Tag: Iraq

Cato Live Tweeting Obama’s ISIS Speech! #CatoWHSpeech

#CatoWHSpeech

At 9:00PM tonight, President Obama will announce expanded U.S. military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He will likely explain an apparent change in direction that will include airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and possibly increased training and weapons procurement for the Iraqi military and “moderate“ segments of the Syrian rebellion. Americans are understandably worried about getting sucked back into an open-ended conflict.

Don’t miss Cato experts live tweeting Obama’s speech tonight, using the hashtag #CatoWHSpeech. You can check out the reactions and opinions of our scholars in real time. Just follow along and join in!

What Sort of Problem Is ISIS?

The quality of the discussion about what sort of problem ISIS poses to the United States has been unsurprisingly poor, given who is framing it. All Americans have been appalled by the grotesque killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American hostages held by the Islamic State. The justness of vengeance against their killers is something everyone agrees on.

But beyond that, the debate is stunning by its internal contradictions. Take, for example, the fact that the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently announced that while ISIS “poses a direct and significant threat to us,” there is “no credible information [it] is planning to attack the US.” This echoed the judgment of both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which issued similar judgments last month.

At the same time as those charged with threat assessment are stating ISIS does not at present pose a threat to US territory, our political leaders are unanimous in judging that the United States needs to involve itself more deeply in the war taking place across the Syria-Iraq border. Shouldn’t we worry at least a bit that taking sides against it in that war makes the Islamic State more likely to target the United States at home, not less? (For their part, the barbarian murderers of Foley and Sotloff stated that their actions were intended to avenge prior US airstrikes on ISIS.) One could argue that trying to destroy ISIS is worth raising the risk they will target US territory, but shouldn’t the marginal impact of its likelihood of an attack on us here at least show up on the ledger?

Or take the recent statements of our politicians. President Obama famously remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for what to do about ISIS, even though his administration was already bombing them. On Meet the Press, Obama added his voice to those claiming there’s been no “immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL.” Rather, according to Obama, “ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria.”

Secretary of State Kerry offered some thoughts on ISIS last week, in which he made clear the administration’s desired end-state: “destroy ISIL”:

these guys are not 10 feet tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks. They’re not as organized as everybody thinks. And we have the technology, we have the know-how. What we need is obviously the willpower to make certain that we are steady and stay at this.

There is no contain policy for ISIL. They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army. And leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us…

Two points here. First, if ISIS is in fact as Kerry describes it—a group that isn’t 10 feet tall, a group that isn’t as disciplined or organized as everybody thinks, and a group that is really a quasi state with grandiose objectives—then why isn’t containment a viable option? Grandiose objectives are hard to obtain even for actors who are disciplined and well-organized, even those that are 10 feet tall. So why isn’t ISIS—which Kerry says isn’t so powerful but has ambitious objectives—likely to burn out like so many of its predecessor groups have?

Maliki Turns the Page in Iraq

It is good news that Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has decided to step down as Iraq’s prime minister. This means that, for the first time in Iraq’s modern history, there is the prospect of a peaceful transition of power, based on democratic principles and without the heavy hand of the U.S. military seeming to tip the scales to one party or group.

But don’t pop the champagne just yet. As the New York Times notes today, the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi—like Maliki, a Shiite and member of the Dawa Party—will likely face many of the same challenges that Maliki did. Abadi will need to find a way to form an inclusive coalition government, one that protects the rights of Sunnis and appeases the Kurds’ desire for autonomy, while maintaining support from Iraqi Shiites.

This is a tall order. Many in the Shiite community that was terrorized for so long by the Sunni minority harbor deep resentment toward their former oppressors. Meanwhile, the Sunnis who held power want desperately to get it back, or at least to be able to protect themselves from reprisals. Some Sunnis are so distrustful of the central government that they’ve thrown their lot with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose barabarism seems almost limitless. It is not clear how Abadi will bridge this trust gap.

