Book Review: George William Rutler, Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013)

Above is what remains of the tomb of the prophet Jonah of the Old Testament and tthe mosque that held it, in Mosul, Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) destroyed it. Western governments are greatly interested in what is driving ISIS’ campaign of religious and ethnic bigotry, murder, and destruction in territory that it controls in Syria and Iraq. In Principalities and Powers, George William Rutler discusses the role evil played in World War II. His book may help Western leaders better understand ISIS and how to proceed against it.

The world’s response to Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) initially was reminiscent of the late 1930s when war came to Europe, and so many turned a blind eye as countries were conquered and countless innocent civilians killed in aerial bombardments, artillery fire, tank guns, and small arms. Lamentations heard from numerous innocent civilians, including children, in Iraq, Syria, and Libya by beheading, crucifixion, and forced exile from their ancient homelands are chillingly enough to remind not only of the fighting in World War II, but also of the cries heard from ghettos and concentration camps resulting from the vile anti-Semitism and crimes of German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party (Nazis). Anti-ISIS governments must acknowledge today what governments fighting the Nazis recognized. The fight against ISIS is a fight against evil.

In Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013), George William Rutler illustrates that World War II, which began for mixed reasons and was fought on many fronts, can only be understood in its essential dynamic as spiritual combat between forces of great good and palpable evil.  Rutler explains that from his book, readers should gain an understanding of how “the same moral dilemmas of an old war, in their display of human dignity and the anatomy of cruelty, are background for the same realities in our own day.” Given the evil that ISIS poses, Principalities and Powers is an exceedingly relevant book to read right now.

Reared in the Episcopal tradition in New Jersey and New York, Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years, and the youngest Episcopal rector in the country when he headed the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. However, in 1979, he was received into the Catholic Church and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. A graduate of Dartmouth, Rutler also took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1988 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Thomas More College and Christendom College awarded him honorary doctorates. For ten years he was also National Chaplain of Legatus, the organization of Catholic business leaders and their families, engaged in spiritual formation and evangelization. A board member of several schools and colleges, he is Chaplain of the New York Guild of Catholic Lawyers, Regional Spiritual Director of the Legion of Mary (New York and northern New Jersey) and has long been associated with the Missionaries of Charity, and other religious orders. He was a university chaplain for the Archdiocese. Rutler has lectured and given retreats in many nations, frequently in Ireland and Australia. Since 1988, EWTN has broadcasted Rutler’s television programs worldwide. Rutler has made documentary films in the US and England, contributes to numerous scholarly and popular journals and has published 16 books, referred to by some as classics, on theology, history, cultural issues, and the lives of the saints.

Principalities and Powers is a history of the pivotal years of World War II: 1942–1943. In its discussion, Rutler, as expected, devotes attention to well-reported events of the period. Yet, the discussion of those events is used primarily to couch a recounting of the efforts made by a diverse set of individuals to confront the enemies of humanity. Admittedly, there is a predominant focus on the resistance of priests and officials of the Catholic Church to evil, including the papacy’s direct activities against atheistic totalitarian governments. However, that history helps to fill the book with loads of drama and intrigue. Many of the individuals mentioned are forgotten today and little was known of some even then. (The book’s “Index of Names” has 277 entries.) Several of them did not survive the war. Rutler explains that events of this period demonstrate human nature never changes. Heroes and cowards, and saints and sinners are revealed. To write Principalities and Powers, Rutler drew from a collection of actual letters, newspapers, and journals of the period. He skillfully used those resources to provide a profound discussion of events. (The information might well have been lost as most of these documents were printed on rationed paper and are deteriorating.) Previously, greatcharlie reviewed and highly recommended Rutler’s book, Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive (Scepter, 2010). Rutler has amazed greatcharlie again with Principalities and Powers.

