Monday, May 21, 2007

Framing Iraq 

Anyone who is not trying to gain partisan advantage should think seriously about the best Iraq policy for the United States in the coming months and years. The purpose of this post is to propose a framework for considering both the Bush administration's policy and alternative policies offered by both the right and left. Toward that end, I offer a series of minimalist assertions, delightfully free of evidence and supporting linkage. Each assertion or question is numbered; please comment below with reference to the corresponding number. (Background note: Newer readers may want to look at the most recent edition of my "victory conditions" post, published about a year ago at The Belmont Club. It includes my basic thinking about the intersection of al Qaeda and rogue states.)

I. Our geopolitical interests in Iraq

The geopolitical interests of the United States and its allies in Iraq are numerous and in some cases conflicting. There is no single dominating interest. Rather, they are best described as alternatives, with one alternative being better than the other(s) if we set all other interests equal.

Setting all other interests equal (and in no particular order),

I-1. We are better off if Iraq has the capability and the will to interdict international terrorists (whether Sunni jihadis or Shiite radicals) than if it does not. Interdiction in this context includes the prevention of attacks on American or allied targets outside Iraq that have been planned, trained for, supplied, armed, manned, funded, or launched from Iraq, and denying refuge to people who have done any of those things.

I-2. We are better off if the government of Iraq and its domestic allies (including, if necessary, domesticated militia) can and will interdict international terrorists without our direct military involvement than with our direct military involvement. This is because our direct military involvement costs dollars and casualties that we would prefer not to spend.

I-3. We are better off if we have the option of using some of the military bases that we have built in Iraq for the long term than if we do not have that option.

I-4. We are better off if the government of Iraq is an active ally of the United States than if it is not. By "active ally" I mean generally supportive of the United States in geopolitical matters.

I-5. We are better off if the government of Iraq promotes a civil society that discourages or prevents expansionist Islamism or another form of destabilizing despotism than if it does not.

I-6. We are better off if Iraq does not pose a threat in fact to neighbors that might respond with destabilizing armament programs or actual military action.

I-7. We are better off if Iraq's geopolitical neighbors do not perceive Iraq to pose a threat than if they do.

I-8. We are better off if Iraq generally frustrates Iran's geopolitical objectives than if it generally promotes them.

I-9. We are better off if Iraq's ethnic groups -- the Shiites, the Sunni Arabs, the Turkmen and, of course, the Kurds -- do not promote their own transnational solidarity than if they do.

I-10. We are better off if Iraq is able to pump and export its oil than if it cannot. More controversial subpoint: We don't care about the nation of incorporation of the particular oil companies that export Iraqi oil, only that they do so.

I-11. We are better off if other great powers -- such as Russia and China -- are not able to exert significant influence over Iraq than if they do.

I-12. We prefer that there not be a massive humanitarian crisis in Iraq either during our occupation or after our withdrawal. We prefer this both for humanitarian reasons and because we know that many people in the world, including those who actually cause that crisis, will use it for propaganda purposes against us for years to come.

If you are inclined to comment, please propose additional American interests that I might have missed or take issue with those offered above.

II. The military, political and geopolitical circumstances of Iraq, including the interests of others

While I have read much more on Iraq than the average aware American, there are many people in the world, including readers of this blog, who know more about that sorry land than I do. That said, most public discussion of the path forward assumes widespread agreement over the status quo when in fact there is no such consensus. The statements below reflect my beliefs about the status quo, based on my own reading, but they may not prove correct or hold up to more expert or thoughtful scrutiny.

II-1. Inside Iraq, there has yet to emerge a leader or combination of leaders with the combination of charisma, bureaucratic competence, reputation, and vision to lead a unified Iraq and secure a substantial monopoly on the use of force in that country.

II-2. It is not clear whether the failure of Iraqi leaders to emerge is because (i) there are no such people after the suffocation of the Ba'athist years, (ii) such leaders can not emerge while the United States occupies Iraq (this might be because they do not want to appear as American lackeys, or because such leaders would want to use tactics that American officials would have to oppose), or (iii) such leaders are not inclined to step forward when they cannot secure their own lives or those of their family. There is a good possibility that all three reasons are true.

II-3. Notwithstanding the absence of effective national leadership, most individual Iraqis would be better off in a unified country than in a divided Iraq.

II-4. The United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would much prefer that Iraq stay unified, although Turkey and Saudi Arabia have markedly different preferences regarding the rights of regional and ethnic minorities (Turkey, which is afraid of Kurdish nationalism, does not want strong minority rights, but Saudi Arabia, which is concerned with the status of Iraqi Sunnis and worried about a powerful Shiite state on its northern border, does).

