Why events in Iraq are tied to larger American policy failures of intervention

American Foreign PolicyWith the recent escalation of violence now taking place in Iraq, the time is right to have a conversation about the fruits of American Foreign Policy. While the media is buzzing about Iraq’s disintegration, what is overlooked is that Iraq is not the first case in which the aftermath of American/Western intervention ended poorly.

Iraq is a strong example of what can go wrong following American interventionism, but it’s hardly the only example. What we are seeing in Iraq is merely the chicken’s coming home to roost, an after effect of a foreign policy not thought out very well.

The lack of American troops has left the fragmented Iraqi state to rip itself up between Sunni and Shiite. It now appears that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants are making a push toward Baghdad. Their goal is to establish a unified Sunni Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.

They have gained swathing victories against the weak and rather fractured Iraqi government. The Shiite government in Baghdad is now in complete panic mode, and Iran has stepped in to rescue its Shiite ally from complete destruction. The situation in Iraq is now at a critical juncture.

What we must discuss now is the origins of this chaos, which is more than clear. The Iraq War launched by the George W. Bush Administration is the reason why Iraq is in the mess it is in now. John McCain and his ilk can go on TV and blab all day about how it’s all Obama’s fault, the Surge Succeeded, etc. etc. In the end, none of this would matter now if the Iraq War had never been waged.

This goes to a larger issue, that we also see playing out in other countries. Both in the recent past and present, we see a sort of similar effect in different regions where the United States and NATO have either intervened directly or indirectly. Iraq is the most urgent example, but it is not alone. There are many instances where interventionist policy has led to further bloodshed and instability rather than lasting peace and security.

american foreign policy
Child Soldier, El Salvador Civil War

Latin America: Throughout the existence Latin America, the people there have always had to be wary of their giant neighbor to the north, the United States. While American interventionism has not been seen in recent years, we saw several instances of bloodshed and turmoil during the Cold War period that were directly and indirectly tied to the US.

In order to combat a theoretical Soviet threat, and defeat communism, the United States bankrolled and supported military coups in nations like Brazil (1964), Chile (1973), Argentina (1976), and Bolivia (1974). We also financed bloody civil wars in El Salvador (1979-1992) and Guatemala (1961-1996) and supported the Contras in Nicaragua (1980s). Tens of thousands of lives were lost, and instability reigned across the Hemisphere for decades.

Today, Latin American is slightly quieter. But the United States still maintains a watchful gaze on its southern neighbors, and always seeks to maintain its dominant influence where it can. Latin America is more stable today, thanks to the lack of US sponsored intervention. Many of the post-Cold War governments in Latin America are left-wing governments without many ties to the old right-wing military juntas of the past. The risk still remains, however, that renewed intervention in both Colombia and Venezuela is causing mass instability there.

Colombia has long been a staunch ally of the United States, and is one of the few exceptions to the greater trend of left-wing Latin American governments. Colombia has been ruled by a succession of pro-American right-wing governments. Colombia is a huge military partner with the US in Latin America today, especially in the never ending American War on Drugs. Colombia is also a very useful counterweight to the left-wing Chavista Venezuela, whom American neocons have long desired to see crushed.

As the American government has desired to see the Socialist in Venezuela government booted out, many analysts have noted that recent unrest in Venezuela is tied to American refusal to fully recognize the legitimacy of the Maduro government (Chavez’s effective successor). Violent protests and clashes have been destabilizing Venezuela for months, and many feel that the US may have a hand in play.

Libya & Syria: Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, the United States has been walking a tightrope with its policy. On the one hand the US wanted to been seen as friendly to democratic protesters, but did not want to cut ties to the many despotic regimes that were under attack by protests. Two nations that have been rocked greatly by the Arab Spring and US interventionist policy are Libya and Syria, both of which have ongoing crises.

In Libya, the US and NATO directly intervened militarily in order to topple the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. Though there was no use of ground troops, the effect was still the same. Gadhafi’s regime is gone, and in its stead sits a fractured Libya with ongoing problems establishing a constitutional order. The nation is run by different militia’s and factions fighting for dominance. Islamist and anti-Islamist forces battle round the clock, which recently culminated in an attempted takeover in Tripoli by a militia-faction.