At the start of World War II, no one could be certain about its outcome. The situation was touch and go. Rutler notes that defenders of humanity had the good fortune of having the right leaders in place at the right time. Winston Churchill was not well-liked within circles of power. He was a harsh critic of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. At the outbreak of the war, King George VI appealed to Lord Edward Halifax, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom and Viceroy of India before that, to take on the post of Prime Minister. However, after France fell, the invasion of the United Kingdom was viewed as certain. Art from the National Gallery was removed. The Royals’ bags were packed. Halifax would decline the prime minister’s post, perhaps concerned as many other leaders over how the Nazis would respond to them if the United Kingdom fell. Churchill, serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, was available, was willing, and was begrudgingly selected. US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was another fortuitous placement. Roosevelt, known as a deal maker, aligned completely with the United Kingdom. Rutler explains that Roosevelt, as Churchill, viewed Hitler as truly evil. Hitler spelled his plans out in Mein Kampf and executed them. Despite the US public’s overwhelming support for neutrality and the Neutrality Act of 1939, the Lend-Lease Act was passed in the US Congress in March 1941. The US received leases for a chain of British islands guarding the Caribbean for the loan of US ships and other material support, committing the US to the United Kingdom’s defense. The Atlantic Charter of August 1941 affirming the solidarity between the two countries. Churchill was certainly uneasy with Roosevelt’s deals with the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, who he viewed as no-less evil than Hitler. He never reconciled with the division of postwar Europe and remained concerned over Soviet plans for global Communist domination.

From right to left are Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference in 1943. Roosevelt and Churchill jointly held the view that Hitler was evil and had to be approached as such. Churchill, however, was uneasy over deals eventually made with Stalin that established the postwar division of Europe.

Rutler notes that during its ascent, Nazism was essentially ignored by European governments for what it truly was, they paid a high price. The delusion of European leaders that Hitler could be managed, contained, or controlled, fostered an environment for the growth of Nazi power. From the very beginning, it was clear that the founding principles of Nazism were inimical to Western ideals. As Rutler explains, Nazism was more than a political movement, it was a religion, possessing its own ceremonies and rituals. The Nazis created their own pagan gods for their religion and used Norse pagan gods. Having created an artificial church, the Nazis sought to disband existing religions. Having prevented the people from believing in the true God, they submitted to a cult of personality. They worshipped Hitler. Hitler copied all of the trappings of fascism from Italian Duce and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, but Hitler’s abilities as an orator put him in a special class. While the great orator among the defender’s of civilization, Winston Churchill, spoke to convince people that they could do anything. Hitler spoke to convince people that he could do anything. The Judgment of the Nations was a work published in 1942 by the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, but it began to get significant attention only in the early months of 1943. “The old landmarks of good and evil and truth and falsehood have been swept away and civilization is driving before the storm of destruction like a dismasted and helmless ship.” Dawson saw proof in world events that “evil too is a progressive force and that the modern world provides unlimited prospects for its development.” He believed what accounted for this was that things spiritual had been invaded by the secular state. Through that arose the totalitarian state, which imposed “total control of all human activities and all human energies, spiritual as well as physical . . and their direction to whatever ends are dictated by its interests, or rather the interests of the ruling party or clique.” From 1942 and 1943, it was clear that evil was rising all around Europe, seemingly transmitted by the Nazis as they gained territory and authority over Europe’s peoples. An incredible number of atrocities were being committed by governments across the continent. Villains that may be more memorable include Vichy French Prime Minister Pierre Laval, whose cruelty amazed even many Nazis. He reportedly stated: “Cardinals and bishops have intervened, but everyone is a master of his own trade. They handle religion. I handle government.”  Rutler indicates that evil even managed to consume some officials of the Catholic Church. A priest, Monsignor Josef Tiso, as puppet president of the Slovak State, paid the Germans to deport 60,000 Slovak Jews for extermination in Auschwitz, making Slovakia the only country to subsidize such deportations.  Pro-Ustashe Archbishop Sarić of Sarevejo penned an ode to the leader of the Ustashe government of Croatia, Ante Pavelić. Croatia had the highest rate of genocide, in proportion to population, of any European country. After the war he fled to Spain, while Pavelić was hidden by Jesuits near Naples and eventually settled in Argentina. In Yugoslavia, Bishop Alojzije Mišić of Mostar expressed horror at the massacres of Serbs with the complicity of Herzegovinian Franciscans residing in Široki Brijeg near Medjugorje. Bishop Mišić described hundreds of women and children and elderly men thrown alive into ravines at Surmanci.

In Belgium, the University of Louvain was purged of its Catholic faculty and Mass was forbidden. In Poland, the Germans suppressed all patriotic hymns, litanies, and prayers and took particular umbrage at the practice of hailing the Virgin Mary as “Queen of the Crown of Poland.” Dr. Mutz, Chief of the Department of Internal Administration, abolished all mentions of the Polish State, “which no longer exists.” May 3rd would no longer be celebrated as the day of the Beatae Mariae Virginis Patronae Rei Publicae Poloniae. The August 15thActio gratiarum pro Victoria super Bolshevicos 1920″ was forbidden, along with the thanksgiving for the victory at Chocim on October 10th and all services on November 11th commemorating the rebirth of the Polish Republic. Outside of Europe, in Syria, the Nationalist Socialist Party hailed Hitler as “Abu Ali” and the Young Egypt Party called him “Muhammed Haidar.”  The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini visited Hitler, secured the deportation of 5,000 Jewish children to death camps, and obtained a promise from Hitler to liquidate the Jews of Palestine after a Nazi victory.

On the far left is Ante Pavelic, leader of the Ustashe government of Croatia, making a Nazi salute in the presence of a prayerful Monsignor Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac on the far right. Under Nazi influence in World War II, Croatia had the highest rate of genocide, in proportion to population, in Europe.

The resistance to evil was strong. Included among the thousands of individuals who, as Rutler says, “attained virtue on a heroic scale,” is the pioneer of pan-Europeanism, the Austro-Hungarian Count Richard Nikolaus von Coudenhove-Kalergi. The character Victor Laszlo in the film Casablanca was based on him the Count. Although he was a professor at New York University in 1943, Hitler still loathed him as “everybody’s bastard.” He was, however, admired by Archduke Otto von Habsburg, Aristide Briand, Albert Einstein, Horace Mann, Sigmund Freud, and later by Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle; he was an anti-Nazi and foe of anti-Semitism (like his Catholic father, who annually walked out of Good Friday services at the mention of the “perfidious Jews”).  Rutler mentions the Foreign Minister of Generalismo Francisco Franco’s Spain, Count Francisco Gomez-Jordana, who helped make his country a haven for Eastern European Jews, especially Sephardic Jews from Hungary. German Army Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a well-known conspirator in the plot to assassinate Hitler, is mentioned. However, Rutler also discusses the lesser-known assassination attempt against Hitler by German Army Colonel Rudolf von Gersdorff, chief of intelligence for German Army General Gunther von Kluge. Further, Rutler mentions the attempted protests by students at universities in the Netherlands against the Nazi revision of their syllabus, and protests by students at the Sorbonne and Grand Paris Ecoles. Rutler includes their letter to Vichy French Chief of State Philippe Petain which stated: “For more than two years, forgetting their rowdy traditions, the students of the University of Paris have abstained from demonstrations. But our silence has never implied acceptance of events of which we were the distressed observers. Above all, the brutal deportation of thousands of French workers has provoked our indignation.”

