gulf warThere’s increasing attention — and pressure on liberal and moderate presidential candidates to state their position — on how best to extricate ourselves from the expensive and unnecessary war in Iraq. There seem to be two schools of thought:

  1. We need to turn over governance of the country to Iraqi nationals under UN supervision immediately, and end US military presence.
  2. We need to hang in for the long haul, helping Iraqis to rebuild and democratize their infrastructure and not handing over control until we’re sure peace and democracy will ensue.

There is no question in my mind that both alternatives will be bloody, and embarrassing to the US. Although I would agree with this Salon editor (who favours the second approach) that Iraq is no Vietnam, I disagree strongly that long-term foreign military presence has any hope whatsoever of leading to a peaceful and democratic future for Iraq. in fact, Iraq resembles more closely the balkanized Yugoslavia after the death of Tito and the rise of Milosevic. Here’s my ugly, pessimistic scenario for each of the two alternatives above. Remember, as you read this, that we have George Bush and the neocons for getting us into this awful mess in the first place:

Fast Exit: If we immediately turn over political control to the Iraqi council led by the dreadful and unpopular Chalabi, and, following the Chiraq proposal, introduce UN peacekeepers, service organizations and trainers to try to restore law and order to the country:

  1. The Chalabi government, lacking popular support, will likely fall and be replaced by a fundamentalist Sunni [Shia — thanks Philip] government, which will attempt, for a time, to coexist with the Kurdish and Turkmen minorities in the Northern areas and the independent warlords that hold sway in scattered parts of the country.
  2. The detente will not last and civil war will erupt, much as it did in Yugoslavia, and will only end when the country is likewise partitioned under UN supervision, into Shia, Kurdish and Turkmen states. With luck, these three states will overcome the warlords. Fighting will continue over the central areas of the country because, of course, that’s where the oil is. Eventually there will be a UN-administrated ‘neutral zone’ that will manage the oil lands and partition the profits in some agreed way among the three Iraqi states.
  3. The good news is that the bloodshed will only probably last twenty years or so, that the murder of American troops will be minimized, and that the cost of this alternative will not bankrupt the US economy.

Slow Exit: If we continue to believe that somehow under prolonged foreign occupation the people of Iraq are going to magically bypass the bloody lessons every other country has been through before it achieved free and democratic laws and institutions:

  1. The UN will, rightfully, refuse to commit its resources and troops to support a fruitless and bloody unilateral US miltary occupation. The current astronomical level of expenditure needed to continue the occupation will last until either the US treasury or the patience of American taxpayers gives out, after which we’ll resort to the Fast Exit strategy anyway.
  2. In the meantime, American troops will continue to lose their lives. The Chalabi government will fight among themselves, and never be recognized as the legitimate government of Iraq. They will be replaced by successive US puppet regimes and coalitions, none of which will be accepted by the Iraqi people. Separate Kurdish and Turkmen states will be declared in the North, and American and Southern Iraqi troops will be pressed into service in the hopeless task of trying to keep a country together that has no wish to stay together. The warlords will grow in power as the chaos and power vacuum ensues. The loss of lives will be massive and last for years, until the US attempts a face-saving attempt by ‘declaring democracy’ and ceases the occupation, turning over control to whoever seems to be in greatest control at the time provided they promise elections at some future date.
  3. The end result will be exactly the same, but with a much greater human and financial cost, a long and unnecessary delay, and incalculable damage to the reputation of the US and the viability of the UN.

The lesson here is simple. There is no easy route to self-determination, rule of law, freedom and democracy and it cannot be imposed militarily by an outside force. All we can do is set a good example, offer the assistance of the UN to help keep the peace once it is established, and hope the bloodshed is short and minimal.

It will of course be embarrassing to withdraw from a country we hoped to save from the anguish of this struggle for identity and democracy, and watch it degenerate into further bloodshed, as it was in Yugoslavia. And with the removal of Saddam Hussein the transition may be shorter, and freedom and democracy may come sooner than it would have otherwise. But the alternative of a long-term military occupation of a country that does not want us, is much bloodier, much costlier, and will merely prolong the inevitable.

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  1. Philip says:

    Maybe I am missing something. The majority of Iraqi are Shiites. The southern half of the country is essentially a Shiite state and was protected by a no-fly zone since Desert Storm these Shia are more likely to be termed fundamentalists supported by Iran, than the more secular Sunni who are living mostly in central Iraq (not that there are not fundamentalist Sunnis (ala Saudi Arabia). There are two Kurdish factions in addition to the Turkmen which is a rather small minotity, I think the Kurdish factions will be more of a problem than anything. They do not want to share power in Northern Iraq. They have been fighting amoungst themselves for years now, only uniting when the US attacked the Saddam regime.The Iraqi people may never live together in peace or maybe they can. If they are allowed to share the wealth of the country and have equal legal status garenteed by a stable central government. They deserve the best chance we can give them.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, Philip. I meant Shia, of course.