Syria, while no direct intervention of American military power has occurred yet, indirect involvement goes on. Syria’s civil war is raging on, with no signs of end. The rebels have not been able to make huge gains against the Assad government, but the US continues to support the rebels both in money and weapons. Syria, like Libya, is now extremely divided between the government and rebel militia factions. Continuing America intervention does not seem to be making the situation any better.

Afghanistan: While begun with noble intentions, the War in Afghanistan has evolved into yet another failed foreign policy adventure. Much like Libya and Syria (and Iraq) we see a fractured Afghanistan divided between tribal militias, the Taliban, and the fledgling government in Kabul. American forces, while able to temporarily halt Taliban gains, have not been able to seriously solve Afghanistan’s issues.

President Obama’s recent decision to maintain 9800 troops in the country past 2014 has highlighted the mess that Afghanistan is in, and also shows that the country cannot be governed without some effective American military presence. Whether or not Kabul would quickly fall back to the Taliban once the US leaves (if it does) is not clear.

The Drone War: Possibly the most controversial foreign policy initiative of any Administration in recent history, the drone campaign has highlighted the increasing destructive power of American interventionism. Rather than sending in mass armies, lightning raids are conducted without warning in order to kill a large numbers of enemies without risking American lives. While the idea is not bad, the consequences of the drone war are mounting

Our drone policy has conducted both “targeted” and “signature” strikes. Targeted strikes are for specifically selected individuals, while signature strikes are meant to be broad and to cause “random chaos” for American enemies. We have seen civilian casualties mount with the use of drones, and in fact these drone strikes have caused destabilizing effects in the regions they are used. Drones have been used extensively on the Afghan-Pakistan border, but also in Yemen and Somalia. All of these regions are seeing increasing unrest over the drone issue, and much more anger directed at the United States.

Drones have managed to remove a certain threat level for American service members, but have created even greater threats due to the blowback from drone war casualties. Suggestions are being made now to use drones in Iraq.

Iran: Last but not least, the largest long-term headache to American foreign policy, is Iran. America’s business in Iran stretches back decades. Our most infamous intervention being in 1953, when the CIA and British intelligence sponsored a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mossadeq. The coup reinstated the Shah Reza Pahlivi into absolute control, which lead to an absolute dictatorship (backed by the United States) which lasted until 1979. Once the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah, the Islamic Republic came into being, and acted as an adversary to the United States.

The effects of 1953 still hold strong in the minds of Iran’s leaders. Mistrust of America and its foreign policy goals have more to do with the simplistic idea that “they hate us because they hate us.” Conservatives like to say “they hate our liberty and freedom” and that alone is supposed to explain why an entire nation mistrusts our aims. Iran is the one long-term blowback America will have to deal with for years to come.

Iran is now poised to have a much greater influence and position in Iraq, as its forces engage to defend its Shiite allies in Baghdad. This can either be a chance for America and Iran to cooperate with each other on a meaningful level, or it will be yet another rift in American-Iranian relations. While Iran aiding the Maliki government helps our goals in the short term, in the long term it could signal an Iraq where it is more allied with Iran then the United States. Saddam must be rolling in his shallow grave right about now.

What the situation in Iraq now reveals is more evidence that a militaristic interventionist policy does not produce stabilizing results in every case. That’s not to say that intervention can never work. Context is what’s important. If we don’t understand the context and nuances of what we are doing, then it can rattle a hornet’s nest that has the potential of spreading angry hornets. Iraq, much like Libya and Syria, are artificial states creates as a result of Ottoman/European colonialism. Failures to understand history and culture have caused massive messes in the Middle East, which seems unlikely to clear up anytime soon.

American interventionism has created a destabilized Iraq and many others. We tend to select divided (artificial) nations to american foreign policyintervene in, shattering their delicate systems and then leave the people to fight out their problems. Iraq is an offshoot, like other nations, of America’s failure to understand the consequences of military intervention. Does this mean that the US has to maintain troops indefinitely everywhere it intervenes? NO! It means we should not be intervening in these nations in the first place.

The right-wing spin machine will make all of this Obama’s fault, so there is no need to question that. But, honestly, Obama is in a tough spot here. While the mess in Iraq is certainly not of his origin, the mess is attached to America’s legacy which he ultimately must deal with. Obama is right to demand the Iraqi government to reform, and to avoid sending troops back in. Having said that, Obama has not helped to stabilize Syria and Libya, and has just served to maintain the military-industrial complex which thrives on war.