For Rutler, the strong role of the clergy in the resistance to tyranny was natural given their sense that the barbarity unleashed by the war was in reality a manifestation of evil and the presence of the devil. Rutler points to leaders such as the bishop of Berlin, Johann Konrad Maria Augustin Felix Graf von Preysing Lichtenegg-Moos, who stated when the Nazis had first come into power, “We have fallen into the hands of criminals and fools.” Bishop von Preysing exhorted in his Advent message of December 12, 1942, “Every departure from right and justice will sooner or later be broken against these foundations of God’s Dominion.” He explained the world’s present miseries were the result of human contempt for natural and divine law: “Resistance to God’s sovereign rule was a product largely of the eighteenth century—the century which proclaimed the primacy of human intelligence, the individual as an autonomous being and as his own sole judge, and which declared that all right was to be derived from this intelligence independently of God’s law.” The state had imposed itself as the very incarnation of God, replacing justice and right with power and profit. The Bishop’s appeal was stark: “My dear Brethren: ‘Repent,’ and change your mode of thinking. This is my appeal to you.” The pro-Nazi newspaper Vooruit of Ghent rued the pastoral letter of Jozef-Ernest Cardinal van Roey, who opposed forced labor. At the same time, the primate of Hungary, Jusztinian Cardinal Seredi, told representatives of the Hungarian Catholic press that “all States have equal sovereignty” and so “the Hungarian nation has a birthright to claim—freedom, autonomy, and national independence.” Reverend R. H. W. Regout, professor of international law at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, died at the age of 46 in Dachau, where he and three other professors had been sent shortly after the occupation of the Netherlands. The “priest block” in that concentration camp held 2,579 priests over the war years, 1,785 of them Polish, more than a thousand of whom perished there. By February1943, 34 Italian chaplains had been killed in active service.

On April 19, 1943, the Swedish Svenska Dagbladet printed a letter from the archbishop of Zagreb, Monsignor Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac, to the Italian ambassador to the Croatian puppet state. The Italians had been exploiting conflicts between Croats and Serbs to make them seem ideological rather than ethnic: “I must protest energetically against the incredible atrocities committed by Italian troops against the defenceless populations in the districts of Krasic, Vidovina and Brovac, where several villages have been burnt down. . . . Even if some Communists should have succeeded in taking refuge there, I can vouch that there were not, and are not now, any Communists among the village population.”

Pope Pius XII ( center) meets with members of what Rutler calls the forces of “great good,” in this case the Canadian Royal 22nd Regiment, following the liberation of Rome in June 1944. Pius XII refrained from directly rebuffing Hitler and Mussolini and kept channels open to their regimes. Yet, he understood that Hitler, in particular, represented true evil.   While remaining neutral, he did as much as he could to mitigate suffering in World War II.

In France, the activities of the Catholic Church against the Nazis were so significant that the editor of a Protestant French newspaper wrote: “The militant Catholics in our country have taken a place which is important and, we do not fear to say, preponderant, at the head of the movement of resistance in which, very often, they have taken the initiative, and of which they remain the inspiration.”   The 81-year-old Auxiliary Bishop of Paris, Emanuele-Anatole-Raphael Chaptal de Chanteloupe wore a Star of David in protest again the deportation of Jews, and soon was buried wearing it. The collaborationist Vichy radio mocked Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons for hiding Jews and resistance fighters: he was “an ex-lawyer who late in life became an archbishop more as a result of the omnipotent grace of the House of Rothschild than to the laws of Holy Mother Church.”  When German officials ordered the Jews of Beauvais to register at the municipal headquarters, Bishop Felix Roeder claimed a distant Jewish antecedent and was the first to register, processing through the street in full pontifical vestments, and preceded by an acolyte carrying the Cross.

Rutler notes that in the war’s distress, increasing appeals were being made to the Pope for help and advocacy. L’Osservatore Romano published an article on the history of papal diplomatic prerogatives by General Francois de Castelnau, president of the French Federation National Catholique. He pointed to the irony by which the European powers in the 19th century had threatened to exclude the Pope from their deliberations, while turning to him in crises. Seemingly debilitated by the loss of the papal states in 1870, the papacy ironically took on a new prestige when its loss of temporal power gave it a grander kind of neutrality. In 1885, Bismarck, only ten years removed from the Kulturkampf, had asked the Pope to arbitrate between two nations, Spain and Germany, for the first time in three centuries. In 1890, the Pope was asked to mediate between Great Britain and Portugal a matter of navigation on the Zambesi. That same year, US President Grover Cleveland desired a papal arbitration between Venezuela and Great Britain to define the frontier between Venezuela and Guyana. Five years later Cleveland asked Pope Leo XIII to do the same for Haiti and Santo Domingo.   However, the Nazis had contempt for the appeal to neutrality, and the pontiff’s ability to intervene on issues was more constrained. In February 1942, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1921 to 1936), Dr. Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, published a statement saying that he had appealed to the Pope to intervene with the combatant powers on behalf of European Jewry. Without out noting specifics, the Holy See replied that “the Pope is doing everything in his power on behalf of the persecuted Jews of Europe.”  It was telling that Rabbi Herzog, who remained as Chief Rabbi until 1959, would eventually remark about the Pius XII, “The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most tragic hour of our history, which is living proof of Divine Providence in this world.”

