, the most well-funded terrorist group the modern world has known, has “no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt.”

Enter the positive ideology to replace the negative, brutal, bankrupt ideology of the Islamic State. Vibrant, successful democracies are the answer. It takes a strong, well-educated middle class and respect for minority rights to create a successful democracy, and the Kurds appear to qualify. If so, a newly minted state of Kurdistan could anchor the eastern Middle East the way the Israeli democracy anchors the western Middle East, creating beacons for the region. It is the end game we failed to find in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq.