How do the United States and others achieve victory against Islamic State without empowering sectarian actors who will seek to poison the reconciliation that Iraq needs to hang together?
That’s the question posed by Craig Whiteside, an associate Professor of Theater Security Decision Making for the Naval War College at the Naval Postgraduate School, over at War on the Rocks. Dr Whiteside’s recommendations (“avoid all cooperation with sectarian militias, continue to target Islamic State with minimal collateral damage, patiently train and equip the security forces, ensure it’s done by Iraqis with subtle, behind the scenes help”) are just what you’d expect from a military strategist with a PhD, but his question highlights well what’s wrong with current thinking on non-state actors in Washington and also explains why central planning fails in areas other than managing an economy.
Whiteside’s line of thought is pretty standard, and it goes something like this: Islamic State is bad and Iraq is good. Islamic State is bad not because it lawlessly slaughters more people than Iraq (obviously not true, especially when you account for the Hussein regime), but because it is a non-state actor with political, economic, cultural, and military capabilities that threaten the existence of state actors. Hence his worry over how to defeat Islamic State while still keeping Iraq in one piece.
This is a terrible way to think about international relations and strategy, and it governs the logic of the republic’s finest thinkers.
Why not think about the situation in the Levant in the following way instead:
There is a “world order” of sorts that is composed of states. The states themselves have been patched together over the course of centuries. The world order itself has been patched together over the course of centuries.
Iraq is a state that was patched together by the UK and France, in accordance with the logic of the world order at the time. Thus, Iraq was able to become a legitimate member of organizations like the UN, FIFA, OPEC, etc. However, because Iraq was patched together by the world order rather than by the people of Iraq (acting through contentious factions), it can only, ever “hang together” under a regime governed by a strong man.
The appearance of Islamic State in what is now Iraq is just an attempt by Iraqis to govern themselves. Islamic State is an attempt, made possible by the power vacuum left by the invasion and occupation of the US and its allies, to join the world order (hence the “state” in Islamic State). It’s a horrible attempt, which is just what you’d expect from a people who have likely never had a chance to experiment in self-governance. Nevertheless, people in what is now Iraq are trying to patch together their own states.
The world order should recognize these attempts instead of trying to maintain the status quo. Change can be a good thing. As an example, just compare the brutality of the Hussein regime, a legitimate state actor, with that of Islamic State. It’s not even a contest, especially in terms of people murdered.
Wouldn’t recognizing Whitehead’s “sectarian actors,” instead of seeking to isolate or destroy them, be a much better avenue to peace and prosperity in the region? Recognition by the world order, haphazardly and pragmatically patched together itself, would bestow responsibility onto non-state actors. It would signal a trust in the ability of Iraqis to govern themselves. It would help to rationalize diplomacy and trade in the region. And it would put an end to the vicious cycle of strong men in the Middle East.
Instead of asking what the US and its allies can do to eliminate violent non-state actors from the region, isn’t it time to start asking what the West can do, as equal partners, to facilitate more self-governance in the Levant?
That central planning suffers from a knowledge problem is a given in many elite economics circles today (even economists at the Federal Reserve recognize it), but I don’t think this argument has extended into other fields of thought or other bureaucracies yet. A fatal conceit indeed.