  3. Lee Bryant says:

    Can I just presage my comments by saying that I am a great admirer of your blog and I read it regularly, and will continue to do so.(you know there’s a BUT coming….)First, regarding “helping Iraqis to rebuild and democratize their infrastructure and not handing over control until we’re sure peace and democracy will ensue” – you *surely* don’t believe that the United States either wants or is capable of this?!? I find this naitvety, coming from you, absolutely astonishing. “Rebuild” means “pillage”. It’s that simple. “Democratize” = put in place compliant leaders – in Afghanistan, a former Oil company PR man heads a loose coalition of warlords who have succeeded only in raising heroin production to an all-time high; in Iraq, an indicted fraudster will lead an unrepresentative puppet regime and there will be no democracy because the people want law and order, which probably means an Islamicist-led government, which is unacceptable to Mr. Wolfowitz and his friends.What is perhaps most extraordinary is the fact that the US as an invading and occupying force actually believes it has a moral responsibility to continue its occupation until iraqis are “ready” to govern themselves. The kind of pseudo-knowledgeable political anthropology that you go on to quote about the Shia, Sunni, Turkmens and Kurds only reinforces this idea that the US/UK should act as a mediator between Iraq’s “warring factions”.There *are* problems between Iraq’s communities, and these have been exacerbated by the fact the US/UK have effectively destroyed most Iraqi state structures, but the inter-communal issues are for Iraqis alone to sort out. The only justification for getting involved might be to uphold the Genocide Conventions if one community were severaly endangered. At the moment, according to Iraqi hospital figures, US forces are causing about 1,000 casualties a week, so your withdrawal can only save lives right now.Also, with respect, Iraq is nothing like Yugoslavia, and Ithink your view of Yugoslavia is also flawed. Civil war did not erupt in Yugoslavia from below, it was forced on the people from above by means of a carefully constructed political operation that actually took years to create. The culture of co-existence there is actualy more resilient than peopler think, from a historical perspective.Returning to the question, I would just say that what the US/UK have done is fundamentally wrong and ultimately very bad indeed for all of us, but there is no going back – the damage done is permanent regardless whether US forces withdraw now or later. However, I do not think they will withdraw until they have recouped their investment.Phew – nothing like a rant to get me started in the morning! Thanks for your patience and keep up the good work.

  4. O RLY YA RLY says:

    More on the “democratisation” of the Iraqi infrastructure here.

  5. Rayne says:

    What exactly does “ready” look like? Well heck, is the US “ready” for democratization? Sure doesn’t look like it in Texas or in California. The last Presidential election was pretty iffy, too.The rest of the world is going to stand by and let this overgrown-and-moody juvenile country decide when Iraq is “ready” for its own democracy?I don’t believe that the majority of rational liberals here in the US believe for a moment that pulling troops out of Iraq willy-nilly is in the best interest of Iraq, let alone stability in the Middle East. But expecting the US to be a fair-and-balanced judge of the best kind of democracy for Iraq is whacked. This is exactly the kind of situation in which the UN should play a dominant role and intervene.Frankly, the leadership of this country should be glad and take it willingly if the UN suggests taking over the democratization process. This should never have been a unilateral, mano-a-mano Bush-Hussein go-round. This should have been a UN occupation resulting from repeatedly violations of UN resolutions and gross human rights abuses / crimes against humanity. It would be legitimate and have far more support from the people of Iraq and the rest of the world. We should be steady progress in that direction.

  6. Rob Paterson says:

    I vaguely recall MacBeth stating that he is “steeped in blood so far”.. that he might as well go on. I fear that like many mergers in the corporate world, that the US prestige is now on the line that will not allow it to pull back and that we will see all that we fear the most unfold as a result.

  7. Evan says:

    We broke it; we have a responsibility to fix it.Properly, we should leave a substantial troop force in place *under UN command*. And leave them there until an Iraqi government tells us to get the hell out of their country, whereupon we should just pay them an immense amount of money.But to do all that would humble us before the world, which is the polar opposite of what the Bush foreign policy is *supposed* to do. So there’s not the slightest chance it’ll happen.

  8. Lee Bryant says:

    “We broke it; we have a responsibility to fix it.” – then leave, now, and divide the billions that would be spent on another year of occupation equally among Iraq’s population by way of (a) apology, and (b) an instant solution to rebuilding.

  9. Rayne says:

    At the risk of sounding gender-biased, this is what happens when we elect men to office — the kind of men who refuse to ask for directions and are too proud to ever admit making a mistake.I should clarify my position on this — when I say UN should occupy, that’s with a multi-lateral UN peacekeeping force which should include US troops. We made the mess, we should be there, just not as unilateral “masters of the universe”.

