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.