What, Exactly, Are U.S. Interests In Iraq's Turmoil?

Jun 17, 2014
Originally published on June 17, 2014 5:33 pm

As the U.S. steers warships closer to Iraq and beefs up its embassy's security in Baghdad with nearly 300 troops, a nagging question has resurfaced.

What compelling interests does Washington still have in a nation where all U.S. forces were pulled out 2 1/2 years ago?

Three days after Sunni militants calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, President Obama paused on the White House lawn and issued a warning.

"Terrorists," he said, were being allowed to overrun part of Iraq's territory. "This poses a danger to Iraq and its people," he added, "and given the nature of these terrorists, it could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well."

Just what those American interests might be, the president did not say. But a few days later, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asserted on CNN that Iraq was quickly becoming a new staging area for an attack on the United States.

"The number of people that could die in this country from getting this wrong is going to be far greater than 4,000, because they're getting weapons they didn't have before," Graham warned. "The economic chaos to the world is going to be far greater than this — and the money we spent in saving Iraq. This is another 9/11 in the making."

For some experts on the region, that may be an overstatement. "I think, if they're referring to an exact replication of 9/11, I'm not entirely sure that's likely," says Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman, who directs its Center for Security Studies.

Hoffman thinks the risk is more subtle. ISIS is focused right now on gaining more ground in Iraq, he says, but the group also has a large following and fighters with Western passports.

"What worries me, and I'm sure what concerns members of Congress, is that in respect to the success and the notoriety that they've achieved in the past few days, that reach may in fact grow," Hoffman says.

Still, according to Persian Gulf expert Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, Americans are wary of new entanglements after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pollack, who once strongly backed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, now says the U.S. has no good options in Iraq. He thinks America's interest in Iraq goes beyond terrorism — it's also clearly economic.

"It will be a real challenge for an American president to go back to the American public and say, you know what, our economy rests still on the oil market, and the oil market is heavily influenced by whatever happens in places like Iraq, and if we don't deal with the problems in Iraq, we could face a severe recession at home," he says. "But I do think that that is probably the most compelling argument that can be made."

Other experts on the region question whether oil, terrorism or anything else justifies U.S. military action in Iraq.

"Even if we took a kind of inside-the-Beltway, mainstream approach to U.S. foreign policy interests, I can't see what they are here," says Juan Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

If anything, Cole argues, U.S. airstrikes against ISIS could turn many others in Iraq not currently in the fight to take up arms. "For the U.S. to treat this as a series of al-Qaida conquests and then to exercise military force to suppress it," says Cole, "I think risks misunderstanding the situation and deeply alienating the Sunni population of northern Iraq."

Pollack notes that Iraq is once again in a state of civil war — just as it was seven years ago. But unlike then, the U.S. no longer has either the political or military clout it once had, he says.

"I think that we have to recognize that we're not probably going to be able to do a whole lot in Iraq," he says. "We may not be able to shut down this civil war, not anytime soon."

Which means that while the U.S. may still have some stake in what happens in Iraq, it's been left with little leverage to do anything about it.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The U.S. is steering warships closer to Iraq and beefing up its embassy's security in Baghdad. Nearly 300 troops have been deployed there. This comes as extremist militants bear down on the capital city. And with all of this, a nagging question has resurfaced - what compelling interest does Washington still have in Iraq two and half years after all U.S. forces have left? NPR's David Welna put that question to some experts on the region and has this report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Three days after Sunni militant, calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, seized Mosul - Iraq's second- largest city - President Obama warned on the White House lawn that what he called terrorists were being allowed to overrun part of Iraq's territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This poses a danger to Iraq and its people. And given the nature of these terrorists, it could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well.

WELNA: Just what those American interests might be, the president did not say. But a few days later, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham asserted on CNN that Iraq was quickly becoming a new staging area for an attack on the United States.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: They're getting weapons they didn't have before. The economic chaos to the world is going to be far greater than the money we spent in saving Iraq. This is another 9/11 in the making.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: I think if they're referring to an exact replication of 9/11, I'm not entirely sure that's likely.

WELNA: That's Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman, who directs its Center for Security Studies. He thinks the risk is more subtle. ISIS is focused right now on gaining more ground in Iraq, he says. But the group also has a large following and fighters with Western passports.

HOFFMAN: What worries me, and I'm sure what concerns members of Congress, is that in respect of the success and the notoriety that they've achieved in the past few days is that that reach may in fact grow.

WELNA: Still, after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are wary of new entanglements, says Persian Gulf expert Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. Pollack once strongly backed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But he now says the U.S. has no good options in Iraq. He thinks America's interests in Iraq goes beyond terrorism. It's also clearly economic.

KENNETH POLLACK: It will be a real challenge for an American president to go back to the American public and say, you know what? Our economy rests still on the oil market and the oil market is heavily influenced by whatever happens in places like Iraq. And if we don't deal with the problems in Iraq, we could face a severe recession at home. But I do think that that is probably the most compelling argument that can be made.

WELNA: Other experts on the region question whether oil terrorism or anything else justifies U.S. military action in Iraq. Juan Cole directs the University of Michigan's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

JUAN COLE: Even if we took a kind of inside-the-beltway, mainstream approach to U.S. foreign policy interests, I can't see what they are here.

WELNA: If anything, says Cole, it's precisely U.S. airstrikes against ISIS that could turn many others in Iraq not currently in the fight to take up arms.

COLE: For the U.S. to treat this as a series of al-Qaida conquests, and then to exercise military force to suppress it, I think risks misunderstanding the situation and deeply alienating the Sunni population of northern Iraq.

WELNA: The Brookings Institution's Pollack says Iraq is once again in a state of civil war, just as it was seven years ago. But unlike then, the U.S. no long has either the political or military clout it once had.

POLLACK: I think that we have to recognize that we're not probably going to be able to do a whole lot in Iraq. We may not be able to shut down this Civil War - not anytime soon.

WELNA: So while the U.S. still has some stake in what happens in Iraq, it's left with little leverage to do anything about it. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.