Obama is Wrong to Consider Military Action in Iraq

by Benjamin Studebaker

The Obama administration is considering taking military action in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a radical Sunni group that has taken up residence in the territory of both states. ISIS, also known as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) recently seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Its goal is to seize Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, turning these countries into one united Islamic state. While ISIS’ goals are hostile to US interests in the Middle East (and to the interests of the various peoples they seek to rule over), the United States should take no military action against ISIS. Here’s why.

Since the Iraq War began in 2003, the United States has shouldering the burden of providing for peace and stability in Iraq. This has not been cheap–the Iraq War alone has cost the United States upwards of $4 trillion, a figure that is so large that it is nearly impossible to comprehend. The Iraq War cost 816 times more than annual federal spending on cancer research, 223 times more than the annual NASA budget, and nearly 5 times more than annual spending on Social Security. Moreover, despite this spending, the region has only become less stable during this period. Syria and Libya remain in the grip of civil conflict, Egypt is being reclaimed by a new military dictator, and radical Islam has found homes in places as diverse as Mali, Yemen, and Pakistan. Governments in the Middle East are weaker than they were a decade ago, not stronger.

Why has this happened? We were uncomfortable with the pre-2003 Middle Eastern governments because they were and are corrupt, authoritarian, and cruel toward their populations. The Bush administration believed that the Middle East could be made more stable and pro-American by toppling these regimes in favor of democratic governments. Bush relied on two theories:

  1. Democratic Peace Theory, the belief that democratic regimes are intrinsically more moral and responsible stakeholders in the international system than non-democratic regimes.
  2. Domino Theory, the belief that by toppling a couple regimes, a great power can induce a large number of countries to submit to its preferred policies.

The administration got both of these wrong. Democracy does not produce more responsible government in the Middle East because Middle Eastern countries are sectarian–their populations are more loyal to their ethnic and religious subgroups than they are to their states. In Iraq, for example, the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds care more about their respective subgroups than they do about Iraq as a unit (indeed, the Kurds are nakedly separatist). This means that, in practice, democracy in the Middle East means tyranny of the majority–the largest subgroup pillages the resources of the minority subgroups and ruthlessly suppresses them. Domino theory is just plain mistaken–instead of defecting to the United States, countries like Iran saw US military intervention in the Middle East as a security threat. They responded by attempting to deter the United States by enriching uranium and aligning themselves closer with Russia and China. Taken together, we see that US democratization efforts have done the opposite of what they were intended to do–they have further inflamed sectarian tensions and encouraged surviving authoritarian regimes to become more hostile to the United States.

Organizations like ISIS are the ultimate consequence. In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite president we left in charge when we exited the country, has quickly begun pillaging the wealth of the country’s Sunni population and ruthlessly subjugating it. The Sunnis are not sufficiently large in number to defeat al-Maliki at the polls and have no legal political recourse against his policies. With no other options, many Sunnis are once again turning to violent resistance via organizations like ISIS, which seek to topple al-Maliki’s regime in Baghdad. ISIS’ holdings are, as of June, quite substantial. They’re in red:

So what happens if we commit additional money, men, and/or arms to rolling back ISIS? The American military is doubtlessly powerful enough to do the job, but we would only be treating a symptom–ISIS exists and enjoys what support it enjoys because the governments in Syria and Iraq are both run by oppressive Shiite dictators (Assad and al-Maliki, respectively, the latter of which was installed with our help). Does this mean that we should act to remove Assad and/or al-Maliki? Not necessarily–if we replace them with democracies, those democracies will elect oppressive governments run by the largest sects in those countries, which will only serve to radicalize the minorities and restart the cycle of violence. If we replace them with puppet dictators (e.g. Mubarak in Egypt, Musharraf in Pakistan, the Shah in Iran) we run into the same problems we ran into elsewhere–the populations are going to hate the puppet dictator and hate us for supporting him. The ultimate consequence, down the line, is further radicalization (e.g. the Iranian Revolution).

In all of these cases we’re throwing good money after bad for very little strategic gain. Here’s a better strategy: buck pass to Iran. What do al-Maliki and Assad have in common? They are both Shiite, like the Iranian government, and they are both friendly with Iran. The worst possible outcome for Iran is for one or both of these governments to fall to a radical Sunni organization like ISIS. Radical Sunni organizations are friendly with Saudi Arabia, which is Iran’s greatest regional enemy. Saudi King Abdullah has continuously petitioned the United States to attack Iran, urging it to “cut off the head of the snake“. Saudi Arabia arms Sunni militants and actively seeks the overthrow of the Shiite regimes in favor of Sunni ones. These Sunni regimes would likely be just as oppressive as their Shiite counterparts, but they would be aligned with the Saudis against the Iranians. This is something Iran cannot allow, particularly in Iraq, a country on its border. Iran will expend vast amounts of money, men, and arms to prevent the collapse of Shiite regimes in Syria and Iraq. Instead of defending these regimes ourselves, we should back off and allow the Iranians to expend their resources. Why should American taxpayers cover costs that Iranian mullahs are more than willing to pay?

Even if the Iranians are ultimately unsuccessful, the collapse of the al-Maliki regime that we spent nearly a decade building would be of little consequence to the American interest. The Iraqi government is one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. The benefits it confers on its citizens are almost nil, and it is now revealing itself incapable even of maintaining the modicum of stability for which we commissioned it. In the long run, the al-Maliki government is likely too incompetent to survive, and any resources we commit to propping it up will probably be in vain. We need to learn the Iraq lesson, that we are not capable of installing and sustaining benign regimes in highly sectarian societies with strong anti-American sentiments, and that our best bet is to work with these unpleasant regimes rather than intervene in their affairs.

This is not to deny that these regimes are bad, both for their populations and for the region as a whole, but we cannot cheaply and sustainably provide alternatives. At some point, the people in Syria, Iraq, and other such places have to decide to put their states ahead of their religious and ethnic sects, to put the good of the nation ahead of lining the pockets of themselves and their subgroups. Until they commit to this of their own accord, any effort to create an effective government in these places will be a futile waste of funds. The al-Maliki government in Iraq is a terrible excuse for a regime, it does not justify the $4 trillion already spent on its behalf, and any further expenditure to sustain it would be a crime not only against the Iraqis who are subjected to it, but to the American people, who would benefit so much more if those funds were used for domestic programs at home.