On Intervention: Iraq, not Syria?

By Steve Saideman

August is usually a slow news month, but certainly not this year.  The latest?  That Canada has sent transport planes to Iraq to help the Kurds as well as Iraq deal with the Islamic State movement.  It is only natural to ask the question: why here and not Syria?  Or, why Iraq and not place x, y, or z?

The obvious answer and also the correct one here is: because we can.  That is, Canada can help here and cannot really help that much elsewhere.  The second answer is always true: because there is discrimination in international relations.  That is, countries are selective about where they get involved, with some crises getting more attention and effort and others less.

The big difference between the situation in Iraq and the one in Syria is that there is a side that Canada, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and others can assist.  Focusing either on the Kurds or on Iraq itself, there are local allies that control territory and governments.  That outside support can take place with relatively little risk to the outsiders is a key ingredient.  That there is a local ally that one likes or can stomach is a second.  The Kurds have done a nice job since 2003 of positioning themselves as the most reasonable faction in Iraq (not that difficult a task) but also the most competent.  While there are always fears that supporting the Kurds in Iraq might have implications for Kurdish separatists elsewhere, that is dwarfed here by the threat posed by the Islamic State.  Together, these conditions mean that the outsiders can make a difference and would like to do so. 

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The ‘strong’ state: threatening or protective?

By Steve Saideman

A few years ago, I worked with a great group of scholars on a core problem for anyone addressing civil wars: how do you develop a strong enough government so that it can thwart evil doers and deter potential rebels while assuring the citizens that its coercive power will not be used against them? The book did not make a huge splash partly because it was over-priced and partly because we did not have many great solutions. I am thinking of that book now because I see the problem so vividly in each of the media spotlights of August 2014.

The fundamental problem in Iraq now is not that the government did not have enough coercive capability but that the governors were using that capability against the Sunnis. The Iraqi government could have assured the Sunnis that force would only be used against those who were opposed to the government. Instead, promises were broken, and the focus was on exerting dominance, which then reduced both the capacity and legitimacy of the army that the U.S. had trained and equipped. The Sunnis who had opted to join with the less-bad choice of the U.S. in 2007 have now opted for the Islamic State.

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Intervention and the Prospects for Power-Sharing in Iraq

As originally posted at Duck of Minerva.

By Philip Martin

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks advises a U.S. approach to Iraq which uses military force to arm-twist Iraqi elites into forming an inclusive new government, since “if you get the political elites behaving decently, you can avoid the worst.” At Political Violence @ a Glance, Barbara Walter also argues in favor of a negotiated settlement based on power-sharing as the optimal solution to Iraq’s current political fragmentation, an outcome that will supposedly “become increasingly attractive to everyone as the costs and risks of war increase.”

It is true that if moderate elites had more power in Iraq this would reduce the intensity of the country’s domestic political violence; it is less clear, however, that another power-sharing coalition government brokered by foreign interveners is an effective means to this end. For the last decade or more, scholars and practitioners have advocated for inclusivity, integration and power-sharing as the principal solution to the problem of civil war termination, expecting that these arrangements can reassure combatant groups of their participation in the post-war distribution of power, and eventually establish a cooperative model of governance which builds trust and moderation. Yet empirical research on foreign-imposed regimes and the determinants of peace agreement success provides little optimism about the likely effectiveness of these institutional arrangements.

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Iraq’s disaster shows the folly of our meddlingIraq’s disaster shows the folly of our meddling

By Michael Bell

As originally published in The Globe and Mail.

The events of the past several days in Iraq have been traumatic. Reports are confused, and events may be over-dramatized, but the fall to extremists of parts of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, seems certain. The ideological and ethno-nationalist commitments of these militants, accompanied by massive desertions from the Iraqi armed forces, are stark indicators of the disaster of American neo-conservative intervention, so confidently asserted by the former Bush administration as a solution to Arab ills. If the lesson is learned, U.S. President Barack Obama will decline to lend air support to a bedraggled government in Baghdad, knowing the struggle is unwinnable.

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Time for Humility in Foreign Policy

By Steve Saideman

Social scientists like to have a lot of variation when they study something—this way, they can figure out which aspects of the situation are likely to be related with the outcome—war/peace; democracy/authoritarianism; free trade/protectionism. The good news about the Western involvement in Northern Africa and Southwest Asia is that we have seen many different kinds of efforts. The bad news is that the outcomes have been lousy. That is, we have pretty much tried every major policy option and they have all looked pretty bad.

Massive intervention? Check. Or check minus, as the United States with some friends in Iraq and NATO in Afghanistan has not been able to snuff out violence and build self-sustaining political institutions in either state as yet. While it may be too soon to call Afghanistan a failure, it is hardly a success story. The Taliban are hardly quelled and they engage in violence throughout the country with the Afghan security forces taking a serious beating. One piece of evidence for the success argument is that the Afghan army is still fighting, but real questions can be raised about whether it can sustain this effort given the toll they are taking. Meanwhile, in Iraq the U.S. surge combined with the Anbar Awakening to temporarily reduce the level of violence in the country. But the surge was temporary and the Iraqi government largely betrayed the Sunnis who sided with the government.

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Great Power, Great Responsibility, Great Frustration

With great power comes great responsibility, as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker long ago.  This doctrine became a great burden for Spider-Man, yet also helped him become the superhero we all love. But one problem that plagued Spidey also plagues the U.S. – just because one is responsible for using one’s power well, does not mean that one is responsible for everything that happens.

Why is this relevant now? Multiple events are causing us to look backwards and wonder why things have not gone so well.  Violence in Iraq is increasing, with al-Qaida apparently gaining control in Fallujah.  Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is promoting his new book (far more effectively than I am promoting mine but I am not telling tales about my former bosses), which has people looking back at the decisions made about Afghanistan.  As I have written before, failure is an orphan, as everyone who might be responsible seeks to point the finger elsewhere.

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Who is bleeding and who notices? Iraq through a Latin American lens

“Iraq is Bleeding and the world has barely noticed” writes Scott Taylor in Embassy Magazine: 500 deaths this month, 3,000 this year.

Awful? Yes, awful. But how awful?

Sorry to get into bleak death accounting, but if the point is for the world to notice, context matters.

Yesterday, Vanda Felbab-Brown sent me a report just published by Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) showing that homicides in Brazil between 1996 and 2000 have been under-reported by about 18%. Instead of the roughly 700,000 homicides that we thought had taken place in the country over these fourteen years, Daniel Cerqueira’s study suggests that the true number is in fact about 850,000.

So we are talking about 60,000 homicides per year, or 5,000 per month, year after year after year. Obviously, Brazil is larger than Iraq, six times larger. But 6 times 500 is still “only” 3,000. In other words, as bleeding goes, Iraq looks like a mild case. Oh, and by the way, 15 to 16,000 people are murdered every year in the US, or 1250 per month…

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