Home/Daniel Larison/What Does the U.S. Owe Iraq?

What Does the U.S. Owe Iraq?

Noah Millman believes that the U.S. is obliged to Iraqis to do something for them in the current conflict:

But we are responsible for the situation in Iraq. We are directly responsible in that we broke the existing arrangement of power and installed ourselves as the occupier. We are also indirectly responsible inasmuch as our overweening hegemonic influence in the region means that inaction is also a kind of action. So, because the Syrian civil war has not resolved, but expanded and become more violent and extreme, and because that civil war and Iraq’s are, with the rise of ISIS, effectively merging, to the extent that we may be “blamed” for not resolving that civil war, we may also be “blamed” indirectly for the deterioration in Iraq.

None of which means we should do something stupid and counter-productive, but it provides and genuine moral explanation for why we might feel obliged to do something.

There’s no question that the U.S. is responsible for what has happened to Iraq in that the U.S. destroyed its government and wrecked the country over the course of eight years. The U.S. does also have some responsibility for promoting and propping up a sectarian government whose misrule and abuse of power have contributed significantly to the current crisis. Beyond that, it’s not clear that the U.S. is responsible for anything else. If we took this definition of “indirect responsibility” seriously and applied it consistently, there is almost no event in the world for which the U.S. would not be somehow “indirectly responsible.” That way lie madness, endless conflict, and exhaustion.

The question is not whether the U.S. has done a great deal to create the current situation in Iraq–obviously it has–but what the U.S. can constructively do to remedy the country’s many woes. A government may be responsible for something and nonetheless be completely unqualified to repair the damage it has done. While there is a certain justice to the idea that the people responsible for breaking something are obliged to fix it, that takes for granted that they have the first clue how to rebuild what they’ve destroyed. If we haven’t learned by now that we don’t know how to do this, and that we definitely don’t know how to do it in Iraq, we never will. The U.S. owes Iraqis an enormous debt on account of what our government has done to their country, but it is a debt that can’t ever be fully repaid. Further, it is one that is best paid by refusing to fall back into the habit of thinking that the U.S. should try to “shape” the internal politics of their country. The U.S. has supposedly been “helping” Iraqis for the last eleven years in one way or another, and the results have been atrocious. We owe it to Iraqis to stop offering them this kind of “help.”

It’s hard to credit the idea that there is anything that the U.S. could realistically do at this point that would stabilize the country or improve the behavior of its government. Redoubling support for a failed government seems to be exactly the wrong thing to do, and re-inserting the U.S. into the current conflict through military action seems guaranteed to add to the country’s instability rather than reduce it. It would be appropriate to provide humanitarian aid to the people displaced by the latest upheavals. It could be useful to use whatever influence the U.S. has with the governments of those countries where ISIS has been getting much of its funding to try to cut off at least some of the foreign support that the group receives. Other than those admittedly small measures, I would be extremely wary of trying to “do something” there, because I have no confidence in our government’s competence to do something smart and constructive when it comes to Iraq, and I doubt that very many Americans or Iraqis disagree with me about that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles