So, could we have avoided the godawful mess we are facing with ISIS by intervening earlier and more forcefully? This editorial offers the typical interventionist argument that we could.
If only we had left a small residual force (about 15,000) in Iraq, it argues, we could have stabilized the country and prevented the rise of ISIS. Advocates of this viewpoint never explain exactly how that was supposed to work. If the much larger force we had in place earlier failed to keep Iraq stable, why would a mere 15,000 men be sufficient to defeat ISIS? The answer now appears to be that the small contingent would have reigned in the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki and kept him from oppressing the Sunnis so they would not have felt the wish to revolt. Since Iraq was relatively peaceful at the time, the American people would have accepted the small residual force. But this ignores a rather important actor in Iraq -- the Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki. He wanted our troops out, as did the vast majority of Iraqis. Attempts to negotiate terms for them to stay failed. Interventionists effectively want us to have left a force in place against the wishes of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people. Maintaining troops in a foreign country against the wishes of the government and the populace is generally considered an act of war. Furthermore, despite claims that our troops would have restrained Maliki, it is probably not too far-fetched to believe that one reason Maliki wanted our troops out was that he did not want to be restrained. He wanted to proceed with the oppression of the Sunnis that led to the rise of ISIS. Look, you can force people who hate each other to kiss at gunpoint, but you can't make the love each other. A force kept in Iraq against the wishes of the Iraqi government and people might very well have found itself at war with the government and with the Sunni rebels when they returned.
The editorial also argues, as interventionists often do, that if only we had intervened early and forcefully on behalf of the moderate insurgents in Syria, ISIS could have been prevented from arising there. The problem was that the so-called "moderate" insurgents were always difficult to detect with the naked eye. The arms we did ship them very often ended up in the hands of militant jihadis. The time to prevent Syria's ghastly civil war was before it started. And even then it would probably have ended up like Egypt. It did not take long after the downfall of the government for the nice guys to go down in Egypt. Still, Egypt did avoid civil war, which certainly made its fate better than Syria's. But once the civil war broke out, there was little we could do to prevent the most militant jihadis from coming to the fore. And keep in mind that ISIS was the result of a split within the insurgents.
Simply put, revolution and civil war are a messy business, difficult to control or restrain. Foreign intervention tends to be met with counter-intervention, and simply to prolong the war and make it bloodier. Certainly I trust that no one would dispute that Iran and Saudi Arabia have made things worse by intervening on their respective sides. I see no reason whatever to think that our intervention would have gone any better.