U.S. Should Follow Nonintervention in Iraq

Now that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has conquered territory in both states, the US policy response is up for debate. We should, first of all, heed one of the major axioms of economics: in making a decision, ignore sunk costs, and consider only the future costs and benefits. The USA has spent huge amounts of treasure and sacrificed many lives, and also cost the lives and health of its allies and the people of Iraq. That is all in the past, and the US and other players should not make the mistake of being slaves to history.

One of the problems of US foreign policy has been that there is no unifying vision. The US seeks to defend itself from enemies, but it also claims to promote human rights and democracy, and it seeks to protect the status quo, current boundaries and governments. The US is also pursuing an aggressive foreign war on drug makers and users. Another policy goal is greater trade and economic development.

Another economic principle is that it is often less costly to prevent problems than to have to remedy them. The best foreign policy for the US is to, first, prevent the generation of enemies, and secondly, to defend against them when the enemies insist on that status. That proposition implies that US policy should avoid automatically protecting the status quo, and deal with the reality that exists.

The US has been fighting al-Qaeda because that organization has declared war against the US along with other countries, but we should not assume that all self-proclaimed Islamic regimes are necessarily at war with the USA. The problem in Iraq is that there are two clashing Islamic sects, Shiite and Sunni, and the US occupation set up a veneer of mass democracy that established a Shiite domination over the Sunni. That domination fuels an insurgency which now has been captured by ISIS.

It is probably now too late to restructure the governance of Iraq. Exhortations for greater inclusiveness are useless. Aiding the current government of Iraq would amount to taking sides in a civil war. The US should instead seek contact with the chiefs of ISIS and find out what they ultimately want. If they seek the destruction of the USA, then the US should defend itself now, before the ISIS becomes more powerful. But if they only seek to govern territory and re-establish a caliphate, and do not threaten other countries such as Jordan, then the US should monitor their activities but not become an ally of the Iraqi and Iranian Shiite governments in a religious war against ISIS. The US and its allies would then accept the fact that Iraq is no longer a unified country, but has split into three governments, the Kurdish region, the Sunni region, and the remaining Shiite-dominated land governed from Baghdad with the help of Iran.

The human-rights angle should still remain, as when the rulers become vicious, committing mass murder, then if that can be stopped, action would be warranted. But many regimes around the world are repressive and corrupt, and the US can do little about it other than to stop aiding them. The USA has its own violations of natural rights, and reform should start at home.

9 thoughts on “U.S. Should Follow Nonintervention in Iraq

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for writing this. I agree with your conclusion but I think the diagnosis may be worse than you present.

    “One of the problems of US foreign policy has been that there is no unifying vision.”

    I think there has actually been a unifying vision. Just one which was a very bad vision. By bad, I mean a full-spectrum disaster the likes of which US foreign policy has not seen since Vietnam.

    It is the Neo-Conservative vision, under Bush, and continuing under Obama, because Obama was too polite to reverse anything that Bush already did. For example, Robert Kagan, leading NeoCon, was Hillary’s advisor when she was secretary of state ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Kagan [first paragaph] )

    The humanitarian justification for intervention is tempting. It can be countered with a simple practical observation: Every time we have intervened in the last 20 years — and there have been enough instances to see a pattern — the humanitarian situation went from bad to worse.

    We are good at handing out punishment and destabilizing. We are not good at building nations. We are not good at preventing violence. These tasks should be left to other, more competent, international or regional actors.


    • Hi peteybee,

      Glenn Greenwald recently made the observation that you make regarding Hillary Clinton and foreign policy on this week’s Bill Maher show. Basically, she is the most hawkish front-runner for president at the moment, and the neoconservatives have drifted towards her as a result.

      This is not surprising, as the neoconservatives are quite pragmatic regarding domestic affairs (so as to better serve their foreign policy interests).

    • Thanks for the heads up! I am a huge fan of Greenwald, I think he is a national hero.

      I went and bought Greenwald’s book in physical form about 2 weeks ago — reads like a spy novel. Full of detail on ways the NSA is cheating and screwing the people of the US, that is going to be a surprise to most people other than hard-core privacy paranoids. I recommend it. When I am done reading it I will give it away with the instructions to pass it on further.

  2. Fred: I don’t disagree with much of what you say. There is a problem in your use of the word “Islamic” :

    “… we should not assume that all self-proclaimed Islamic regimes are necessarily at war with the USA. The problem in Iraq is that there are two clashing Islamic sects, Shiite and Sunni, ….”

    Most or many countries that proclaim themselves “Islamic” have no quarrel with the US or with the West in general. Indonesia would be a case in point where 80% of the population is Muslim and Islam is one of the 8 official religions the state religion ( and blasphemy is against the law). However, the ISIS people are not only Islamic, they are “Islamists,” militant Muslims animated by the spirit of jihad. Jihad can be waged against non-Muslims, beginning with powerful non–Muslims (Americans would be high on the list), non-conforming Muslims such as as Shiites in general, and even lukewarm Sunni Muslims whose women don’t wear head scarves, for example. We have seen ISIS at work recently in Syria against all three categories of Kaffir. A couple of weeks ago, they bragged on the Internet about slaughtering 1400 unarmed Iraqi soldiers. They are clearly terrorists.

    It may be possible to argue that the existence of a terrorist regime in the center of the Middle East should not be America’s concern but it’s not right to sugar coast the presentation of the nature of the regime. You argument should be able to stand on its own. You shouldn’t join those who called Mussolini a “reformer,” however inadvertently.

  3. It would be great show of wisdom if the west could ignore the sunk costs, but unfortunately the political legacy of the Iraq war seems to be defining the parameters of the current debate.

    The general issue with gauging the intentions of ISIS is that any answer you get will be unreliable, and movements can change. If you asked the Taliban in the 90’s if they intended to attack the west you would have received a chuckle at the absurdity of notion. Yet, that didn’t prevent Afghanistan from becoming an al-Qaeda strong point. Moreover, the latest generation of Taliban leaders (who were born in the jihad of the Soviet War and radical Pakistani refuge camps) are many times more international and radical than their predecessors. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it is difficult to conclude that a movement is not a threat, especially in a world of great uncertainty.

    My second point would be that there is an implicit conclusion in your article that ISIS and Sunni muslims are inseparable. Lets not forget that the ISIS movement is seen as merely better than shiite leadership. ISIS are not an insurgent movement that finds mass support amongst the Sunnis. A separate sunni Iraq may be a future reality, but it is far from certain that this would be an ISIS sunni Iraq.

    Still, great article.

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