Blowback from More Intervention in Iraq

As Iraq faces a governmental crisis and collapses into what looks to be a three-sided civil war, Republicans even other Democrats – members of Congress and potential presidential candidates, such as President Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – are alleging that Obama facilitated the rise of the Sunni radical group Islamic State (formerly Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). They blame him for withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 and for failing to provide greater aid for moderate groups opposed to President Bashar al Assad in Syria.

Though I am no fan of President Obama, such logic is breathtakingly horrendous. Although Americans are not known for placing importance on history, one should expect them to at least remember a few years back. And the public seems to at least have a vague idea that they are tired of 13 years of brushfire wars in faraway places. However, politicians, always eager to spend soldiers’ lives and taxpayer dollars on another interventionist fiasco, begin their history in 2011 when Iraq’s autocratic leader, Nouri al Maliki, vetoed Obama’s conditions for keeping American troops in that country. Somehow, these politicians argue, the United States should have just kept a small US force in Iraq despite the opposition, and likely hostility, of the host government. Forgetting these facts and starting history at this point leads to a bias toward further US intervention in Iraq (and Syria).

In fact, George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq led directly to the creation and radicalization of what is now the brutal IS group. The group morphed from the group al Qaeda in Iraq, which rose in resistance to the US military intervention. Anyone familiar with the Islamic religion would be unsurprised by the rise of such guerrilla resistance to non-Islamic foreign occupiers on Islamic soil. Yet most American politicians, including high-level Bush administration officials, seemed to be.

Furthermore, the current leader of the IS group, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and two of the three other men on the group’s military council – like many other IS fighters – were radicalized during detention in US camps during the American occupation. To the apparent disbelief of many American politicians of both parties, people, even non-Islamists, rarely like having their country occupied by a foreign invading force.

Moreover, the US military usually tries to win against insurgencies by "decapitating" their leadership, but this tactic almost never works; in the evolutionary hothouse of war, killing a group’s leadership usually just leads to the rise of even more radical and ruthless leaders. In the case of al Baghdadi, he rose to the top of al Qaeda in Iraq when the United States killed the group’s top two leaders in 2010. Although the group then focused its efforts on overthrowing Assad in neighboring Syria, its financial base stayed in Iraq even though it changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). If Obama had poured greater amounts of weapons to more moderate opposition groups in Syria, ISIS would probably be even stronger today. In war, the most ruthless groups grab the weapons and use them on everyone else. If doubt exists about this phenomenon, when ISIS recently invaded Iraq, it disarmed the better-equipped Iraqi military and sent it on the run. In its current air campaign against forces of the now renamed IS, America is fighting its own weaponry.

So if we go back in history far enough, we reach a much different conclusion than the interventionist politicians could fathom: George W. Bush’s original interventionism has led to the Islamist radicalization of both Iraq and Syria. More US intervention – as is happening now with air strikes to help the Kurds against IS in Iraq – will only lead to more of the same. Usually implicit in the interventionism of American politicians and policymakers is that US military action will make things better wherever it is undertaken. The United States has destabilized Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon with its invasion and occupation of Iraq, has destabilized Afghanistan and Pakistan with its invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and has destabilized Libya and Mali (and helped create a terrorist base in southern Libya with the weapons unleashed from Muammar Gaddafi’s storehouses) after a U.S.-led coalition toppled Gaddafi in Libya. The United States has fueled Islamist radicalism by also intervening militarily in Yemen and Somalia.

With such a great recent track record, one would think that American politicians would be too embarrassed get re-involved militarily in Iraq. But they now think they need to fight the monster that they created. But if IS is more ferocious than its ancestor, al Qaeda in Iraq, what more formidable creature are they now creating in opposition to US bombing?

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.