Shadow Government

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The Bloody Toll of Non-Intervention

Advocates of American non-intervention have underestimated the costs of U.S. inaction.

Iraqi government forces re-group as they engage in combat with the support of fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units in the Saqlawiyah area north west of Fallujah during an operation to regain control of the area from the Islamic State group on June 2, 2016. 

Iraqi forces launched an offensive a week ago to recapture Fallujah, which became an IS group stronghold after its fighters seized the city in January 2014. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces re-group as they engage in combat with the support of fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units in the Saqlawiyah area north west of Fallujah during an operation to regain control of the area from the Islamic State group on June 2, 2016. Iraqi forces launched an offensive a week ago to recapture Fallujah, which became an IS group stronghold after its fighters seized the city in January 2014. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces re-group as they engage in combat with the support of fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units in the Saqlawiyah area north west of Fallujah during an operation to regain control of the area from the Islamic State group on June 2, 2016. Iraqi forces launched an offensive a week ago to recapture Fallujah, which became an IS group stronghold after its fighters seized the city in January 2014. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama’s suitably somber observance of Memorial Day reminds us of the horrible human costs of war. The reports coming out of Fallujah remind us that all too often, seeking to avoid those losses in the short run simply raises the costs of an eventual conflict in the long run.

It is right to demand that advocates of American intervention have a sober appreciation for the costs of war. If the costs are misestimated, as in the case of the George W. Bush administration’s early forecasts of the Iraq War, the error rings loud and long.

Less often acknowledged, however, is how frequently advocates of American non-intervention have underestimated the costs of U.S. inaction. As Iraq security forces bludgeon their way back into Fallujah, and prepare to do the same in Mosul in the coming months, now would be a good time for those who reflexively advocate that the United States not intervene in this or that potential use of force to acknowledge the full cost of their preferred policies.

President Barack Obama’s suitably somber observance of Memorial Day reminds us of the horrible human costs of war. The reports coming out of Fallujah remind us that all too often, seeking to avoid those losses in the short run simply raises the costs of an eventual conflict in the long run.

It is right to demand that advocates of American intervention have a sober appreciation for the costs of war. If the costs are misestimated, as in the case of the George W. Bush administration’s early forecasts of the Iraq War, the error rings loud and long.

Less often acknowledged, however, is how frequently advocates of American non-intervention have underestimated the costs of U.S. inaction. As Iraq security forces bludgeon their way back into Fallujah, and prepare to do the same in Mosul in the coming months, now would be a good time for those who reflexively advocate that the United States not intervene in this or that potential use of force to acknowledge the full cost of their preferred policies.

Which is the bloodier proposition: liberating Fallujah and Mosul from the Islamic State’s grip, or preventing the Islamic State from conquering Fallujah and Mosul in the first place?

In late 2013 and early 2014, a joint Iraqi and American response roughly approximate to the one we are conducting now would likely have blunted the Islamic State’s advance long before Mosul fell, and perhaps even before Fallujah fell. Many of the Iraqi victims of the past two years were not inevitable victims of necessity. Their lives were the predictable (albeit unintended) cost of a non-intervention of choice. It was a policy choice not to leave U.S. forces behind in 2011 — forces that might have provided leverage to push Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a less sectarian direction (as happened from 2007 to 2011). For that matter, it was a U.S. policy choice to back Maliki in the contested 2010 Iraq election rather than back another candidate that might have avoided the worst of Maliki’s blunders. And it was a policy choice not to heed Iraqi requests for help as the Islamic State approached and then overran Mosul later on in 2014.

Let’s be clear. The Islamic States bears moral responsibility for the victims created by Islamic State violence. Maliki bears moral responsibility for the sectarian policies that undermined the cohesion of Iraqi security forces and fueled the cycle of revenge that the Islamic State has exploited. And we cannot be 100 percent certain that a more timely intervention would have guaranteed success. Interventions produce unintended consequences too. It is theoretically possible that more robust U.S. action earlier would have failed, in which case the costs of earlier intervention might have approximated the eventual costs of non-intervention followed by belated efforts to reverse the Islamic State’s success.

Theoretically possible, but unlikely.

The gruesome fight to retake Fallujah and Mosul is a painful reminder that a robust policy debate requires a prudent assessment of all of the relevant costs: the costs of action and the costs of inaction.

Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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