America’s foreign policy has us stuck between a rock and a hard place. Unless we understand that military intervention is not always a solution to our goals, then more messes like Iraq will continue to be made.



  1. What I have observed this last decade is that when we overthrow a dictator like Libya, we are doing what the people of that country want. Nation building is what I think (I have no empirical data) Obama is trying to avoid and then the blame shifts to our military. I may be completely wrong so please feel free to educate me.

  2. I pretty much agree with your sentiments per the possibility that America doing much of anything (other than what we can do in terms of humanitarian issues) may well make a terrible situation just more terrible. It is difficult to take the role of active spectator, but it just might be that we are there.

    Thomas Friedman, ten years after he got it so very, very wrong when he picked up a couple of pom-poms and served as a cheerleader for the Cheney/Bush/Rice/Rumsfeld invasion of Iraq, finally got it right in a column he wrote for the NYT today—geez, it took ten years????

    In his column, he displayed a wisdom and prescience one wishes to God he had displayed ten years ago—geez, it took ten years???? He writes “Please spare me another dose of: It is all about whom we train and arm. Sunnis and Shiites don’t need guns from us. They need the truth. It is the early 21st century, and too many of them are still fighting over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad from the 7th century. It has to stop—for them…to have any future.”

    It is a little more complex than that but, at bottom, he’s spot-on. And, considering it in those terms gives one pause when thinking about what a realistic American response should be and shouldn’t be.

    One thought occurs during that pause: Perhaps Iraq and Syria and Libya and Egypt, etc., etc. are no longer ours to stabilize. It is a peace-full thought, isn’t it?

  3. I am interested in your statement that, while Obama is “right” to “demand…reform” on the part of the Iraqi government and “right” to state without equivocation that American troops will not be sent back to Iraq, he “has not helped to stabilize Syria and Libya.”

    While the president’s “demand” for political reform from Maliki is, I agree, “right,” the fact of that matter is that he has been saying that in more quiet ways for some time. It is the “right” political demand to make (in terms of America politics), but it will have no bearing on what Maliki or Iraq actually does. We Americans are almost pathologically grandiose, imagining that foreign countries actually take our advice seriously or listen to us earnestly. Let’s stop kidding ourselves—they do neither.

    The president is also “right” to not equivocate per the issue of sending troops back to Iraq. He was “right” to get them out—he really, given the lack of a legitimate “status of force agreement,” had no other options—and he is “right” to keep them out.

    That is a long way of saying that I agree with you per those issues. And, I actually don’t disagree with you per the fact that “he has not helped to stabilize Syria and Libya.” I am, however, a bit confused as to what options you think he has had per helping “to stabilize Syria and Libya.” Or, put another way, what might he have done “to stabilize Syria and Libya” that he hasn’t done?

    As I said, I don’t disagree per him not having “helped to stabilize” either of those countries. I just question whether there was anything he could have done. And whether imagining he could have done something is just another manifestation of American grandiosity.

    • To answer the question, I can’t say for sure what Obama should have done. I understand its a damned if you do/damned if you don’t environment with Washington Republicans. My answer would have been to not intervene at all.

      I understand the death tolls and that some form of condemnation should have been issued for the Arab Spring repressions. Yet, it should not be left solely to the US and NATO as to what are appropriate responses to dictators killing their own people. I am not sure exactly what steps should have been taken in Libya or now in Syria and Iraq. Yet, as recent history shows, military intervention does not seem to be the silver bullet for solving these issues. In fact, they seem to make more problems than anything else.

      In all honesty Rusty, I realize Obama has a tough issue here. Yet, as I noted, he hasn’t been doing much to stabilize the situations. I am not sure what he should have done, but what he has done clearly is not working well. I understand some of the situation is not Obama’s fault, but he still ultimately is the one responsible for the messes his predecessor created. I guess my added point would be Obama should not follow Bush’s example and create even more messes.

      Honestly, pandora’s box is open and there’s no closing it. I fear, more or less, that America may have no choice but to be a spectator to the very destruction we helped to spawn. I hope I am wrong.

Leave a Comment