Don’t Save Iraq

How you look at things.
June 17 2014 6:13 PM

Don’t Save Iraq

Let it learn to save itself.

Nuri al-Maliki Poster.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, flanked by allies in an election poster, March 25, 2014.

Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Party has a long-standing philosophy about welfare. It goes like this: People take responsibility only if they must. The more we intervene to prop them up, the less they do for themselves. We can’t save them from their bad choices. They have to face the consequences and adjust their behavior accordingly.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Carried to its extreme, this philosophy can become a rationale for neglect. But at its core, it’s true. It’s one reason why the welfare reforms of the 1990s didn’t produce the disaster many liberals predicted.

Now we have a different problem. It isn’t that Republicans overemphasize self-reliance in the context of welfare. It’s that they’ve forgotten self-reliance in the context of foreign policy. They’ve become grandiose and naive. Case in point: the emerging crisis in Iraq.


Eleven years ago, we invaded Iraq, deposed its government, and disbanded its army. Then we tried to build the country back up. We kept troops there for years, policing sectarian violence, facilitating elections, and training new security forces. Three years ago, President Obama offered to extend the “status of forces” agreement under which some of our troops would stay there with Iraq’s approval. Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, didn’t accept the deal.

Everyone told Maliki that to keep his country together and peaceful, he had to build relationships with Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains, Maliki ignored the advice. He didn’t just neglect the Sunnis. He mistreated and alienated them. That’s a big reason why a Sunni extremist group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now controls much of Iraq’s territory and is advancing on Baghdad.

President Obama’s analysis of the ISIS threat sounds a lot like the GOP’s analysis of the war on poverty. Here’s how Obama assessed the situation on Friday:

Look, the United States has poured a lot of money into these Iraqi security forces, and we devoted a lot of training to Iraqi security forces. The fact that they are not willing to stand and fight … indicates that there’s a problem with morale, there’s a problem in terms of commitment. And ultimately, that’s rooted in the political problems that have plagued the country. …
I want to make sure that everybody understands this message: The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together. We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we’re there, we’re keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we’re not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country. 

In sum, said Obama, “We can’t do it for them.”

That’s a straightforward application of self-reliance. We’ll help you, but only if you clean up your act. Our help is limited, and your initiative is required.

Republicans have made the same points, repeatedly, in proposals to reform welfare. Three years ago, Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined by several colleagues, introduced the Welfare Reform Act of 2011. Among other things, they stressed that the bill would reallocate welfare money “to states that successfully reduce poverty and increase self-sufficiency.” Graham, a longtime critic of “dependency on social services,” called existing levels of welfare spending “unsustainable.” Inhofe warned that welfare programs were “keeping individuals and families dependent. These reforms will empower individuals to improve their situation by encouraging and promoting greater self-sufficiency.”

All these concepts—dependency, self-sufficiency, insistence that recipients do their part—vanish when the conversation turns to foreign policy. Yesterday on CNN, Inhofe blamed Obama for the mess in Iraq, saying the president “walked away.” Wolf Blitzer tried to correct him:

Blitzer: The U.S. left behind a ton of equipment for the Iraqi military, spent billions of dollars training these guys, and gave them the help that they possibly could for nearly a decade. The first semblance of a little tension, they take off their uniforms, they run away. The ISIS militants have captured dozens and dozens of humvees, tanks, armored personnel carriers. There was no resistance whatsoever. 
Inhofe: Yes, Wolf. That's true for about a decade. That was going on. We were giving them a lot of equipment and all of that. It was the abrupt withdrawal. … Just all of a sudden take it away. … That is what he [Obama] did.

After a decade of help, the U.S. finally withdraws—and Inhofe blames the withdrawal. Graham delivered the same spiel in two TV interviews on Sunday, blaming Obama’s “hands-off approach.” This led to an exchange with CNN’s Gloria Borger:

Graham: Maliki withdrawals from the coalition. He becomes a sectarian leader. Obama’s administration is completely hands-off, and we withdraw troops in 2011. That’s the perfect storm. 
Borger: But whose fault was that? You know, the—
Graham: That’s President Obama’s fault. 
Borger: Why is that President Obama’s fault? Maliki didn’t want [us] to leave a residual force there. 
Graham: No, that is not true. That is absolutely a lie. I was there on the ground, at the request of Secretary Clinton. Maliki, Barzani, and the Sunnis were willing to accept an American force. We wanted the agreement to go through parliament, which would have been a disaster. … I blame President Obama mightily for a hands-off policy when it comes to Iraq.

Graham’s position, in short, is that we should have bypassed Iraq’s elected representatives and continued the occupation so we could be there now to protect Iraq’s government from the consequences of its self-destructive behavior. He and Inhofe want us to go in with military force, again, to save Baghdad.

There are obvious differences between welfare and war. But the principle of self-reliance extends far beyond welfare. It suffuses the entire Republican platform, from taxes to federalism to job creation. It’s a fact of human nature. It’s why you try that much harder to find a job when the government cuts off your benefit check. It’s why you have to fix your army and your government when U.S. troops aren’t there to take the shrapnel for you.

Republicans say ISIS is filling the “vacuum” left by Obama’s withdrawal. But the vacuum—which is really just another name for how the world works when we’re not there—affects other parties, too. As ISIS advances on Baghdad, Shiite militias are assembling. Iran is stepping in. Turkey may be next. The conflict could explode into sectarian civil war, though some Shiite leaders are trying to avoid that. But what’s striking is how quickly, in our absence, the threatened elements of Iraqi society and the region are mobilizing to stop ISIS. They’re doing it because they have to. If they don’t, nobody else will.

Yes, ISIS is a threat to us. We’ll be safer if it’s crippled. But are we really the best people to do the job? For nearly a decade, we tried to manage Iraq. What we got was dysfunction. Maybe it’s time to let Iraq learn to manage itself.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


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