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.