II-5. The United States prefers Iraq to stay unified because it increases the chances that it will act as an effective buffer to Iranian expansionism, thereby decreasing the insecurity of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs, and because a fragmented Iraq might have unpoliced spaces from which al Qaeda and Hezbollah could launch international attacks.

II-6. Contrary to the unsupported assertion of the Iraq Study Group, it is far from clear that Iran prefers a unified Iraq to at least some of the alternatives. In particular, a pliant Shiite client state in southern Iraq would increase Iran's strategic options in the Persian Gulf. Iran would have to balance this against the risk of unchecked Iraqi Kurdish nationalism and direct intervention from increasingly insecure Sunni Arab states.

II-7. Al Qaeda strongly opposes the unification of Iraq under any imaginable regime. Not only have the jihadis repeatedly demonstrated this through their actions, which have had the purpose of fomenting division within Iraq more than the eviction of the United States, but it stands to reason. In the absence of a supportive regime (such as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan), al Qaeda needs "open spaces" within failed states.

II-8. In short, a unified Iraq would allow, or have a chance to allow, many more of the favorable outcomes set forth in the first section above than two or three devolved sub-states would achieve.

II-9. A national leader or leadership for Iraq would have -- broadly speaking -- four means for unifying the country: (i) conquest, which would be extremely bloody given the relative military parity among the three main ethnic groups, (ii) sharing the spoils, or some less unsavory form of legalized bribery, (iii) nationalism, and (iv) negotiation followed by agreement among the elites who can deliver large constituents into a national grand bargain.

II-10. Conquest, which is really coercion through violence, might take two forms. If the United States participates -- as it is at the moment with the "surge" -- it will be less brutal, less likely to involve indirect or even direct intervention from regional powers, more ecumenical, and less "legitimate" in the eyes of many Iraqis, virtually all other Arabs and Muslims, and most of the rest of the world. If the United States withdraws, the coercion to unify the country will be more brutal by orders of magnitude, more likely to involve regional powers (virtually all of which are unconstrained in their willingness to brutalize their adversaries), more aligned along tribal and confessional lines, and -- paradoxically -- more legitimate in the eyes of most of the world. The legitimacy of any war to maintain Iraq's unity is important, because it is directly related to the sustainability of the surviving authority over the long term.

II-11. My best guess is that a strong and legitimate government of a unified Iraq will emerge more quickly if the United States withdraws. This is because the international journalists will mostly leave if the United States leaves, so the combatants will be free to use brutal methods that will more quickly and decisively exhaust the losers' will to fight. Unfortunately, we cannot reliably predict the nature of that ultimate national government.

II-12. It is possible that the slaughter following the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq will be terrible to behold. Your view of America's culpability for that slaughter will depend on whether you generally regard Iraqis as having the free will, or as having been buffeted by events beyond their control. In any case, it will be very difficult to predict the geopolitical consequences of that slaughter, because it depends on the nature and strength of the government that ultimately emerges.

II-13. Bribery (or other sharing of the spoils of mineral extraction) is a necessary but insufficient basis for unifying the country. The entire interested world should press Iraq to develop a reasonably equitable means for distributing the proceeds from oil and gas across sectarian and tribal lines.

II-14. Nationalism for the nation of Iraq does not appear to be a particularly powerful force. If it were, opposition to the United States would be far more unified than it is. Indeed, such Iraqi nationalism as there is may be a function of the presence of foreign soldiers on Iraqi soil. The voluntary withdrawal of the United States would probably weaken Iraqi nationalism. Perhaps the result would be different if Iraqis built a national myth around the idea that they forcibly ejected the United States, but that would certainly be contrary to American interests in the region.

II-15. Negotiation has the advantage of not needing a single leader or group of leaders with national reach. It requires only sufficiently strong and legitimate regional and ethnic leadership, and the widespread realization that all the alternatives will be worse for virtually everybody than the voluntary sharing of power. To foreigners, and particularly the United States, negotiation and agreement is by far the most appealing means for unifying Iraq under a single government. It involves the least ugliness, and it would probably result in the most attractive form of government from the perspective of the United States and other Western countries. In all likelihood, a negotiated national bargain would probably permit the United States to achieve a large proportion of its preferred outcomes in Iraq. For this reason, the United States has pushed Iraqis to negotiate with each other for four years. We have not really been successful, though, because negotiations are very easy to disrupt. Assassination is an extremely effective means for deterring or interdicting discussion between tribal, ethnic, and confessional groups, yet this is exactly what must happen for there to be a negotiated national settlement. Indeed, it is hard to see how Iraq reaches a negotiated settlement without substantially more security for the people who need to forge a national compact.