Pius XII’s message on the Vatican radio on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1942, broadcast in German, said: “God’s ship is destined to reach port safely. She will not sink, for Christ is the helmsman and the gates of hell, the onslaught of the wildest waves and of the spiritual U-boat action (“Geistige U-boot Arbeit”) of godless neo-paganism will not harm her… For while paganism cannot build up, still less can neo-paganism, which lacks even that nobility of mind and true humanity which was found in the old pagans.” When Christmas came in 1942, The New York Times said Pius XII “is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”

There is much more in Principalities and Powers. After starting it, the book is hard to put down.

Causa latet, vis est notissima! (The cause is hidden, but its force is very well known!) Rutler views the test of character in the struggles of the world’s greatest war as a litmus for how the present generation should and should not behave in the face of challenges. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott well-described ISIS as a “death cult,” but the imbalanced, barbaric behavior of ISIS has flummoxed Western governments wanting to categorize the organization and appropriately respond to it. As Rutler shows in Principalities and Powers, the starting point for understanding ISIS or any similar organization that might arise is its main characteristic, which is evil. Principalities and Powers may support the development of a better understanding of ISIS, what it represents, and the devising of new approaches to defeat it. As it is greatcharlie’s mission to provide commentary and advice for foreign and defense policy makers, political and business leaders, and policy aficionados worldwide, we enthusiastically recommend Principalities and Powers to our readers.

By Mark Edmond Clark

Iraq’s Premier Narrows the Divide, but Challenges Loom: Will Abadi Take a Path Being Created by Iran?

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (left) is pictured in an October 2014 meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) in Tehran. Abadi has been successful in mitigating sectarian tension in Iraq. However, with some prodding from Tehran, Abadi now seems to be leaning toward Iran and challenging the administration of US President Barack Obama on its support and commitment to his government.

According to a December 15, 2014 New York Times article entitled “Iraq’s Premier Narrows the Divide, but Challenges Loom”, in nearly every way, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has so far been a different leader than his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, despite their common Shi’a political bloc. Although the obstacles facing his government are considerable and he faces political challenges within his own party, Abadi’s early performance has encouraged many Western officials. In his first months in office, Abadi has already appeared three times before Parliament which Maliki only did twice in eight years. Abadi has fired incompetent and corrupt military commanders appointed by Maliki and rooted out 50,000 so-called ghost soldiers; no-show troops for whom commanders nevertheless collect salaries. The December 15th New York Times article quoted Gyorgy Busztin, the Deputy Special Representative for the United Nations in Iraq, as saying “He [Abadi] is doing all the things we feared he wouldn’t be doing.” While many officials credit Abadi’s conciliatory style for the improved political environment, they say the changes also point to a new sense of urgency in Baghdad that Iraq might finally break apart in the face of the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Abadi’s greatest test to date came when an Iraqi court sentenced a prominent Sunni politician to death. It was panning out to be an unmitigated disaster for the country’s new prime minister. The verdict, on capital murder charges brought by the previous government against the politician, Ahmed al-Alwani, prompted the defendant’s Alwani tribe to threaten the termination of its coordination with the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIS. However, Abadi moved quickly to mitigate the problem. He immediately contacted Sunni officials and Alwani tribe members, assuring them that there would be no execution. He urged them to solve the matter by the tribal tradition of paying “blood money” to the families of the two soldiers who were killed in a gun battle when commandos came to arrest Alwani last year.

