For the last few years American politics have been dominated by Iraq, and this isn’t likely to change. In fact, opinion polling showed again and again that Iraq is right up there with terrorism and the economy as the most important issues for voters. While I had a strong preference in this election, it wasn’t based on the war because I believe both parties’ policies (or lack thereof) on Iraq are doomed to fail.
First, as the Republicans haven’t been shy to point out, the Democrats have failed to articulate a clear position. The Democrats seem split between the urge to stay the course and hope things get better and the urge to drop everything now because we’ve suffered too many losses.
The so-called “cut and run” strategy favored by many on the left is exemplified by Cindy Sheehan. Every compassionate person should sympathize with the loss of her son, a soldier in Iraq.
But while some of my peers see Sheehan’s anti-war stance as a clarion call of truth, a prophetic voice in the desert, to me she has all the grating appeal of a shrill reactionary.
Are we as Americans wholly unwilling to sacrifice for a good cause? Regardless of the initial rationale for the invasion, or the morality of that action, pulling out now could result in absolute chaos, and we would be responsible.
The world is full of hot spots, potential genocidal regimes, conflict-induced famines and other situations that may morally necessitate intervention by the U.S. and other powerful nations to prevent atrocities.
Our unique sensitivity to American casualties is to some degree a testament to our dislike of war, but it kept us from doing a lot of good in Somalia (the incident portrayed in Black Hawk Down) and in places like Rwanda and Sudan.
On the other hand, the Republicans have rallied behind President Bush and his mantra of “stay the course”. This was recently moderated (largely due the political pressure of Tuesday’s elections) to having “benchmarks” for withdrawal—a slightly more nuanced view, but quite similar in most respects.
Some Democrats have rather correctly called Bush’s “stay the course” what it is: “stand still and lose.” Our strategy simply isn’t working. Despite the improvements we may have made to some portions of Iraqi society, both the sectarian violence and the flow of refugees out of Iraq have steadily increased.
The only policy direction that, in my opinion seems viable in the long term is largely absent from the debate: a three-state solution.
Why? Iraq is at its heart an unnatural state, a creation of British imperialists who cobbled together long-opposed tribal districts. David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace explores the history of the Middle East after the fall of Ottoman Empire, revealing that Iraq was created for the convenience of its rulers, with virtually no correspondence to ethnic and religious realities on the ground. Following imperialism, it took a tyrant like Saddam Hussein to hold Iraq together.
In a similar situation, Yugoslavia was only held together by imperial and dictatorial communist rule, and ethnic nationalism flared back up after the fall of Tito. While an early military intervention might have prevented a downward spiral of violence in what was to become Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, at some point separation becomes the only workable option.
After Saddam Hussein was deposed, an occupation by a much more powerful American force might have been able to use crushing force prevent anti-American and sectarian violence and secure Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria. But our failure to have a large enough force on hand and a lack of planning allowed an increase in violence that has steadily increased.
I believe Iraq has reached a breaking point. Ethnic and inter-religious tensions have been exasperated to the point that maintaining a viable, tolerant multiethnic nation would require a level of force and commitment that the American public is simply not willing to sustain.
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 accurately, the extremists on all sides) ethnically cleanse themselves into three states after we withdraw.
The reason a three-state solution of Kurdish, Shi’a and Sunni regions hasn’t gained strong support is that Iraq’s neighbors hate the idea. Iran and Turkey fear independent Iraqi Kurds because their countries hold their own Kurdish separatist movements. Also, enclaves in Iraq lack of clear boundaries, Baghdad is divided, and a number of minorities could suffer persecution in divided states just as the states of the former Yugoslavia struggle with minority rights.
These problems might be moderated by moving Iraq toward a loose federation that gives regions significant autonomy, and allows some sharing of oil revenues. This would make Iraq’s neighbors uneasy, but less so than full independence. And again, if segments of Iraq are likely to separate themselves through the process of war after the Americans depart anyway, giving people the choice to move now might curtail future violence.
I hope I’m wrong; the process would be messy and result in more loss of life before the situation could ever stabilize. But regardless of what Democrats and Republicans claimed in their campaign speeches, neither of the presently espoused strategies seems likely to succeed.