II-16. The purpose of General Petraeus' "surge" strategy is therefore to foster a national settlement by negotiation. The surge may face long odds, and Iraqis may not in any case negotiate their way to a national government, but without the surge the only obvious path to a national government is through conquest and coercion. Since that is an awful prospect, it is hard to see why we would not at least try the surge, even if its chances for success were slim.

II-17. Recognizing that the most probable result is that the surge will fail and Iraq's leaders will not negotiate their way to a settlement, Iraq is therefore most likely to unify after one group of armed men succeeds in conquering or coercing the competing groups of armed men. There will be much more fighting before there is less.

II-18. Today, Iraq is filled with terrorists, insurgents, and militiamen who have taken up arms. Eventually, they will stop fighting in Iraq. When that happens, it will be because they have (i) died, suffered a debilitating injury, or gone to a prison substantially more brutal than any conceived in the office of the American SecDef; (ii) been co-opted or otherwise recruited into the army of the victorious side; (iii) laid down their arms and return to the fields and businesses and cities and villages; and (iv) left Iraq to wage war elsewhere. Many experts believe that Europe will be a principal target of the post-Iraq jihadi diaspora. So will Saudi Arabia and Iran.

II-19. Of the results in the list above, history suggests that (iii) almost never happens, and (i) and (ii) in most cases would be vastly preferable to (iv). (Outside the United States, Israel, and a tiny number of other countries, soldiers almost never lay down their arms to return happily to civilian life because their civilian life is miserable. Fighting confers more excitement and prestige than the ordinary tedium of civilian life, so civilian life has to be pretty good to drag insurgents out of their holes.)

II-20. There is one circumstance under which (iv) (an Iraqi jihadi diaspora) would be preferable to the co-opting of soldiers in the national government, and that is if the winning side has the inclination to bend the resources of the new Iraqi state to the services of transnational Islamic terrorism (whether Sunni or Shiite). This is because seasoned terrorists do a lot more damage when they have the resources of a state at their disposal.

II-21. At such time it becomes obvious that the Iraqis will not negotiate their way to a grand bargain without a much more violent internal struggle, America will need to decide whether there is a strategy that can influence the ultimate outcome in our favor.

Release the hounds.


By Blogger Cassandra, at Mon May 21, 08:29:00 AM:

Before I even read this TH, I spit out my coffee on this: delightfully free of evidence and supporting linkage.

That alone was worth the price of admission :p

I may not get to this until later but I will definitely read it.


By Blogger Harrywr2, at Mon May 21, 10:46:00 AM:

Iraq is a regional pivot point. A stable,peaceful somewhat neutral Iraq will create a stable region.

The Arabs, Turks, Kurds and Persians can't hold a proper war with each other without Iraq.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 21, 11:38:00 AM:

Dear TigerHawk:

For what it's worth, the U.S. government's latest intelligence estimate for Iraq, issued in January 2007, predicts three possible paths for Iraq should an effective Iraqi government fail to form and political reconciliation fail to occur:

1) chaos leading to partition,

2) emergence of a Shia strongman,

3) anarchic fragmentation of power.

If the U.S. is to retain influence inside Iraq, it looks like it will have to do so from the bottom up, through alliances with local tribes and leaders. A hundred years ago, the U.S. used to be quite skilled at this sort of thing, but over the past few decades seems to have largely lost its touch. Is the U.S. only now getting this skill back?  

By Blogger Jason Pappas, at Mon May 21, 01:51:00 PM:

That sums up the problems and prospects quite accurately. All good points but let me throw my 2 cents worth by singling out one.

