Tag: Iraq

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.”

Mission Accomplished, He Said

Everything that American troops have done in Iraq, all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering — all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place.  It has many challenges ahead.  But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.

Yes, that was President Obama at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on December 14, 2011.

For another perspective, former vice president Dick Cheney in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday:

Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many. 

In case there’s any doubt – he means President Obama, not the president who launched the war that cost 4,487 American soldiers’ lives, 32,000 Americans wounded, some 100,000 to 500,000 Iraqi deaths, and as much as $6 trillion.

Maybe they should have listened to the Cato Institute back in 2001 and 2002.

Iraq: The Cost of Building a Failed State

“Governments constantly choose between telling lies and fighting wars, with the end result always being the same. One will always lead to the other.”

- Thomas Jefferson

Nobel Laureate George Akerlof uses this edifying quote from Thomas Jefferson to good effect in his foreword of Hossein Askari’s excellent read, Conflicts and Wars: Their Fallout and Prevention (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2012). Indeed, Prof. Akerlof has this to say about Askari’s work:

Professor Askari begins by surveying the burden of military expenditures and of conflicts and wars. Their dollar expenditures, which are close to 15 percent of global GNP, exceed the cost of our financial crisis, of global warming, and what would be required for worldwide poverty reduction.

He bases his approach on three interrelated propositions: aggressors do not pay the full price of their aggression; governments will do nothing to change this state of affairs on their own; and, as a result, the process of reducing conflicts must originate in the private sector.

The U.S. shouldered a heavy load in the Iraq War, to the tune of $2.4 trillion from 2003-2011. As depicted in the chart below, the $2.4 trillion U.S. tab accounted for over 75% of global expenditures in the Iraq War.

If we dissect the $2.4 trillion in U.S. expenditures (see chart below), the picture becomes even clearer and, well, drearier. Iraq was a costly war for everyone involved, including U.S. taxpayers. The annual expenditure rate of the Iraq war comes out to $2991 per U.S. taxpayer from 2003-2011 (based on the level of income tax returns), far higher than the annual tab per US taxpayer for the Afghan fiasco.

President Obama announced to Congress yesterday that he is deploying 275 military personnel to Iraq to secure the American embassy in Baghdad. Here we go, again.

(Not News) Obama Opposed to Sending U.S. Troops Back into Iraq

It is good to know that President Obama is opposed to sending U.S. troops into Iraq, though hardly surprising. (I was shocked to hear a reporter ask the president after his remarks if he was reluctant to do so. How could he not be?)

As Chuck Todd noted today on MSNBC, and here, 59 percent of Americans believe that the war in Iraq was not worth it. Does anyone seriously believe that a well-crafted Obama sales pitch could convince a majority of Americans to change their minds? I don’t.

Among the many maddening aspects of this story—and there are many—I’m most frustrated by the claim that the United States should have left a residual force in Iraq after 2011. There are actually three problems with this claim. First, it is NOT a partisan issue. Bush attempted to negotiate a deal that would have left forces in Iraq, and failed. Obama tried, and failed. The claim that one or the other failed because he didn’t try hard enough is just foolish. A sufficient number of Iraqis didn’t want U.S. troops to stay there (albeit for different reasons) that the failure to achieve a status of forces agreement (SOFA) can hardly be blamed on either Bush or Obama for a lack of effort.

So what these people are really saying is that we should have left U.S. troops in Iraq without a SOFA, in the face of Iraqi opposition. We are told that the troops left behind wouldn’t be engaged in combat, so they really wouldn’t have been in danger. That is what Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said on MSNBC just after the president’s statement. I think this ignores that the U.S. presence was a source of violent resistance in the first place, so it is hard to see how U.S. troops wouldn’t have been subject to at least the risk of regular attacks.

Besides, SOFAs do not protect U.S. troops  from security threats, but rather from the vagaries of foreign justice systems. So it is easy to see how a peaceful, non-threatening, U.S. military operation–e.g., a roadblock searching for bad guys–can turn south in a hurry. Maybe a husband and wife fail to stop at the roadblock, and they are shot. Maybe they are killed. Without a SOFA that extends standard legal protections to U.S. servicemen, the troops manning that roadblock would be subject to Iraqi justice, forced to stand accused of murder before Iraqi judges. Is that really what Senator McCain and others want? We don’t leave U.S. forces in foreign countries without a SOFA for a reason.

Lastly, the claim that a residual force would have convinced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern better/more inclusively, and that a residual force today might do the same (although McCain allowed today that Maliki might simply need to be replaced; by whom he did not say) ignores that a far larger force, including some of the largest concentrations of U.S. troops in 2008 and 2009, did NOT convince Maliki to cut deals with his political opponents and stab his political supporters in the back. So why would anyone think that a smaller force would have succeeded, or would succeed now?

The breakup of Iraq that many predicted before the war may now be happening. Maybe the country will be partitioned—an idea that previously was ridiculed. Maybe the Iraqi military will turn things around and crush the insurgency. I don’t know whether any of these things will happen. But I will go out on a limb and predict that the U.S. military won’t be sorting out these things. And for that, we should all be grateful. 

Ideas Have Consequences: The Neoconservatives

The New York Times has produced a useful video about the “super-predator” scare from the 1990s.  At that time, we were already waging a drug war, so we were advised to build more prisons–and so we did.  Then regrets.

You can watch the video here.

As it happens, we are also finding more scrutiny of neoconservative ideas at the movies. A new documentary film directed by Errol Morris looks at former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq war.  Here is the film trailer:

For related Cato work, go here, here, and here.

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