Americans should wish Iraq’s new leader well, but policymakers should resist the urge to try to micromanage political events in Iraq. Even the appearance of U.S. influence over Abadi will undermine his legitimacy and thus could be counterproductive. Besides, it isn’t obvious that U.S. action—and only U.S. action—is essential to turning things around in Iraq. One suspects that the most vocal critics of President Obama’s Iraq policy have broader concerns. As I explain in today’s Orange County Register:

[W]hen the hawks screech that Obama isn’t doing enough, what they really worry about is that others might actually be able to do without us, or with only minimal assistance. A newly energized Kurdish militia already appears to have reversed some of ISIS’s recent gains. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad might begin rolling back ISIS fighters there. And a new government in Baghdad might finally be able to fashion a credible military force. At a minimum, even modest political reforms—or the prospect of them—could convince more Sunni Iraqis to fight against ISIS instead of for them.

More Questions than Answers on Iraq

The U.S. bombing campaign being waged against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raises more questions than it answers. Ben Friedman noted the muddle of U.S. policy here. Among the most vexing questions for me:

- What is the actual end game? Can it be achieved by the means being employed?

The narrow, short-term mission that President Obama laid before the American people on Thursday evening is almost entirely humanitarian: this is about saving the lives of desperate people, including women and children stranded without food and water. But unlike relief operations after hurricanes or earthquakes, where the U.S. military’s efforts face little resistance, the suffering in Iraq today is man-made. ISIS has targeted particular groups for persecution, or worse. The first order of business, therefore, after delivering essential food and water, is to allow these stranded people to escape.

But this will not be an easy task. As Richard Betts explained nearly two decades ago, there is no such thing as an impartial humanitarian intervention. What Obama has actually committed to, then, involves, at a minimum, sufficiently degrading ISIS’s military capabilities, prying open the vice being tightened around these people, and establishing a corridor through which they can flee to an as-yet undetermined safe haven. A long-term solution involves creating an Iraqi state (or more than one?) that can produce and maintain sufficient fighting power of its own.

That final point isn’t new. It has been the object since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or, arguably, since Hussein’s ouster from Kuwait in 1991, when George H.W. Bush hoped for a new political order in Iraq, but refused to risk large numbers of American lives to achieve it. The end game hasn’t really changed, yet the president failed to explain why our efforts this time will be more successful than at any time in the last quarter century.

- Can the U.S. role remain limited? How?

This is presumably a major concern among the American people, who are staunchly opposed to restarting a war that most think was a mistake. But public opposition to military intervention isn’t limited to Iraq. Recall the outcry when Secretary of State John Kerry proposed an “unbelievably small” military operation in Syria. The public feared then that small wars can easily become big ones. That attitude hasn’t changed in the past year. If anything, the public is even more opposed to missions involving the U.S. military.

Drones Risk Putting US on ‘Slippery Slope’ to Perpetual War

As the New York Times reports, the Stimson Center today released a report warning that “the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a ‘slippery slope’ into perpetual war.” The Washington Post, the Guardian and Vox all lead their articles on the report with that warning.

The slippery slope point probably isn’t new to most readers. But it’s worth focusing on here, both because the argument is often misstated or misunderstood, and because, in this case, I helped make it. The report’s task force, co-chaired by retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law, included working groups. I was on one that considered, among other things, what danger drones create for U.S. foreign policy. The report largely reflects those we identified: the erosion of sovereignty, blowback from those in targeted countries, drone strikes’ tendency to undermine democratic oversight, and the slippery slope problem.

The report puts those concerns in context. It points out that: drones can serve wise or dumb policies; that most drones are for surveillance or other non-strike uses; and that it is drone strikes that occur off declared battlefields that have generated the most controversy. The report notes that past military innovations, like cruise missiles, raised similar concerns by making waging war easier.

The report rejects several common complaints about drones. It denies that they create a reckless, “playstation mentality” among pilots. It explains that drones are not more prone than other weapons cause civilian casualties.

Having delimited the circumstances where drones raise concerns, the report goes into considerable causal detail, at least compared to most reports of this kind, about what the trouble is. The blowback, oversight, and sovereignty problems are relatively easy to understand, in theory. The tricky part is measuring the harm.

How Political Repression Breeds Islamic Radicalism

Following the decision upholding numerous death penalties for Muslim Brotherhood members accused of a 2013 attack on a police station, Egypt has recently seen the conclusion of another sham trial, resulting in harsh sentences for three al-Jazeera journalists, accused of aiding terrorists.

