This article is part of a Face Off series. The opposing article, “War in Iraq – To Leave for Good, Stay for Now,” can be found here.
In an unfortunate turn of events for medieval-style execution enthusiasts, the Islamic State (ISIS) is about to throw in the towel. How did this happen? Besides the help of Iranian-backed Iraqi forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and Russian-backed groups, the United States let local actors take charge and did not try to save the world from ISIS all by ourselves. This strategy was effective, and provides the pattern with which the United States should tackle its next Middle-Eastern problem: the political future of Iraq.
At this point, the United States has no political strategy for Iraq. As Emile Simpson, a Harvard research fellow, pointed out, “The inevitable result of having no political strategy is that others will fill the vacuum and determine the future.” The United States would like to avoid another international fiasco like ISIS in the region, so the question becomes; how can we avoid making the same mistakes over again? The same way we defeated ISIS: through the responsible use of United States power. Here are three ways to proceed:
- Don’t even think about occupation.
We’ve already learned the hard way that occupation doesn’t work. A core problem in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries is that the political and social institutions are unstable and weak, causing confusion and rage that can be directed at foreign powers in their land. The United States has been involved off-and-on in Iraq since 2003, and our presence exacerbates the problem of division and violence in the region, it doesn’t solve it. Paul Collier, author of the classic The Bottom Billion, states that foreign occupation can lead to positive results in the first 2-4 years of occupation, but that after 5 years the occupied country begins to resent the occupiers and start revolting. Perhaps this could in part explain the hatred and violence against Americans in the region.
- Know our limits.
Just as we didn’t solve the problem of ISIS ourselves, we should not be the ones to try and single-handedly solve Iraqi political problems. According to Stephen Walt, an expert in Middle Eastern conflicts, unrest and radicalism will plague the region until more legitimate local institutions are strengthened, and that “is not something the United States or other outsiders can do…only the people who live there can accomplish this task.” Just because we care about the outcome does not mean we should try to control it by forcing our way into their local politics.
- Rethink our global strategy in approaching terrorism.
Since 2001, the United States has taken it upon itself to be a global terrorist headhunter. We’ve waged war on stateless institutions, spent trillions of dollars, lost thousands of American lives, and entered open-ended conflicts with no clear way out. According to a recent study, the chances of stepping onto a plane hijacked by terrorists is 1 in 90 million. All the deaths resulting from Islamist extremism account for only 200-300 lives per year around the globe. Ironically, invading foreign territories to kill terrorists engenders more hate and radicalism against the United States. I’m not saying we ignore terrorism, but it seems that the cost for protecting against such distant threats abroad are unjustified at best and backfiring at worst.
The end of ISIS is just the tip of the iceberg of many more intricate problems to solve in the Middle East, especially for Iraq. Such problems going forward are sure to include the emergence of new jihadi organizations, the resurgence of Al Qaeda, Assad’s campaign to restore his authority in Syria, and Iranian and Russian influences in Iraqi politics. Perhaps the most vexing issue will be the Kurdish drive to establish an independent state, which is sure to spark uproar in the region that could lead to a bloody resolution. All of these will be temptations for the United States to intervene, so must be met wisely and judiciously, with an eye towards minimal involvement and extreme caution. The problems in the Middle East can only be solved by themselves. By carefully withdrawing American troops and reducing the direct American influence in the Middle East, the United States will contribute to a better future, even if it doesn’t turn out quite the way we want it to.