The Levant

President Obama has announced his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State (a.k.a. the ISIL—Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Does it make sense? In thinking about the answer to that question, consider Kevin Lees’ thoughtful assessment — five-thoughts-on-obama’s-isis-announcement – some reflections by Daniel Drezner– four-questions-about-obamas-isil-strategy and the following fantasy.

In order to kill all 28,000 ISIL fighters now in Iraq the United States and its allies Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Turkey and, dare I say, Iran, deploy 50,000, 100,000, 150,000 (whatever it takes) ground troops in the region (which includes, of course, Syria). These are augmented by U.S. logistical support (intelligence, aerial bombing, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies etc.). Leave aside the detail that their involvement in Iraq would be at the request of the government of Iraq, while their involvement in Syria would constitute war against the government of Syria. They succeed fully. Then what? Countering-islamic-state-will-be-hard-in-iraq-and-harder-in-syria-officials-say/2014/09/10/

The key question is whether a fully successful, foreign led military assault will result in or lead to a sufficiently strong Iraqi army to defend the country going forward, and in Syria I am not sure what, and that the ethnic/religious groups within Iraq and Syria will have, or soon be able to, resolve their governance issues sufficiently to function effectively as countries. Experience with foreign intervention in civil wars (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq in 2004) suggests that progress toward resolving internal issues is suspended as foreigners take over the fighting. Moreover the foreign liberators quickly become foreign occupiers and thus targets of unhappy citizens—if not the ISIL fighters, then their successors.

In that likely case, the United States and its allies will need to govern Iraq and Syria for a few years until local institutions and political forces develop sufficiently to take over self-governance. We did this before in Iraq from 2003-5, with the Coalition Provisional Authority of which I was a part (Senior Monetary Policy Adviser to the Central Bank of Iraq). While some useful institution building was accomplished, the overall effort was a failure, with Iraq’s governance under al-Maliki about where it was in 2004 or worse. Do we really want to try it again?

Aside from deep concerns about war with Syria, I think that President Obama’s strategy as outlined yesterday (Sept 10) is about right if not a bit overly aggressive. Iraq will not address and resolve its internal issues unless they do the fighting to defend their country, working out and making the compromises needed for peace and cooperation among its Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations. Limited, non-combat assistance from the U.S. and others can make a large difference, but it is and must remain Iraq’s war. To my taste Obama is leading a bit too much from the front when he should be leading from behind, but he has so far set out a strategy that could work. I hope that he sticks to it.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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1 Response to The Levant

  1. Mike Burnaugh says:

    I understand the attractiveness of thinking we can cure the Iraqis’ stupidity. Since there were no Shia military leaders under Saddam, there are none now, unless we count Iranians. On the other hand, if ISIL is truly a threat to us, why do we need another “Coalition of the willing” to defend ourselves? Until recently, we have spent a shit pot of money on “defense”. For what if not “boots on the ground” where our interests are concerned? Keep writing! I’m reading and reconsidering at all times. Just a few months ago, it seems, I was opposed to any involvement in Syria. Now we have this incredible situation of bombing one faction of Assad’s opponents, somehow escaping Syria’S VERY TOUGH MISSILE DEFENSES. No, it doesn’t make sense.

    Mike

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