Recent gains by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in Iraq and the well-publicized executions of captured American freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff have once again drawn U.S. military assets and personnel into a civil war. While Iraq remains familiar terrain for both the political elite, the American public and the thousands who served in the Global War on Terror, a great deal of misinformation about what the U.S. can and should do in addressing the civil conflicts in Islamic states in the Middle East remains in mainstream discourse.

President Obama’s “don’t do stupid shit” foreign policy doctrine, and now the more recent outline on September 10 of what some administration officials predict will be a three-year effort, does not offer assurances to the American public of a neat, orderly or quick experience in Iraq. The rise of ISIS has posed great problems for the Iraqi state and the legacy of the Iraq war, a conflict on which the U.S. has spent well over a trillion dollars.

The current situation begs an important question: What can the U.S. gain from the intervention outlined by President Obama? Looking to the scholarly literature, one thing is clear: few Americans will benefit personally from the U.S. involvement in defeating ISIS. The way forward in the quest to provide stability and peace in Iraq is rooted in a political solution, not the use of violence. Statements that paint a picture of good and evil and a necessity to ‘destroy’ ISIS understate the likelihood and complexity of the political situation in Iraq, radical Islamists and the known costs and benefits of military intervention.


A book project I recently completed examining the benefits of indirect interventions argues for the use of political solutions, rather than intervention, for two major reasons. First, the civil conflicts that states intervene in are often characterized by profound differences between the warring parties, and intervening in civil conflicts often exacerbates these differences, facilitating further divisions and prolonging conflicts. The crisis in Iraq is no different. The Shi’a leaders who have controlled Iraq since the handover from the U.S. have systematically excluded Sunnis from the political process, allowed unfettered revenge killings and death squads to operate and generally have made it clear that inter-communal governance will not be a hallmark of the new Iraq.

The democratic system the U.S. helped established in Iraq is clearly dismissive of minority rights and currently has displayed little to no capacity to develop a sincere trust between all communities in the country. Sunni extremists have generally responded in kind to this dynamic, with Iraq falling repeatedly into sectarian violence, most notably in 2006 and again more recently. Perhaps the Shi’a leaders will learn a lesson about inclusion in the political process, provided they are able to beat back ISIS gains with U.S. assistance.

The removal of Prime Minister Maliki and the formation of a new government including representatives from the disenfranchised Sunni and Kurdish communities, provides evidence that the political calculations of the Shi’a majority are shifting. However, U.S. air strikes and military aid have the potential to simply save the Shi’a community from having to forge any long term compromise with Sunnis that creates a truly inclusive political order, and the threat of radical Sunni Islamists in the region will continue to drag the U.S. back to the aid of a Shi’a dominated regime.

The separation between the Sunni and Shi’a communities in Iraq is advanced when intervening states bolster and support the approaches of the warring parties. Moreover, even if the air campaign works to weaken ISIS, only a ground and counter insurgency campaign will truly eliminate the movement’s capacity to inflict harm, and the violence used in the process will only confirm moderate Sunnis’ worst fears about the Shi’a community and their Western allies, given the unintended consequences of an intervention. ISIS won’t get their caliphate in the short term, but the intervention will do little to provide resolution to the conflict. In this process, the intervention will provide little benefit to the American people who have underwritten the intervention.

Based on the body of international relations research, including my own recent findings, the only thing that is going to stabilize Iraq at this moment in time is a broad political agreement, which may be better aided by Shi’a negotiating with moderate Sunnis under the pressure of ISIS advances. American violence will only embed the current positions, and an intervention in Iraq now will not create the stable conditions in the future that will inhibit further American involvement in Iraq.


Second, research suggests that there is the sizable distance between the U.S. political, security and economic elite, who are best positioned to benefit from “security” in Iraq, and the American public. Clearly everyone benefits from stability in global markets, which allows U.S. consumers to access goods and services that enable current social norms of consumption. However, maintaining stability in global markets is largely possible without engaging in every conflict around the world, albeit with some shifts in prices and supplies.

ISIS poses a threat to Iraqi stability, but its rise is a direct cause of U.S. meddling in the domestic affairs of Iraq, such as the 2003 invasion, which removed just about all elements of the previous regime. Further, the political, security and economic elite are generally the first to gain or lose with instability. The political elite, led by President Obama, cannot let the executions of Americans and loss of Iraq pass without a response for a variety of reasons, least of all losing the gains he has made branding the Democratic Party as competent on national security issues as the Republicans. The economic elite, mainly energy companies, have business models precipitated on maintaining friendly regimes and access. A little instability is helpful to drive up prices, but barriers to access and transportation becomes an issue quickly.

Even then, ISIS, while threatening some oil producing regions of Iraq, is not anywhere near the major oil fields in Southern Iraq. Further, security elites often gain from interventions in civil conflicts, as responding to a threat such as ISIS legitimizes their extensive budgets. The average American, on the other hand, will have little to show for American warplanes, drones and military aid flowing to the Iraqi state.


An important question remains: what is an appropriate and effective strategy for the U.S. in Iraq? First, American foreign policy, long dominated by the short terms goals of presidents, needs to adopt a more long game perspective. The hurry up approach to solving complex political problems is wrought with opportunities for unintended consequences that are vastly more costly than doing nothing. And doing nothing is exactly what the U.S. should not be doing.

Rather, U.S. foreign policy should be crafting policies that assist enemies and friends alike in their development of strong institutions that are the markers of successful democratic societies. The response to World War II and the Cold War produced a current of thinking that presupposes that violence can be a useful tool for combating the problems and issues our country faces as a hegemonic power. However, scholarship has, and continues to document that it is much cheaper to invest in a political solution, rather than endorse policies that offer too simplistic a response to complex social relations, which so often crystallizes the differences between conflict parties, and benefits the elites of intervening countries, rather than the general population.

While violence must be used from time to time, the over-reliance and speed of which it is embraced as a policy is misguided, as it often unleashes responses beyond the control of the actors who initiated it. For example, the instability in Central America that has brought thousands of school age children to the U.S. border in recent months can be traced to the U.S.’s abysmal and misguided support of conservative regimes fighting leftist guerrillas during the 1980s. Conservative regimes in Central America ignored years of complaints by movements composed mainly of peasants working to undercut the considerable inequality in those countries.

The U.S. did not invest in strong institutions in the region in the 1980s that could have dealt with the current complex political problems driving refugees northward; rather, the U.S. bought guns for military dictatorships. If the U.S. continues with such short sighted use of violence in Iraq, you can expect instability, chaos, and the next U.S. president outlining how targeted drone strikes and special-forces operations will quickly resolve the instability and root out evil there.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.