However, the December 15th New York Times article also explained that Abadi faces constraints from hard-line factions within his own Shi’a constituency. For example, Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi said that even though Sunni officials were optimistic about Abadi’s intentions, they remained worried about the “old guard,” a reference to Maliki and his cronies, who many believe are working behind the scenes to undermine Abadi. Maliki had already been accused of inflaming sectarian hostility. It was a made cause for the US push for his removal. His reputation was made worse by his open opposition of a deal to share oil revenue with the Kurds. He called the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June a conspiracy orchestrated by the Kurds. It is believed that ISIS’ march over a vast swath of Iraq has been aided by sectarian hostility which Maliki’s rule inflamed. Maliki warned against arming Sunni tribes to fight ISIS. His lack of support for Abadi has also been evinced by his refusal to vacate his prime minister’s offices and palace in Baghdad’s Green Zone. There is the possibility that Maliki is driven purely by his own political objectives and the hope that he might return to power sometime in 2015.

However, it may also be that Maliki’s actions have been driven by Iran. Tehran may be using Maliki both as leverage with Abadi and as a possible replacement, should he take what Iranian leaders in Tehran might view as an overly conciliatory approach toward other sectarian groups in Iraq and move too close to the US. Part of that effort also appears to include having Maliki maintain close linkages with Iran’s Shi’a partners in the region, including groups such as Hezbollah. Abadi must remain concerned with reactions from his Shi’a political base to his bona fides as leader of Iraq’s Shi’a community upon which his political survival depended. Indeed, it appears Iran’s approach is working. True, Iraqi leaders have always visited Iran since the 2003 invasion by the US-led coalition. Yet, recent visits by Abadi and other senior Iraqi officials indicate Iran still holds considerable influence with them. There is palpable feeling in the air that renewed linkages between Iraqi Shi’a political leaders and Tehran has been created. It has been firmed by Iran’s efforts and sacrifice in defense of Iraqi cities, towns, and citizens from ISIS.

Doubts Arise about Abadi in the US

When the ISIS blitzkrieg began in Iraq on June 9, 2014, the response of the administration of the US President Barack Obama included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. It was seen as an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. The militants captured large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces in their June offensive after Sunni residents threw their support to the group after the Maliki government stopped paying the Sunni tribal fighters who had earlier helped battled the ISIS’s precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Obama went as far as to insist that no US military help will be forthcoming unless Iraqis make an effort to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in talks with Maliki, tried to make headway on the issue. After a protracted political crisis, the Iraqi Parliament voted to have Maliki step down in August, and Abadi took over with a mandate to establish a new government more representative of Iraq’s ethno-religious groups and gain the trust of Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it. His early performance encouraged many US and Iraqi officials.

In support of Abadi’s government, the US deployed 1,700 US troops to Iraq with the mission to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. It had dwindled to nearly half its size from the 50 brigades it had when the US forces left in 2011. US military troops would also prepare the Iraqi Army for a ground offensive against the ISIS. A fight to retake Mosul was being planned for the spring of 2015. Obama announced in November that the US would send 1,500 additional troops as part of a $1.6 billion effort to train and equip nine Iraqi brigades and three Kurdish brigades for a renewed push against ISIS. Obama also sought to support plans to create as many as three brigades of Iraqi National Guard units drawn from members of Sunni tribes in the Anbar province to fight AQI. Those tribal militias were a vital part of the “Sunni Awakening” that began in August 2006, during which Sunni fighters turned against AQI. The tribal militias cooperated with US troops in killing large numbers of AQI militants and in pushing the group out of its longtime stronghold in Anbar province. ISIS’s June offensive was launched from Anbar, and it has been consolidating its control over the province.

Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, stated for the New York Times in an email that Abadi and the Iraqi government “have made clear that Sunni tribal forces are going to have to be a part of the effort to defeat ISIL [ISIS] and for the security of their provinces.” Baskey went on to comment on Abadi’s participation at a December 3, 2014 Counter-ISIL Coalition Ministerial in Brussels. He stated that Abadi “once again acknowledged that military action alone will not defeat ISIL [ISIS] and that positive steps toward governmental reform, national reconciliation, and economic and social reconstruction will be needed in this fight. This process will take time but it is now underway. The new government is working to integrate tribal fighters into the Iraqi Security Forces.”

However, Abadi, during a December 9, 2014 meeting with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, reportedly made a strong push for more weapons and expressed doubts about reconciling with Sunni tribes. According to a December 14, 2014 article, Abadi’s approach caused US and European officials to worry whether the US-led coalition was rushing to train and rebuild Iraq’s military forces without getting a matching commitment from the Iraqi government to make peace with its Sunni tribes. Talk began of holding back the deployment of the additional 1,500 US troops as a way to indicate US displeasure at Abadi. However, it was recognized that any slowdown or hesitation on the part of the US to execute its plan to train and equip the Iraqi military as well as support for the formation of national guard units will have far-reaching consequences. An anonymous US official was quoted in the December 14th article as stating if the US waits to deploy additional forces “or if we look like we are starting to wobble in our commitment to Iraq we’ll pay for that inside the coalition and we’ll pay for that with our Arab partners.” Sedit qui timuit ne non succederet! (He who feared he would not succeed sat still!)

Iran Seeks to Guide Abadi’s Way

It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Iran would tolerate any reduction of its influence or surrender its interests in Iraq as a result of the Obama administration’s actions. Knowing that the type of representative government the US sought to construct for Iraq could not be designed easily, Iranian leaders seemed to believe the US would fail to create it. Khamenei, on June 23, 2014, stated: “We vehemently oppose and disapprove the interference of the Americans and others in Iraq’s domestic matters. We believe that Iraq’s government, people, and the senior clergy are capable of ending this sedition. God willing, they will end it.” After some political horse-trading, Maliki was pushed out and Abadi was brought in. However, Iranian leaders did not concede that the US was better able to manage Iraqi politics. In response, Iran committed itself heavily to Iraq expecting to acquire even greater influence in the country and with Abadi.

Tehran eventually expressed support for Abadi, but it was reserved. It came in the form of congratulations from the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Rear Admiral (Daryābān) Ali Shamkhani. On August 12, 2014, Shamkhani offered congratulations to the Iraqi people and their leaders for choosing Abadi as their new prime minister. He also stated that Iran supported “the legal process for choosing the new Iraqi prime minister.” Yet, the Iranian leadership’s authentic sentiments on the matter were best expressed by Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati. On June 19, 2014, Velayati explained, “[Nouri Maliki] is the best figure among existing Iraqi politicians to lead. I say this because I know Iraq. I have cooperated with everyone who is managing Iraq, even before the victory of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.” In following with that sentiment, during Abadi’s first visit to Iran as prime minister on October 20, 2014, Khamenei reservedly expressed appreciation over his formation of the new Iraqi government. Khamenei stated, “Iraq is a big, important, and influential country in the region that can play a (major) role once security and conditions return to normal.” He told Abadi, “We stand by you and will defend your government just as we seriously defended the former administration.” Yet, in Abadi’s presence, Khamenei lauded the performance of Maliki in resolving the problems of the Iraqi people and maintain security in the country. It was not difficult for Abadi to perceive that in Tehran, Maliki’s standing was higher than his own. Press TV reported Khamenei heaped further praise on Maliki when he visited Tehran on November 10, 2014 by saying his approach prevented “chaos” and “instability” in the country. Khamenei rated what he called “Maliki’s approach to help the new government of [prime minister] Haider al Abadi and efforts to establish unity among different Iraqi forces” as “very good.”

