Monday, April 14, 2008

Iraq: A Madisonian Analysis and Proposal

(Via memeorandum)

Ed Morrissey has a typically thoughtful post making the argument for staying in Iraq as a a duty we owe to the people of Iraq and to our allies in the region. As usual, Morissey avoids the demagoguery that all-too-often infects debate over the war - on both sides. In his argument, Morrissey points to anecdotal evidence that the Iraqi people want us to stay and that the biggest hurdle to obtaining their full-fledged support is a fear that we will abandon them as we did in 1991.

He further argues that our presence in Iraq allows us to fight al-Qaeda in open battle against our military strength rather than in terrorist attacks in the US against civilians. Finally, he suggests that if we pull back and Iraq becomes a terrorist haven, the Iraqi people will not welcome us back a third time. He finishes his post with an assertion that the terrorists are on the run and that Iraq is on the verge of being a successful democracy.

Not surprisingly, I largely disagree with Morrissey's arguments. However, it is most certainly essential that we consider the sentiment of the Iraqi people in deciding what to do come January 2009.

One problem I have with Morrissey's argument is that it is based on the anecdotal evidence of a handful of soldiers who have served in Iraq (Morrissey does not specify the time period for their service, so I will assume they only recently returned). There a few problems with this reliance: first, it is anecdotal, from one source. While I do not doubt that his source is truthful, it is difficult to extrapolate from one source to the entire population of Iraq. This is particularly the case when you consider that Iraq is a country that is essentially comprised of portions of three nations (an important fact that I will return to), within which there are dramatic differences in security and outlook based on geography. I've also seen polls and other anecdotal evidence which would seem to contradict Morrissey on this. The reality, as usual, is likely to lie somewhere in between. At a minimum, I suspect that the Kurds and most Sunnis (at this point) want us to stay. I also suspect that a not-insubstantial number of Shiites want us to remain as well; however, Sadr's continued popularity suggests that a majority or at least a plurality of Shiites want us out.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that the Iraqi people want us to stay. If that is the case, I think we are still left in an extremely difficult position, and the issue of what to do next remains complicated.

Although it is intuitively true that we are better off fighting Al Qaeda with our military than having to worry about terrorist attacks at home, this is only true to the extent that we are actually able to defeat Al Qaeda. The problem we have is that our presence in Iraq is extremely inflammatory in the rest of the Muslim world and is almost inarguably Al Qaeda's best recruiting tool. As a result, to a large extent we are just playing Whack-a-Mole in Iraq with respect to Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism more generally. To make matters more difficult, though, our continued presence in Iraq also inflames passions amongst people who are not terrorists; as a result, our ability to obtain the cooperation of local populations in the rest of the Muslim world is significantly reduced.

But mostly, we face a much bigger problem than our generals can handle with respect to Iraq. The fact is that the solution in Iraq is not just military. Gen. Petraeus is as fine a man and as competent a general as exists on this planet, and SecDef Gates is likewise an all-too-rare honorable public servant. The problem that we have, however, is that the military is really only good at two things, as a famous general once said (MacArthur?): killing people and blowing stuff up. This is why Republicans in the late 90s were (rightly) so up in arms about Clinton's nation-building policies.

Gen. Petraeus is particularly good at getting the military to do its intended job. But that only means that our troops can improve the security situation in Iraq (which they have, to a large extent, done since Petraeus took command). However, he cannot force a political solution to Iraq's remaining problems.

Worse, our insistence on certain "benchmarks" (which largely have not been met) will at best result in an artificial solution to Iraq's political problems. Meeting such benchmarks only creates top-down agreement. It does not, however, create trust between neighbors or between the constituent groups of each of the three Iraqi "nations."

One of our many mistakes in going into Iraq in the first place was our failure to realize that Iraq the country arose purely as a result of arbitrary line drawing 100 years ago by the British Empire. These three groups were never given the opportunity to create inter-group trust prior to being forced into the same country. This meant that the only way to keep order between them was through either an extreme form of authoritarianism (ie, Saddam) that ensured rapid punishment for inter-group strife or through an extremely decentralized government similar to the American Constitution (as it was originally intended, rather than as it has become interpreted). By decentralizing - essentially allowing near-absolute autonomy for each region - the three nations of Iraq would have been able to build trust between themselves over time.

