Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Just a few years ago, things were looking up for the Middle East.  The Arab Spring , in which peoples across the region rose up to overturn oppressive and authoritarian governments (many of them dictatorships), spread like wildfires in 2011 and 2012 across the region, raising the prospects of the establishment of liberal democratic institutions.  World oil prices, having plunged during the Great Recession (with some indices reaching a low of approximately $30/barrel in late 2008 and early 2009), rebounded sharply as the aughts came to a close, propping up the region’s oil-dependent economy.  After a brief conflict with Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew quieter, and there existed emerging optimism that American-led interventions would finally be drawing to a close.

What a difference a few years can make.  The Arab Spring has collapsed, having produced only one quasi-legitimate democracy (Tunisia).  Many authoritarian governments remain intact, and even the ones that were overthrown (such as the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak) were replaced by illiberal “democracies” that have since slid back towards authoritarian tendencies (or outright coup d’états).  Oil prices gains have stalled, having yet to reach their mid-2008 peak, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has yet again reared its ugly head.

Of the many fires now consuming the region, however, none are quite as disheartening as the disintegration of Iraq.  The steady march of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) across much of northern and central Iraq has caused horrific casualties and undermined the already struggling legitimacy of the regime in Baghdad (which has pretty much collapsed with Nouri al-Maliki’s resignation on August 14th, 2014) .  That this follows a multi-trillion dollar 9-year American-led war there, whose purported objectives was to establish a peaceful, legitimate Iraqi liberal democracy, makes this disintegration especially galling.

Barely two and a half years after pulling out the last American troops there, the US is (according to Vox.com) yet again contemplating sending in troops of some form or another, mainly to help save the minority Yazidi population currently trapped by the IS.  The decision as to whether to pursue further intervention into the broader conflict, however, is muddied by a few complicated factors:

  • Who exactly are the “good guys” and “bad guys” here?  This seems like a ridiculous question, especially considering the horrific brutality of IS tactics and the fanatical ideology they espouse.  However, just as in the Syrian Civil War, the existing alternatives to IS rule (including the pre-IS status quo) aren’t exactly ideal either.  Indeed, the (now nonexistent) Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki has reportedly continued to persecute Iraq’s Sunni minority, and has not formed a government representative or inclusive of Sunnis.  While most Sunnis do not appear to favor IS either, many are frustrated with the regime in Baghdad.  If the US intervenes in support of the Iraqi government, it would be doing this with full knowledge that it, like the IS, has also committed many abuses.  A choice has to be made between the lesser of two evils – you really can’t win here.
  • The IS is providing needed social services to many Iraqis.  According to PBS, the IS has established and funded a variety of social services to much of the population in its territorial control.  While this is obviously a tactic to buy-off the population and garner support, it does provide a modicum of short-term human security (and thus, potentially, stability).  Also, some services, such as healthcare, education, power, and water, etc.  have the potential to promote economic development and diversification (and thus long-run stability), although whether growth & development or quality services come first is admittedly a longstanding chicken-and-egg controversy in the economics profession.  Diversification, especially, is key to long-term economic prosperity in Iraq, which still disproportionately relies on oil production to generate wealth and to provide fiscal resources.  Such dependency reflects a classic case of the resource curse, whereby the resource at hand (in this case, oil) stunts development in the long run by appreciating the currency and making industrial exports uncompetitive.  Thus, ironically, the IS could be indirectly (and inadvertently) promoting the long-run social and economic well-being of the country via its provision of these services, and efforts to stop it could do the opposite.  Of course, this ignores the profound violence and economic disruption caused by the IS, not to mention the groups’ many other non-negligible negative qualities.  But it is something to consider by the Americans and the Iraqi state (and other involved actors) as they consider how to move forward.  Perhaps a reshuffling of Iraqi budgetary priorities is in order?
  • Substantial American opposition to US military intervention.  Simply put, Americans are really, really war-weary.  They are tired of the very real human and financial costs of war, and feel like Iraq (among other interventions) is a hopeless basket case that should just solve its own problems.  The difficulty that Barack Obama and the American government faces is the conflict between pragmatic action (which, given the uncertainty and number of variables involved, has yet to be defined) and appeasing the electorate (mostly for the sake of his party, as he is no longer eligible for reelection, although presidential legacy is always an influencing factor as well).
  • Would US intervention help or hurt Iraqi, American, and global interests?   What exactly are those interests in the first place?  These questions are very, very broad.  First, it must be asked which Iraqi domestic scenario is in the interests of the Iraqi people.  A Shia-dominated government?  A Sunni government?  A mixed government?  State partition?  Some have even questioned, especially since the Iraq war, whether democracy is even in Iraq’s best interest at this time, considering cultural factors and lack of established democratic precedent in the country.  This relates to the debate as to whether growth and form of government are best compatible, and which should be emphasized first.  For America and the globe, there are questions as to whether a certain Iraqi domestic situation is best for regional stability, especially when it comes to providing a counterbalance to the hostile Shia-dominated government of Iran.  How about oil price stability?  Since the commodity price surge of the 2000s, the global economy has certainly adjusted to higher prices and more prepared for price shocks via structural efficiency gains (note that the Great Recession was preceded by an oil price shock in which prices exceeded $100/barrel; prices have since consistently been around $100/barrel, and yet global growth has long since resumed).  Thus, conflict in Iraq might not be as much of an economic red flag as it once was.  But it still is important.  Considering all of these different questions (a non-exhaustive list which has been provided here),  it then has to be determined whether American military intervention of any form would help or hurt all of those interests.

Personally, I have no concrete opinion as to what course of action I think should be pursued.  Like so many subjects in the realm of public policy, each action has its costs and benefits, the net effect of which is extremely difficult to ascertain.  Literally millions, if not billions, of variables are at play here.  Yet in the end, a choice must be made by America’s leaders, even if that choice is ultimately to do nothing.  Regardless of what they choose, they can be assured to face unflinching judgement by millions of people with an understandable yet fatally simplistic view of the world who, like the rest of humanity, are limited in the amount and scope of information available to them.  That is the unfortunate reality of politics – a reality that, in this case, is further exacerbated by the life-and-death nature of the situation. It is an unenviable position for any policymaker to be in.  Invoking the old phrase, they are truly caught – caught between a rock and a hard place.

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