By late 2014, Abadi began to publicly lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support despite his successes in Iraq. The cause for his change in perspective may have been a combination of weariness from political infighting in Baghdad, the struggle to balance his ties to sectarian groups, pressure from his own Shi’a community, or Iran’s efforts on the battlefield. Abadi may have simply begun to question the Obama administration’s will to engage long-term in the fight against ISIS. His rebellious attitude toward the US was evinced in a December 1, 2014 interview with the Lebanese-based Al-Mayadeen Television. Abadi reportedly stated, “While the United States was hesitant to help Iraqi armed forces amid security threats to Baghdad, Iran was swift to provide assistance to its crisis-torn Arab neighbor.” Abadi went on to express his appreciation to Iran for standing with Iraq in its battle against ISIS. He also explained that Baghdad was determined to maintain friendly relations with Tehran. Abadi stated that the two neighboring nations share common interests, adding Iraq would not sever its relations with the Iran simply because others might ask Baghdad to do so. Given the views he proffered in his December 1st interview, the approach taken by Abadi during his December 9th meeting in Baghdad with Hagel should not have come as a surprise. 

To Abadi, US officials have approached the anti-ISIS fight as a policy issue, but for him that fight is an existential issue. As a neighbor, Iran displays a mutual sense of danger, and its leaders have assured Abadi that as neighbors, they are open to helping his government face many critical issues.

Impact of Iranian Military Support

During a September 25, 2014 meeting with Abadi, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated, “Tehran considers Iraq’s security and stability as its own security and stability.” If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered. As Velyati explained, “The majority of [Shi’as and Kurds] and their leaders have very close relationships with Iran. Some Sunni Arabs have cordial relations with us as well. We can therefore make our most effort to gather the aforementioned [individuals].” Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders certainly believe they are close to achieving that goal. The Iranian Students News Agency quoted IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Yadollah Javani, the Senior Adviser to the Representative of the Supreme Leader to the IRGC as stating that the two factors in the successful liberation of Amerli and Mosul were the matjas [religious authorities]’ fatwas, especially that of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He further noted that according to his [Sistani’s] own words, “General [Qassem] Suleimani has exported the culture of the Sacred Defense [Iran-Iraq War].” Javani continued by explaining, “Today in Iraq and Syria, the great banner of General Suleimani has been installed, with the caption beneath it, ‘Savior of Iraq;’ this is a great source of pride.”

Some IRGC boasts have derided US efforts in Iraq. Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi explained that Iran, Syria, and Iraq make up the strongest coalition against ISIS, with millions of people willing to defend sacred shrines. He further stated the US-led anti-ISIS coalition is ineffective and has already failed.

The Way Forward

It has been proffered by US officials anonymously that the Abadi government is still in its nascent stages and the US and its coalition partners need to “resist making major assumptions about the trajectory of the situation in Iraq based on anecdotal information or a few data points.” If the decision is made to wait to see how Abadi will behave before investing further militarily in Iraq, it is believed the Iraqis will most likely delay in organizing their security forces. Soon enough, everyone will be waiting to act except ISIS. That has been referred to as “a losing proposition.” Iran heavily committed itself to Iraq with the expectation that it will acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, not through political operations, but its military efforts, it is difficult to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  As for the sectarian struggle, Iran is confident it can handle the matter.

In many places, the Iraqi people have coped with unspeakable sufferings, injustice in violent forms, and corruption among officials. Given Abadi’s progress, hope was created that the light of his success would shine amidst such darkness, and the darkness would not be able to overpower him. Yet, no matter how capable Abadi may appear to be, he cannot be expected to find his way in that darkness without help. Iran is creating a road for Abadi. It may be either a path toward a stable, secure and unified Iraq, with a representation government or a blind alley which will lead to greater sectarian violence. If Iran’s efforts concern the Obama administration, it should consider how the US can create a straight path for Abadi to travel. It is not a matter of simply pushing him from behind with demands. It means leading the way with concrete steps and working closely with Abadi, as a partner, to accomplish all things.