Sunday, July 08, 2007

A Wedged Bear in a Great Tightness

Stumbled on an interesting discussion between two historians about the future of US involvement in Iraq
Sally Marks: Whither Iraq?
A few people, including Senator Joseph Biden and General Anthony Zinni, worry that if we leave and Iraq explodes, the whole Middle East will explode as well. If that happens, we shall be immensely lucky if the only serious consequences for us are skyrocketing oil prices, leaving us nostalgic for the days when gas was only $3.50 a gallon and we could afford to heat our homes, and a global recession or depression. But we might not be so lucky, and our government–or another player--might commit a new blunder in Iraq, Iran, or elsewhere–which brings us to the worst case of all, nuclear war.

Of the nuclear powers, Russia alone is an oil exporter. However, though it no longer borders on Gulf states, it still considers the Persian Gulf part of its Near Abroad, meaning its backyard which it regards much as
the United States has long viewed the Caribbean. Of the others, China is extremely oil thirsty and a power to be taken seriously as it emulates American development of a century ago and quietly penetrates much of Africa economically while buying up our debt and financial firms. India is thirsty, too. Pakistan, to the east of Afghanistan, is Sunni, an oil importer with a precarious pro-American president and an army and intelligence leadership inclined toward Islamic fundamentalism. It and
India, both nuclear states, are perpetually on the brink of war over Kashmir. In the Middle East itself is Israel, nuclear and a likely monkey wrench in possible solutions. Then there is Europe, including two nuclear states (Britain and France) plus Germany, and the United States, as well as non-nuclear Japan. Historians famously do not predict, but it
is obvious that the scramble for oil or other unstable factors and perhaps blunders in the Middle East and related areas could create a crisis leading to a global explosion. Clearly, the time for oratory about victory or defeat is past. Concentration now should be on limiting the disaster and doing our utmost to ensure it does not turn into utter

Among the imponderables is the problem of Al Qaeda, which gained entry into Iraq during the chaos after our conquest and has since spread, becoming brutally inventive. We pursue it, but our main focus is on Baghdad, where progress is slow and the Iraqi army’s ability to hold what US forces gain is questionable. Along with other insurgencies, we must deal with Al Qaeda, though rhetoric about “If we don’t fight them there, we’ll have to fight them here” is nonsense. Al Qaeda will attempt further atrocities here, whatever we do in Iraq. Beyond pursuing it (preferably with the aid of tribal sheiks) and trying to train a reliable Iraqi army and police, if that is possible, we must restore the Gulf balance of power in order to keep the peace. For a year, I have queasily wondered whether we would end up with our troops in several heavily fortified bastions watching Iraqis slaughter each other. That is now being discussed. In any event, it seems unlikely that any American president will seriously consider full withdrawal in the next five or six years at least, given all the potential consequences.

David Kaiser: Options in Iraq
I certainly agree that the United States government has brought an almost unprecedented catastrophe upon us, similar in some ways to the Austro-Hungarian decision to attack Serbia without sufficient diplomatic preparation in 1914, although nowhere near as serious, since Iraq is not on our doorstep and since nations no longer field armies in the millions. However, it is possible--actually, I think, probable--that what we have done (which cannot in any case be undone) is to accelerate something that was already happening: the rise of Islamic fundamentalist movements and the eclipse of the regimes that have ruled much of the region in cooperation with western powers since the 1950s. This has been happening for a long time. Iran, of course, overthrew its American client ruler in 1979. Earlier, Iraq had become an anti-western, totalitarian state, albeit one that could play a role in maintaining a balance of power in the region (as she points out), and one which, alas, allowed most of its people to live normal and even productive lives while nurturing an active middle class--things which Iraqis (except in Kurdistan) are now unlikely to know for decades. Pro-western regimes have been losing ground in Egypt since Sadat's assassination, and the Saudi kingdom is in many ways not pro-western at all. Pakistan is heading down the same road. Meanwhile, Hamas and Hezbollah are gaining.

The issue we face is whether keeping troops in Iraq, as Prof. Marks wants to do, will help arrest this trend. I think it is far, far more likely to accelerate it. Western occupation is a terrifically effective target for Islamist movements. To put it bluntly, it proves (to millions of Arabs) that we are just as bad as they say we are. What we have in the non-Kurdish areas is our own version of the West Bank, but without settlers. There is no reason to believe that we shall be any more successful than the Israelis have been in securing popular Arab support for our presence or even in dealing with opposition. (Our intelligence is never going to be anywhere near as good as theirs.)

Iraq, she says, is fragile, but indispensable. Well, so was the Austro-Hungarian empire, as it turns out, but it died anyway. As Peter Galbraith has pointed out, Iraq for the moment is the only survivor of four multi-ethnic states created after the First World War, the others being Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. There really is no evidence now that any major group in Iraq wants a truly united, pluralistic Iraq (although the Sunnis would like to return to the days that they ruled the roost and some Shi'ites would like to dominate the Sunnis.) I don't see any reason for the United States not to encourage a de facto partition, under some "autonomy" scheme, combined with some peaceful population transfers, before all the transfers are accomplished through mass violence.

The problem of course is getting loose without triggering the worst case scenario is going to be fiendishly difficult, akin to removing all of the cards of a Suit from a house of cards without collapsing the whole thing. Turkey's army is poised at the border, itching to take the war to the Kurds. Iran and Saudi are both involved in proxy war. Once we head for the door will will have no friends inside Iraq (or perhaps rather everyone will be honest about their friendship or lack thereof with the US). We are in a horrible predicament, one that is going to become more clear, and more dire, with the passage of time. Coupled with that, if the new president cannot get free, the domestic political dynamic is going to get even uglier.

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