A regional war after a U.S. pullout?

Jeff Weintraub thinks it’s possible, and doesn’t see how the “surge” does anything to stop it.

Jeff Weintraub, who teaches at Penn while not blogging here, sends some grim thoughts on the Iraqi situation, prompted by my reflections on the possibility of a coup. I don’t entirely agree with Jeff (see post immediately above), but he knows more about the Middle East than I do by a considerable margin, and he gives a clear-eyed and unflinching view of a horrible situation.

The whole strategy of the so-called Sunni Arab “insurgency” (which essentially parallels that of the Redeemer Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan during Radical Reconstruction) has been based on the premise that if they could detonate a full-scale sectarian civil war and get the US troops to leave, then they could crush the Shiites in a straight head-to-head fight. Well, they’ve succeeded in setting off the sectarian bloodbath they were looking for, and I suspect they may well get the withdrawal of US troops, too. This ‘success’ may lead to catastrophe for the Sunni Arab community in Iraq, but clearly they’ve been making different calculations (though not all of them).

On the other hand, once the Shiite political leadership gave up trying to prevent reprisals, they’re increasingly exasperated by US attempts to keep them from doing the same thing to the Sunni Arabs. The main figure who used to represent this option on the Shiite side was Muqtada al-Sadr, but since last February an increasing range of Shiite political forces agree with him. I suspect that this might also turn out to be a disastrous miscalculation (not least because the “insurgents” can probably decapitate much of the Shiite political and religious leadership), but what they think matters more than what we think. Each side now has significant political forces who believe they have a chance to crush the other in a head-to-head fight. This has been a key secret to the whole process over the past 6 months.

The big difference from the post-Civil War US south is that after federal troops withdrew, the different groups there were on their own. This helps to explain why important forces in both the Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab communities are convinced they can crush the other, if the US gets out of the way. The Sunni Arabs are not only counting on the fact that they constituted most of the officer corps in the old Iraqi army and can draw on surviving Ba’athist military, secret-police, and other organizational networks that they have been using to great effect in the terrorist campaign against Shiite civilians. They are also counting on the fact that Sunni Arabs are a regional majority, and they expect to get strong support from the whole Arab world (as the Saudis have been signaling they will). On the other hand, even though they constantly describe Iraqi Shiites as agents of Iran, they seem oddly oblivious to the significance of that country. It’s clear that the parallel conclusion drawn Iraqi Shiite forces is that, if they’re abandoned by the Americans, they can count on support from Iran. At all events, if and when the US does pull out (and it’s starting to look more like “when”, perhaps camouflaged by some decent interval), then they will be forced into the arms of Iran, like it or not, out of simple desperation.

One implication of all this is that a US abandonment of Iraq &#8212 either in a quick and straightforward way or camouflaged by a Kissingerian “decent interval” strategy &#8212 really is likely to lead to pretty awful results. So the only morally acceptable argument for it is that it’s inevitably going to happen at some point whatever we do, so the US ought to admit (to itself) that the situation is hopeless and let it happen rather than postponing the inevitable. I’m not totally convinced that’s true, but I can’t feel very confident that it’s not true (partly &#8212 but only partly &#8212 because this conclusion is self-fulfilling). This is now a mess with no good options. At all events, everything else is just a distraction or evasion (including most of the ISG report’s recommendations).

Which brings us to the current Bush/Cheney alternative, the so-called “surge” option. It doesn’t appear to make much sense on the face of it, at least in simple military terms. So my guess is that it’s main purpose is political. That is (1) to signal the various parties in Iraq that they shouldn’t start acting on the assumption that a US withdrawal is inevitable, and (2) to test whether the Iraqi government, and Maliki in particular, is really willing and able to let the US take on the Sadrist militias as well as the Sunni “insurgents.” This probably does amount to a ‘test’ for Maliki that many people on the US side expect him to fail (though this does not at all fit the Ngo Dinh Diem analogy you mentioned), and that in turn would make sense in terms of two possible contingencies. Either (a) some of the Shiite groups (e.g., Hakim & SCIRI) have signaled that they’re willing to go for an alternative coalition that would pursue this strategy, or else (b) this is the Bush II administration’s version of a bug-out strategy they can blame on the Iraqis, while also creating enough of a “decent interval” that they can kick the can down the road to the next President.

I’m still trying to figure this out. But I don’t think either Bush II or the ISG or most advocates of a US pullout are facing these issues really seriously.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com