But Iraq wound up going the extreme authoritarian route. As a result, no trust was built up between the three nations and - worse - there was no civil society to speak of within Iraq to allow separate, non-tribal factions to form. Our failure to recognize the lack of diverse factions in Iraq was one of our biggest mistakes in the leadup to invasion. (Historically, the existence of a robust civil society has been a prerequisite for the establishment of a successful democracy).

Since the invasion, there has been little opportunity for inter-group bonds to form, and thus Iraq remains a land of three primary factions. As Madison recognized, a lack of diversity of factions is fatal to democracy. So long as tribal loyalty remains paramount to most Iraqis, it will be impossible to form anything resembling an Iraqi "nation," and strife will continue ad infinitum. This is perhaps the most significant reason why Africa remains a land of so much civil war and violence- few African countries are composed entirely of one nation and civil society has had little opportunity to flourish between different nations.

The need for diversity of factions implies that inter-group harmony can only be created from the bottom-up. Simply making peace between the leaders of each faction is unlikely to have much long-term effect unless each leader rules his group with an iron fist. Unfortunately, there is also little that the American military can do to create this diversity of factions that cuts across tribal lines. To the extent the American military can do anything, it is already doing so. Indeed, the improved security situation has allowed inter-tribal neighborhood patrols to form. But this is not nearly enough, as only a relatively small portion of Iraqi society is involved.

What this all means is that our continued military presence in Iraq - as currently formulated - is unlikely to result in anything resembling a peaceful Iraq, at least not without the rise of another dictator (which we obviously do not want). At worst, we are simply delaying intertribal genocide and full-scale civil war. At best, our presence will have to continue for decades, with the security situation never improving much beyond its current status, as the different tribes (especially the Sunnis and Shi'a) fight violently for control of the reins of power.

If we withdraw now, the likelihood is that Iraq will descend into something resembling full-scale civil war. However, I do not believe that al Qaeda will play a particularly important role in such a war, as there will be little motivation for foreign Muslims to enter the fray on one side or the other. To be sure, Jordanian Sunnis will not exactly be in love with Iraqi Shi'a, but neither will Jordanian Sunnis have the motivation of a jihad to get them into the fray. In other words, while withdrawal would undoubtedly have horrible short-term effects, it would not result in a caliphate for Osama bin Laden. As such, I do not buy the argument that withdrawal amounts to surrender - we would not be "surrendering" to anyone; at best al Qaeda would get an extremely short-lived PR victory, but would still lose much of its future ability to recruit and take advantage of local populations.

In this respect, and especially factoring the costs of the war to the US in blood and treasure, withdrawal is likely more palatable than the current course of operations. In addition, we would be able to move more troops into the Afghanistan front, where they could almost certainly do more good in actually fighting terrorism on the battlefield.

There is, however, one other option that I think would be more palatable still, although retaining some severe drawbacks. That option is the outright partition of Iraq, with a rewritten Constitution to go along. In this option, we could prevent outright civil war from occuring, primarily by enforcing territorial borders. Within each territory the local government would have almost complete autonomy, including with respect to security matters. In Kurdistan, of course, this setup would require virtually no changes; in the rest of Iraq, substantial changes. Free trade between territories would have to be required in the rewritten constitution, as would free migration between territories (provided the migrants go through checkpoints along the way, of course). Over time, this could help to build trust between the tribes, and more importantly would establish intertribal interests. As these new interests eventually became predominant over tribal interests, we would be able to gradually reduce our presence in Iraq. Eventually, one would hope, the need for inter-territory checkpoints would be eliminated.

Of course, as I said, there are drawbacks to this approach. For starters, there would initially be strife over the sharing of oil revenues, and there would also likely be mass migrations between territories (although much of this migration has already occured). In addition, we would not be able to supplement our forces in Afghanistan. Most importantly, we would have to commit troops to Iraq for an extended period of time (though far less than we would if our current strategy is to succeed), perhaps 10 years.

If this course of action is successful, we would then remove our troops from Iraq and return them home. We should not have a permanent base in Iraq along the lines of Korea unless: 1. Iran remains a clear and present danger to Iraqi stability or to world peace; 2. Both the Iraqi people and the Iraqi federal government so desire; and 3. there is Congressional approval for such a plan. Even with all three of those conditions met, I am suspicious of any permanent base, but at a minimum those conditions must be met.