IRAQ: THE ALTERNATIVES
Rudyard Kipling, “The Lesson”. 1900.
Whether, the Iraq imbroglio will make Americans “Imperial minded”, in the Kipling sense is to be seriously doubted. And, while a short time past (Do you remember? How short a time that was!), it was rather common, for commentators such as Niall Ferguson, Max Boot, and Robert Kaplan, to argue that the (then) successes of American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, showed the path of the future American Empire, now of course the chief object of American policy in the case of the latter is the very Vietnamese one of “Peace with Honor”, which is rapidly turning to be one of “a decent Interval”. Before the inevitable ‘collapse’?
I for one, do not agree that a ‘collapse’ is inevitable, yet, in Iraq. However, It does appear that such may be the likely conclusion, if events continue as they have been going. As the military commentator, Anthony Cordesman, in a recent paper on “Iraqi Force Development” (see www.csis.org), shows the admittedly real growth in Iraqi troop strength in terms of men under arms, has been quite unable to put a halt to the violence, both of the ‘insurgent’ and, the ‘sectarian’ variety. With the latter, now resulting in more deaths in both the capital Baghdad and, elsewhere in the country. American attempts to stop the escalating violence by means of temporary reinforcement of troops in Baghdad, Ramadi (a Sunni, insurgent stronghold) and elsewhere (in the case of the former ‘Operation Forward Together’), and elsewhere appears to have all the effectiveness of applying band aids in an effort to cope with a raging fever.
What, then are the true alternatives, for American policy in Iraq? These can be framed along three (3) lines:
One, withdrawal scenario. This scenario which has been recently put forth by various commentators, and American politicians (the best of which is probably Kevin Drum, see blog in: www.washingtonmonthly.com). In essence it argues for announcing `a la ‘Urbi et Orbi’, to all the Iraqi factions: Sunni, Shiite and Kurds, and the many others as well, that, come what may, American forces will, on day X withdraws from the country. The thinking behind this option is that only by facing the prospect of out and out civil war, will all or most of the contending factions, agree to ‘compromise’, and cobble together some type of ‘solution’. At first blush, this proposal appears to have the logic of a ‘clean break’, of ‘radical surgery’, behind it. And, yet when carefully looked at, this ‘solution’ appears to be an example of a ‘cure’ which is far worse than the disease that it aims to remedy. The requisite examples from history, are not very reassuring, id est, the British announcement of the end of the Raj, in 1947 in the Indian Sub-continent, and their almost simultaneous announcement, of the end of the Mandate in Palestine. In both cases of course, the run-up to the deadline featured growing amounts of communal violence, which of course, escalated still further, once the ‘date’ in question had passed. In the case of Iraq, it will be reasonable to assume that the following will likely to happen once: all of the parties will increase their levels of violence, and in particular, to secure strong points, in Baghdad and elsewhere to be able to triumph quickly, once the Americans withdraw from the country. In the Kurdish region, this will involve a short but sharp bloodbath in the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, with the Kurds ousting the Sunni Arabs from both cities, in order to fully control the oil fields in the vicinity. Whether or not, Turkey would standby and, allow the Kurdish regional government to in essence form a de facto independent Kurdistan, is unknowable at this time. In the south of the country, around Basra, and heading north, Shiites would gradually, and bloodily assume complete control. Persia, would pump in, both money and perhaps even ‘volunteers’, to assist Shiites militias in the fighting. In the west of the country, bordering on Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Sunni insurgents would attempt, to set-up their own statelet, no doubt receiving both men and assistance from the neighboring Sunni Arab regimes. Although, in absence of a major effort, of direct military intervention by any of them, the inevitable result will be an Shiite Iraq, allied with, Persia. Of course to reach this ‘goal’, there will be a large number of innocent dead, beforehand. As per the query: was the goal that originally motivated American policy back in 2003, that gentle reader is something which you can just as well answer as I…
So, the ‘withdrawal’ scheme, appears to be, from the standpoint of American policy, not entirely a happy one. What of the second scenario which has been floating around in ‘think tank’ world? That would consist of something which can be labeled ‘decentralization’ strategy, Leslie Gelb of the Council of Foreign Relations being the earliest and best know backer of this scheme (see the July/August issue of the periodical Foreign Affairs). In essence, this strategy would tack onto the existing tendency of Iraqis towards separatism, and just codify it, in a legal and constitutional way. The north of the country would see A Kurdish federation, which would be all but independent of Iraq, and, which be a bastion of American power and influence (presumably American forces would remain in this region, even after they withdrew from the rest of Iraq). The west of the country, would see a Sunni regional government, which would soon, no doubt become a hotbed of Sunni extremist forces, either homegrown or foreign. As the poorest and weakest of the three pegs, now forming the country, there would appear to be little in the way incentives, for this region to co-operate with the other two segments of the country. Lack of oil resources in particular will be a sore point. And, while it can be argued that it is precisely the lack therein, which should make the Sunni’s co-operate, if the recent past is any predictor, ‘sweet reason’, does not appear to be the basis of much of Sunni Arab political activity or motivation in Iraq.
