“Stay the course.” If one repeats a mantra enough times it can become inseparable from one’s political persona. So what do you do when the pressure to change that view has become so great that to deny it would appear even more stupendously stubborn? The answer, it seems, is to say you’re not really changing anything.
Despite saying for months, even years, that those calling for a timetable for withdrawal are foolish, the Bush administration has now announced it plans to implement “benchmarks” in its Iraq strategy.
Allow me to play analyst for a bit.
Unfortunately, it seems that “staying the course”, “benchmarks”, and a timetable are all inherently flawed strategies, because they neglect the root of Iraq’s problems. If we stay the course, our troops will be caught in the middle of a bloody civil war. If we leave now, Iraqis will fight a blood civil war.
Why? Iraq is at its heart an unnatural state. Of course, many national boundaries have no connection to historical or ethnic realities, and many of those nations work (while others host the world’s bloodiest conflicts) . The problem is that in Iraq the current violence seems to be exasperating tensions between religious and ethnic groups that might have otherwise lived in peace.
Based on the escalation of Iraqi-vs.-Iraqi violence since the invasion of Iraq, we basically have two choices: Divide Iraq into three states now, or watch the Iraqis (or more directly, the extremists on all sides) ethnically cleanse themselves into three states.
One of my favorite books about the Middle East is called A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which explores the history that led to the creation of such unnatural states as Iraq. (I particular enjoyed the sections describing the role of Winston Churchill in those events).
From historical accounts like this, and current events, it appears the only forces capable of holding Iraqi together have been oligarchy and the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein. For much of Hussein’s rule we found it useful to strongly support him as a foil to communism and Iran. Many of the war crimes Saddam is now being prosecuted for were pursued during his time as our ally. (Of course, this should surprise no one in light of our current support of Pakistan and Egypt).
And the oligarchic approach doesn’t seem to be working today. Juan Cole’s article at The Nation opines, “In a similar fashion, the US-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority has attempted to rule Iraq by using communal and religious leaders and corrupt expatriate politicians–the modern analogues of the tribal chieftains of an earlier era.”
In general, I think the analysis in Cole’s article is correct. A long-term occupation would be most conducive to democracy (and the least likely to be supported by the American populace) while a short term occupation (like leaving now) would likely lead to an authoritarian government. To this I add the option of a civil war resulting in two or three states, assuming the conflict ends without a clear victory by some despot.
The problem with a three-state solution, of course, is that Iraq’s neighbors hate the idea. The Turks spend enough of their money (and ours) suppressing their Kurdish rebels. A truly independent (as opposed to more or less autonomous) Kurdistan in northern Iraq would spell huge trouble for Turkey’s sovereignty in its eastern provinces. And Iran and Saudia Arabia aren’t about to consent to what Iraq might become. And the Sunnis would lose their oil of course.
So there are significant obstacles to overcome, and significant bloodshed ahead. But, given the stakes, I think pursuing a three-state solution is the only option that has a high probability of eventually resulting in regional stability. Until that is achieved, it will never really be “Mission Accomplished”.