  10. Lee Bryant says:

    what, like Condolezza Rice, Megawati and Mrs Thatcher ?

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Lee: Well, I knew this would be a controversial post, but I expected the pushback from the other side. Although I’m slightly less cynical than you are, I thought I would give the ‘slow exit’ adherents the benefit of the doubt. And I do agree that Iraqi’s must sort out their differences themselves, and that our interference, unless requested, will do more harm than good.Harald: I’ve been following Vivion’s blog closely, which is in part why I’m convinced that the Governing Council is set to implode. Rayne/Evan: Good point — I should have added that under either scenario the invading force has a responsibility to pay for reparations; even that would be a lot less than what the continued occupation is costing. I also agree that, Condoleeza and Iron Lady aside (I’m not sure they’re actually women at all — way too much testosterone) had the governments in question been run by women rather than men, the UN and consensus-building would have been given a chance to work, and avoided a massive amount of grief.To all: At the risk of stirring this up further, I’d ask: “WHO in Iraq should the UN listen to, in deciding what role, and how long to play a role, in helping administer and keep(?) peace in Iraq”. In the absence of democratic institutions, those with power would probably ask the UN to stay out, while those without would probably ask them to stay around. That’s why I think this situation is analagous to Yugoslavia (though I agree with Lee it was exacerbated by greedy leaders). Even if the US cedes control to the UN, the UN then gets stuck in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Peacekeepers can’t do their job if there’s no peace to keep.

  12. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Rayne/Lee; I think Rayne means ‘masculine values’ instead of men. There are men who represent ‘feminine values’ and women who represent ‘masculine values’ (as Lee pointed out).

  13. Rob Paterson says:

    I’m with you Dave on the link to Jugoslavia. It was held together by the iron will and reputation of Tito. After his death the politicians in the ethnic areas made their way by exploiting the fears of the community. We can see the Kurds, the Sunni and the Shia leaders doing the same “We have to control the oil or we will be screwed” kind of debate. Or “remember all the bad things they did to us – let get them now before they do it again” This internal ethnic conflict, like Jugoslavia, will be fed by outisders. Such as Wahabi Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, by Shia in Iran and by the larger Kurdish community. They will pour gasoline on the fire.I can’t see how this will not unfold. Finally the American’s pride will not let them go until they have been utterly humiliated in the Middle East and have become a police state at home.

  14. ScrewDriver says:

    September 24, 2003, 8:30 a.m.Freedom for Iraq? Iraqis’ choice. By Andrew J. & Judith S. Kleinfeld People can be given freedom, yet fail to take it. After the British created Iraq and liberated it from the Turks following World War I, they built a modern infrastructure

  15. Dave Pollard says:

    ScrewDriver: Thanks for the history lesson. This just shows how long and tortuous the road to freedom and democracy is, and that it can’t be sped up or imposed, even by a well-meaning foreign power. The only thing I question in this article is whether oil wealth could help speed up the process. Fareed Zakaria in his book argues it’s actually a curse that impedes progress to freedom and democracy by tempting people with easier solutions.

  16. Philip says:

    What is this “WE” stuff David? Have you moved South of the Border <smile>, Please feel free to help pay my share of this 87 billion lord knows me, my son and his unborn children could certainly use the help.What I want to know is WHY? What were the Bushinistas thinking? A war to revive the economy? Did they really think they could get a handle on Iraqi Oil and scare big bad Saudi Arabia into going nuclear? They KNEW there were no WMD’s. Can’t find what isn’t there.WHY have thousands of Iraqi’s died and some 400 US and British troops with more trickling in each day?Why? If it isn’t to promote a friendly Arab client state then what the hell is it all about?We know that the House of Saud is about to topple, we don’t have much of a chance in Persia since the 1950’s. Nope we got to have Iraq in our pocket or at least share it with Western Europe… and Russia, well not the French.Why?

  17. Dave Pollard says:

    You ask a lot of questions, Philip. The easy one, ‘why WE’, first: I don’t think any of us can hide behind geographical borders to avoid responsibility for what has happened in Iraq. I feel responsible, just as if I were American or British. We’re all ultimately the same culture, and I don’t think we’re any ‘holier than thou’.Why did they invade Iraq? No one reason, but rather a combination of reasons, some well-intentioned (rid the world of Saddam, try to reduce the number of hotbeds of terrorism by one), some not (get oil, deflect attention from the failures of Bush at home and abroad, grab power, reward corporate supporters and friends). Add them all together and you reach critical mass. I think the final reason, the one that pushed it over the top, was the neocons’ ignorance of history and ignorance of culture. They really thought that they could install democratic institutions and constitutional liberalism in Iraq and the people would welcome it, and turn the country into a Western-style democracy as a model for the rest of the world, and in the process make the Americans look like heroes. So in eight words, the answer to all your “why’s”, more than anything else is “we still don’t understand the lessons of history”.

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