Should we vs. Can we?

My recent posts on staying out of Iraq have produced several interesting comments (click on the titles of the posts below then scroll down to see the comments and replies).

Let me be clear — if I thought we could improve American security and reduce killing and strife in the Middle East by some kind of intervention, I would be in favor of that, as I was in Syria, and in Libya.

Did past US actions contribute to the current problems? Regrettably, yes.  As the most powerful country in the world and one long involved in the region, do we have a moral responsibility to try to reduce the violence?  Again, yes.  And should the U.S. do everything to reduce the risks of terrorism against Americans at home and abroad — a third time, yes.  That is what the American people want when they say that terrorism is the most significant threat to U.S. security.

However, the real-world question, not the abstract moral one, is whether any actual interventions: air strikes, inserting special forces as advisors and intelligence coordinators, or calling on Iraq to change its government are actually going to do any good.

President Obama already faced such a decision once, in Syria.  There, in the early days, Obama decided that even though there was a cruel dictator facing a serious rebellion involving growing dominance by extreme jihadists (in fact the same ISIS organization now moving into Iraq), and producing hundreds of  thousands of deaths and refugees, the U.S. would do nothing.

At the time, I believed that early in that conflict, the U.S. could have effectively intervened to limit the role of jihadists and force a negotiated settlement on Assad.  But the time has passed for that, and at this point not intervening (unless the conflict spills into Jordan or Turkey) seems the best course.

But now in Iraq, Obama faces a situation very much like that in Syria, except that the jihadists are even more dominant (although, to be clear, the Sunni rebellion in Iraq includes many groups besides ISIS).    So why now choose to intervene here?  In Syria, there was at least a hope of eliminating (in Assad) a strong ally of Iran.  In Iraq, where Iran is the country most committed to the survival of the regime in Baghdad, saving the government — even if it can be saved — simply supports a bad government allied with Iran.

Could Iraq develop a more inclusive government?  Perhaps at one point, but I fear at present that opportunity has passed.  Much more likely is the (overdue?) dissolution of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’a independent countries.  The  Shi’as of Iraq are unlikely to ever allow the Sunnis of Anbar and other western provinces full equality and a return to prominence in a united Iraq.  The Kurds have been enjoying de facto independence and moving steadily toward actual independence for some time.

The academic literature on civil wars is fairly clear — unless overwhelming force can be used to separate the combatants, such wars only end with the victory of one side or the other, or a painful stalemate that forces the sides to negotiate.  Moderate foreign intervention usually has the effect of making civil wars last longer, as it is insufficient to provide a victory and just encourages the side being supported to fight on.

Does it make sense for the U.S. to intervene so massively as to halt the conflict by putting troops on the ground to push back the forces of ISIS? And if we did so, what then?  Does the U.S. again occupy Anbar and try to beat down the inevitable insurgency?  Haven’t we been there, done that already?

And if the U.S. is not willing to intervene with overwhelming force, what will be accomplished by intervening “just a little?”  Will that enable the demoralized and poorly trained Iraqi military to defeat, occupy, and suppress the Sunnis of Anbar?  Unlikely.

With support from Iran, the Shi’as of Iraq should be able to preserve the bulk of the portion of the country where they dominate.  And then Iraqis will have to work out their own fate, whether to divide their country into real nations, or not.  However, there is little or nothing the U.S. can do to decide that outcome.

Could the ISIS-dominated state in Western Iraq and Northern Syria then become a terrorist threat to Europe and the U.S.?  Perhaps; but for the most part ISIS is far more engaged in conflict with Sh’ias and secular regimes in the Islamic Middle East. By far the greatest target of Muslim terrorists have been other Muslims; whether in the Middle East, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, intra-Islamic conflicts have far outweighed attacks on Israel, India, or Western nations.  The Boston Marathon terrorists came out of Dagestan, not Pakistan, Afghanistan, or the Middle East.

As long as the West is perceived as the enemy of Islam, fanatic Muslims will plan attacks against the West, whether those fanatics come from north Africa, Central Asia, southeast Asia, or even the Muslims of Europe or America (or even, as with the Fort Hood shooting, from within the U.S. military).  What we should have learned in the last decade is that having American and NATO troops fighting in various Islamic countries will not stop or suppress Islamic terrorist attacks inside or outside the Islamic world.  Homeland security remains the best way to protect Americans from terrorist threats.

In the long run, the best way to reduce Islamist terror threats is for the U.S. to be perceived as a supporter of the legitimate interests of Muslims around the world in freedom, dignity, security, and economic opportunity, for men and women alike.  I do not believe either support for the Sisi regime in Egypt, or military intervention of any kind in Iraq, contributes to those goals.


About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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