While it is obvious that trials like these move Egypt further away from freedom, could they also be inadvertently helping Islamic radicals? My new development bulletin argues that political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt creates incentives for Islamists to use violence in order to attain their goals.

Iraq, where ISIS is making continual progress fighting the government of Nouri al-Maliki, is an extreme example of where things can end when political elites exclude a significant part of the population from democratic politics. Al-Maliki’s premiership has been marked by a strengthening of his own hold to power, progressively alienating the country’s Sunni population.

My paper argues that the electoral successes of Islamists in Arab Spring countries have relatively little to do with religion but rather with the organizational characteristics of Islamic political groups, which were typically active in the provision of local public goods and social services. Instead of seeing the rise of Islamic political organizations as a pathology that needs to be countered – possibly through repressive means – we should note that,

[I]n transitional environments, the electoral success of Islamists is a natural result of the political environment, which can be mitigated only by an increase in the credibility of alternative political groups. The electoral advantage enjoyed by Islamic parties can be expected to dissipate over time as competing political groups establish channels of communication, promise verification for their voters, and build reputation over time.

Furthermore,

There is no denying that religion and politics do not always mix well. However, the appropriate answer to the ugly side of religious politics is not political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt but rather open, competitive democratic politics.

Don’t Overestimate ISIS Gains in Iraq

ISIS’s territorial gains in Syria and Iraq are impressive. However, the group has its work cut out for it.

First, ISIS may face internal tensions. The nature of the relationship between the group and Iraqi Baathists has been variously reported. While the two have an obvious operational incentive to collaborate, if the former Baathist elements retain their original ideological platform, it is likely incompatible with ISIS’s radical preferences. Should ISIS determine it is content with its territorial holdings, any partnership could face tensions in the absence of a common enemy in Maliki’s sectarian rule.

Second, the Kurds. ISIS appears to have largely avoided direct confrontation with Kurdish forces. But the Kurds appear far from assuming ISIS is an ally, or that the group does not have designs on territory the Kurds themselves claim. If and when ISIS and Kurdish ambitions clash, the peshmerga are likely to put up a fight.

Third, ISIS may be able to take territory, but it now faces the challenge of ruling it. The group has a track record over the last year of ruling in Syrian cities like Raqqa. In Syria, ISIS rebels provided public services, and tried to moderate their implementation of sharia law so as to avoid civilian resistance. But gradually the group reverted to its own ideological platform—an Islamic interpretation not in line with that of the Syrian civilians under their rule. In order to tamp down public dissent and quell resistance, the rebels have become notoriously brutal—showcasing their brutality publicly and electronically. In Iraq, at least some civilians have welcomed ISIS’s arrival and the Iraqi military’s departure. But preferring ISIS to Maliki isn’t necessarily saying a lot.

The US also sought to control areas ISIS now claims in Iraq, and America’s limited success was hard-won. ISIS’s acceptability as a ruler remains to be seen (the group has just published its first set of rules for those newly under its control). As time wears on, any distance between ISIS’s political and ideological platform and those of its new residents will become clearer. If, as in Syria, this gap proves to be wide, we may expect similarly brutal rule by ISIS in Iraq.

If so, the international community will need to weigh the suffering of those under ISIS control against the likely costs and success of intervening to improve the situation.

Unless they moderate their platform, there are few ways to encourage ISIS to adopt less coercive rule. Interdicting support from abroad can strain the group in a variety of ways, but access to oil wealth (and now, cash) will dampen the effects of any interdiction, and even a weakened ISIS is likely to abuse civilians.

But beyond the first blush of victory, governance is a difficult and costly undertaking. Reports note ISIS’s extensive and coercive reach into civilians’ lives in Syrian cities it has controlled since last year. But this apparatus eats up resources. Even if ISIS uses public brutality to quash resistance and retain control, it will have to task personnel to do this—personnel that cannot then be used to pursue additional territory, or protect themselves against government troops or other rival factions.

Unfortunately for those who live under it, brutality can be a sustainable means of retaining control—for rebels like ISIS, as well as for states. ISIS may manage to keep the territory it has captured, but it will have to work for it—as Ghengis Khan noted “Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”

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