Is Mosul anything like Chicago’s South Side?

Over the past few weeks, as the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul has displaced the crises I was paying attention to (South Sudan and CAR) in the major Western papers, I’ve been following the news about Iraq more closely than I usually do.  It’s left me with a number of questions about the mechanisms by which American policymakers believe that foreign-led statebuilding can succeed.

For a number of reasons, I don’t find it very plausible that the crisis could have been averted if only American troops had stayed in Iraq past 2011.  US troops might have been in a better position to engage IS militarily, but it’s not clear to me that they could have prevented the group’s formation or successfully promoted the professionalization of the Iraqi military, let alone overcome the politicization of religion and ethnicity in order to create a stable, Western-style democracy.  There’s a huge body of literature on why building strong and inclusive states is a lengthy and often violent process, with or without foreign intervention, so the fact that the US hasn’t been able to fundamentally transform the political realities of Iraq after one decade of war is really not surprising.

What does interest me about all of this is why foreign policy hawks continue to believe that this type of transformation is possible.  I don’t just mean “why haven’t they read their history” or “why are they so arrogant,” but rather “through which causal mechanisms do they believe that American money and troops can overcome sectarian divides, build a strong state and prevent violent rebellion?”  There’s probably some literature on this question – the specific beliefs that policymakers hold about processes of social change, and their implications for enacted policy – but a few trips around Google Scholar haven’t helped me find anything useful.

This question has stayed with me as I’ve been reading about violence in a very different social context: the stubbornly high rates of armed assault on Chicago’s South Side.  The area made the news recently for a large series of shootings over the 4th of July weekend, and features prominently in Ta-Nehesi Coates’ excellent article on the case for slavery reparations, as he points out that segregation and endemic poverty in places like the South Side are the results of decades of overtly racist government policies.  This is violence taking place in the heart of one of the world’s most advanced democracies.  It is a place where the state is unquestionably strong, the police well-equipped, and the shootings themselves carried out not by an invading army but by street gangs.  In short, the American state has all the characteristics we have been trying to build into the post-invasion Iraqi state, and yet even here there are pockets of continuing violence.

It’s informative to compare the way that violence in a major American city and a major Iraqi city are discussed on the American op-ed circuit.  (Most American policymakers still get their information from newspapers, so this isn’t a case of looking at the chattering classes in isolation from actual policy.)  My morning skim of the New York Times and a number of political science blogs suggests that voices in favor of US intervention in Iraq – that is, people who believe the US has the capacity to reshape the state and control conflict there – are still prominently represented.  By contrast, as Gene Demby has noted, most of the mainstream discourse around the shooting deaths of black and Hispanic men in places like Chicago’s South Side presents this type of violence as saddening but inevitable – a natural phenomenon that can’t be controlled by government policy.  The place where the US government should in principle have the most policy leverage is where violence is depicted as uncontrollable, while the place where US leverage is limited by Iraqi sovereignty and, oh yes, the fact of being an invading force, is where American policy is expected to be most transformative.

I’d like to see the people in favor of a renewed or continued US military presence in Iraq grapple seriously with this issue.  Is it easier to have an external actor build democratic institutions in a state weakened by years of war than it is to provide quality educations and reform sentencing laws for drug crimes in one’s own country?  What about the challenges of creating a professional army in the face of continued incentives for politicization, as opposed to trying to avoid obvious racial profiling by a police force that’s otherwise pretty well-trained?  Everything on this list is difficult, but in general I suspect the domestic policy goals could be achieved more quickly and durably than the foreign policy ones.

I think there are two coherent responses to those questions.  One is, “yes, the domestic goals might be more feasible, but structural racism means that we don’t want to spend money on them; we think Iraq will be different because we’re willing to throw billions at it.”  The second is, “hmm, it seems to be hard to design effective policies to reduce violence and find the political will to implement them even in a place with a generally strong and capable government.”  If returning US troops to Iraq seemed likely to lead to a lasting reduction in the amount of violence experienced by Iraqis and an improvement in their standards of living, I would support it in a heartbeat, but so far I haven’t heard a convincing explanation of the mechanisms by which this could occur.

6 thoughts on “Is Mosul anything like Chicago’s South Side?

  1. I think it might be useful to consider that the people who advocate further military intervention in Iraq and yet are uninterested in government action against the violence in Chicago may find both situations perfectly satisfactory. There is usually an assumption that important leaders want to suppress or mitigate violence, but I think that depends on what interests are involved, and how. US leadership has certainly been interested in promoting violence in many places, and has often carried it out directly, probably because the leadership found that violence either materially profitable, politically rewarding, or emotionally and aesthetically satisfying. Or as Randolph Bourne famously said, ‘War is the health of the state.’


  2. A quick followup – I must add racism to the afore-mentioned greed, hypocrisy,
    Incompetence, and disregard for human life.
    Part of the reason why no truly effective, large-scale government programs were enacted in inner-
    city communities, by the Bush-
    Cheney administration – was that
    many of their supporters are content
    to watch these communities suffer.
    A truly comprehensive approach to
    creating employment, truly improving
    education and healthcare, reducing
    crime and drug abuse – would require
    a genuine, large, and lasting commitment – including the voices and involvement of community residents.

    The Obama administration would love to achieve these goals – but they’ve been severely limited by the economic
    and military disasters of the Bush-
    Cheney era, and the continuing
    opposition of the Republican Party.


  3. A brilliant comparison and contrast!
    It is astonishing that the same politicians who actively led us into the
    self-inflicted disaster of Iraq – are so
    content to watch passively, as young men of color bring death, pain, and
    trauma to themselves and their communities.
    I truly believe the Iraq war was
    motivated by greed, and the desire
    to control Iraq’s oil resources.
    (At one time, the neo-con Iraq war hawks claimed that Iraq’s oil resources
    would pay America’s war expenses!!)
    (And who can forget Dick Cheney’s
    closed-door meetings with American oil
    companies to “direct America’s energy
    policies”? NO other stakeholders, such as environmental groups or clean-
    energy developers, were allowed in
    these meetings.)
    I believe that all the nonsense about
    “creating a democratic Iraq” was pure
    fiction, right from the beginning. Even a
    cursory glance at Iraq’s culture and history, would reveal the absurdity of this (ostensible) lofty goal. To truly
    rebuild Iraq’s political structure would
    require decades of hard, complex work,
    AND the unified participation of the Iraqii people…none of which the Bush-
    Cheney administration ever planned or
    The Bush-Cheny administration’s greed, hypocrisy, incompetence, and total lack of respect for human life
    – both in Iraq and America’s inner
    cities – is mind-boggling, and truly


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