In the southern portion of the country, a Shiite regional government, would also tend to become a hotbed of potential extremist activity, as well as a centre of Persian Influence. Both military and diplomatic. In fact, as the Americans will be to the Kurds, so the Persians will be to Shiites around Basra in the south. And, while under such a scheme, Baghdad, would be nominally, an ‘independent’ centre, it is more than likely, that it will also become part and parcel of the Shiite portion of the country. Under Persian prompting, and, no doubt assistance, it is not unlikely that the Shiites will attempt to re-centralize the country, `a la the Baath party model, with the Shiite parties of the UIA, merely substituting for the former. Again, as it the first ‘alternative’, the short-term, much less the long-term prospects for American interests in Iraq, under this scenario do not look very bright indeed.
Another ‘alternative’ bandied about, is merely ‘staying the course’, and attempting through a mixture of involving other regional players (the Sunni Arab countries, Persia), the UN, the EU, to pressure the three parties in Iraq to agree to work out some type of acceptable framework for all the parties to agree to (the leading proponent of this thesis is probably the American academic, Larry Diamond, see the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs). Why the EU, the UN, or indeed the regional actors, all of whom have their own axes to grind, and, all of whom, presumably have already indicated to their Iraqi protégés, what they would like them to do, could at this late date, ‘solve’ via some sort of regional conference, Iraq’s tottering state, is less than clear. If the USA, with 135,000 troops under command, and one of its better ambassador’s, cannot manage to pacify the situation, why should the finger waving of some UN or EU figures do much better? Do they command more respect by virtue of how they wave their fingers?
The final, alternative, which I will not describe in depth here, because it is not realistic, either from an Iraqi or American (domestic) perspective is flood the country with troops (250,000, 350,000, 500,000?), and, drown the insurgency and the sectarians in blood (Iraqi blood of course). Aside from a few dimwitted Ideologues like Christopher Hitchens, and, his ilk, no one either advocates the above policy. Not even former proponents like Senator John McCain. As the British say, its ‘by sale date’, has effectively passed as practical policy and politics.
So gentle reader, where do we go from here?
Iraq, is currently a mess of semi-historical proportions. A dysfunctional country, made more so, by American dreams of ‘Democratization’, and “demonstration projects”, in the Near East. Well those dreams have turned into a veritable nightmare. For both Iraqis and Americans, much more for the former of course. “What is to be done?” First, let us cross out, those alternatives, which are much more problematic both in the Iraqi and the regional context. These would include: setting a timetable for withdrawal, now, without any agreement by the warring parties, much less the insurgents about running the country. The end result of such a move by the USA, would be twofold as we saw above: increased violence, by all sides, and an out and out civil war, which would be won, by Persian backed parties, who would (at least temporarily) open the flood gates to Persian influence in the country; the de-centralization strategy, would have the same pitfalls, of course. With the only saving grace, is that at least American forces will remain in the Kurdish area, thus at the very least, not completely losing all hopes of influence in the country. Of course, with either of these scenarios, American influence in the region as a whole, will decline drastically. It will be seen, that Persia, will be the big winner, from the American destruction of the Hussein regime. Something already posited by various commentators (see the Chatham House study: “Iran, its Neighbors, and the Regional Crises” @ www.chathamhouse.org.uk). In this atmosphere, to simply ‘scuttle’, and withdraw prematurely would be to ensure that the USA, and the West in general would reap the whirlwind both in Iraq proper and in the region as a whole.
In essence, the only sensible strategy at this time, to ‘stay the course’. Not in the hope that Iraq can be salvaged, and made into a plausible or even a semi-plausible Democratic society. Or even a civil, semi-normal society. The demons which are currently afflicting Iraqi society are deep-rooted, and some American placebo will not effect a cure anytime soon. Perhaps, if Bush et al., had not been in charge of things circa the fall of 2002, then indeed, things might have been different. Although, it is much more likely that the time for a strategy of ‘overthrow’ of Hussein was in 1991- 1992, and not 2003. But, that is an academic exercise for another occasion. The only advantage of this particular course, is that it will allow the USA, and its (remaining) allies, to position themselves for a ‘decent interval’, before withdrawing most troops in say 2009 or 2010. What one may ask will occur by then? Two things: one, further bloodshed, of Iraqis killing each other, allow its horrible effect to work on the Iraqi psyche. Just as the Lebanese Civil War ended with mutual exhaustion, so, will the current conflict in Iraq. In absence of flooding the country with American troops, there is no other plausible scenario to an end to this ongoing conflict. Sad but true. Second, the presence of American forces, will enable the conflict to remain in bounds, and not to spark off, a wider, regional conflict involving outside powers. Additionally, the mere presence of a (limited) number of American boots on the ground, will at the very least, give the lie, to the idea that Persia and things Persian is the wave of the future in both Iraq and in the region as a whole. The complete withdrawal of American forces, or a decentralization strategy, would have, as we have seen above, the upshot of not only confirming the existing level of Persian influence, but, potentially radically increasing it. And, while Persia does need to be accommodated diplomatically, that can only be done, from a ‘position of strength’ (to quote Dean Acheson), rather than one of weakness. And, it is concerning the question of ‘what to do about Persia’, that we shall deal presently in our next contribution.