II-11, correctly notes the difficulty of an emerging Iraqi faction that will "be free to use brutal methods that will more quickly and decisively exhaust the losers' will to fight" while we're in power. This is true if it is clear we sanction or allow the brutality. If we decry it, nominally oppose it, and cite it as a reason to dig-in our heels, the press may barely report it to avoid "playing into Bush's hands." Never underestimate Bush Derangement Syndrome.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Mon May 21, 03:00:00 PM:

Using the paragraph numbers:

I-9. There is already close to something that could be considered a de facto Kurdistan, which appears to be the most stable and economically productive part of Iraq. The Kurds had a bit of head start over the central part of Iraq because of the umbrella of American air supremacy (the northern no-fly zone of 1991-2003)Any part of Iraq that is stable is a good thing, even if it disturbs Turkey, as Kurdish independence noises tend to do. Setting aside the fact that Turkey was not helpful in the final planning stages of the March 2003 take down of Saddam's regime, and that it is therefore not clear that the U.S. needs to greatly consider Istanbul's viewpoint on an independent Kurdistan, Istanbul might be content with a policy of promoting Kurdistan if international financial aid was available to help or to provide an incentive to Kurds living in southeastern Turkey to emigrate to Kurdistan. Turks don't want its Kurds to be a breakaway republic and cede any Turkish soil, but may not mind if Turkish Kurds leave to move south. A medium-sized American military base in Kurdistan would make both the Turks and Kurds content, and has the added benefit of annoying Tehran. So, to the extent that the promotion of "their own transnational solidarity" helps the Kurds establish a more stable society in the north, and an accommodation with Turkey can be reached, I think this comports with U.S. interests.

I-11. Russia and China do not have parallel interests in Iraq, since Russia is a net oil producer and China a big net consumer. China would be happy with $25/bbl spot oil, Russia would not. If (in an admittedly whacky hypothetical) China volunteers tomorrow to send in a force of 750,000 to pacify Iraq (using Tibet-style ROEs) and replace U.S. forces over a short while, how would that damage U.S. interests, except for the setback to the promotion of democracy in the region (which fewer Americans seem to care about)? It would put Beijing in the crosshairs of Islamist rage, but Islamist terrorists might have a bit of a hard time acting on that rage in China.

II-17. I am uncomfortable with the notion that one can proceed with a military operation believing that it is not likely to succeed. I think that it is moral to risk casualties on your own side if there is a reasonable chance of victory; otherwise, it seems to me that you are tossing away the lives of soldiers in an enterprise that amounts to a really futile and stupid gesture (apologies to Delta House) that puts us a step closer to the desperate and irrational mentality of the kamikazes of 1945 and the suicide bombers of today. This is not like investing in a start-up that a might have a 1 in 5 shot of being a winner (do enough of those and your grand slam home runs more than make up for the strike outs) -- the lives of your own people and others are at stake.

Not to have the tail wag the dog here, or get too far off topic, but in framing the Iraq debate in the U.S., one of the biggest concerns for a centrist (or conservative) would be the extent to which the lack of clear success of the American enterprise in Iraq has empowered the left wing of the Democratic Party, much as it was empowered when the Vietnam War was perceived to have stalemated in the late sixties and early seventies. What are the domestic policy and national security consequences to the U.S. over the next decade if otherwise sober Democratic politicians must consider the (primary) electoral consequences of not kowtowing to certain factions of the party? Who wants to be the next Joe Lieberman? Or Harry Reid relenting with respect to Fox as a debate sponsor because Kos said it was bad? For anyone who believes in governing from the center, and has little patience for the wingers on the right or left (Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich), the domestic political consequences of failure in Iraq are potentially very profound, and perhaps the subject of another thread.  

By Blogger D.E. Cloutier, at Mon May 21, 10:28:00 PM:

The damn problem with this whole worldwide conflict is that many people in the U.S. seem to be on the wrong side in the political debate.

The liberals should be saying, "We will pay any price and bear any burden to guarantee human rights in Islamic countries." And the social conservatives should be saying, "Hey, wait a minute. Most Muslims believe in family values."  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue May 22, 06:04:00 PM:

The single biggest mitigating factor in the TigerHawk 'thought experiment' scenario is the reality and perception of Iran, in Iraq.
If Iraq is viewed as 'player' that can bring stability and assistance to Iraq, any number of bad outcomes are possible by consciously empowering Iran. Sort of like aquiescing to the German occupation of the Sudetenland, then all of Czechoslovakia, in the prelude to WWII.
If Iran, as presently constituted, is seen as a threat to Iraq (which I believe is true, and to the rest of the ME, in general), this could be a unifying theme for the Iraqi nation, such as it is.

There is no lack of awareness of just what Iran is up to, just how deeply it has penetrated into the public consciousness of all the Iraqi people. And just how much "truth" can be told to them.

Iran wishes to be the Hegemon of the Middle East, and in turn all of the Islamic World. If they are successful in subverting Iraq, which they have been working at since before OIF, their brand of militant Islam will spread to other countries in the Arabian peninsula. Dominoes, anyone?


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