Sunday, August 31, 2014

Thoughts on Iraq

A few months ago, I wrote that the US was out of Iraq, unlike it had been for much of my life so far, unless the government decided to launch airstrikes in response to the ongoing violence there. It’s no secret that our invasion was a key factor in creating the current conflict there—it helped install a sectarian Shiite leader and allow Shiites to commit an outright ethnic cleansing against Sunnis in Baghdad. Not surprisingly, in a region already rife with sectarian conflict, actions like these helped turn Iraqi Sunnis toward increasingly extremist responses, which explains a great deal of the increase in numbers of ISIS, or the Islamic State, as it’s now calling itself.

We then have some idea of how this current situation came about. US military intervention was enormously detrimental in Iraq the last time. What’s the current response of the government? Airstrikes and military advisors—i.e., more military intervention. Further, there’s no justification now that couldn’t have been used for our invasion and ousting of Saddam—ISIS is genocidal, but so was he; no one doubts the brutality of Saddam’s regime, nor the brutality of ISIS; and the US had played a role in helping both come to power.

None of that is to say military action is therefore unjustified, just that we should exercise great caution in assuming that the cruelty and viciousness of the Islamic State demands US intervention, any more than Saddam Hussein’s cruelty and viciousness did (of course, there are still people who think we made the right move in our previous invasion, but those people are too far detached from reality to be worth spending much time on). Military intervention is not always an effective way to deal with problems like these; the US launched airstrikes against Kosovo in the late ‘90s, and the result was an enormous escalation of the violence there. We should be very wary in assuming that won’t happen here. The beheading of James Foley was done in retaliation for the airstrikes, of which ISIS has already vowed to avenge any and all; so, unless they significantly limit ISIS’s ability to harm and kill innocents, it ought to be very seriously considered whether such airstrikes run the risk of being counterproductive.

The fact that we’ve sent in hundreds of military advisors is also concerning; the Vietnam War started with military advisors. This isn’t try to draw any ill-thought-out parallels, but it should be clear at this point that Iraq is huge quagmire when it comes to any military intervention. It’s troubling that we seem to be gradually creeping toward doing exactly what Obama promised we wouldn’t—sending in combat troops. Even if Obama keeps that promise, he stays in office for only about two and a half more years; this situation doesn’t exactly show signs of blowing over in the near future, and who knows if whoever succeeds Obama will abide by the same standard. There’s good reason to think Hillary Clinton wouldn’t, for instance.

Then, of course, there’s the issue that everything that has so been done by the Obama administration has lacked congressional approval; that’s especially troubling when Obama has specifically said there is no end date for our current actions. One has to wonder exactly what we’re getting into, and question why the president doesn’t even seem inclined to have these actions—actions extending into the future indefinitely—approved by Congress, as they constitutionally should be.

It should also be noted that our current motive is less than pure, as usual. Once again, the oil fields in Iraq are an important motivating factor for the US government. Of course, if military action for oil can actually do good for the people in the affected region, then the impure motives should be no concern—but, once again, we have to be wary of what we’re told when we realize the powerful forces that may be backing action not to the benefit of either Iraqis or everyday Americans.

None of this is to say that the world should sit idly by while the mayhem in Iraq unfolds. On the contrary, the events there deserve the attention of the United Nations. There’s no reason that, pending a Security Council resolution or something similar, the United States shouldn’t be involved in taking appropriate action. However, any long-term intervention of any nature in Iraq should be both well thought out and approved by Congress. The United States cannot continue to pretend to be the world’s policeman as it takes military action serving the interests of corporate elites (but working much to the detriment of everyday people), nor can the executive branch continue to absorb powers reserved for Congress. All of us must bear that in mind as we contemplate what the appropriate way forward is in handling the Iraq situation.

Correction: This post originally stated that the US had deliberately helped Saddam Hussein come to power; I have deleted that claim and linked a new source to acknowledge that the reality was somewhat more complicated. 

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