Across the Bay

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Iraq and US Withdrawal

In case you hadn't seen it yet, Bob Novak wrote a column where he reported some rumors about a US withdrawal from Iraq next year.

Commenting on the column, Michael Young was rather skeptical:

"Novak ignores what cutting and running actually means in Iraq. He mentions civil war as if it were easily navigable for the U.S. It would be a major disaster, far worse than what we have now. What may ensue is a regional conflict, as all sides defend their interests--the Turks against the Kurds, the Iranians to protect their Shiite friends, the Saudis to help the Sunnis, the Syrians to weaken their own Kurds, but also avoid an Israeli attack against them to the east, perhaps through Lebanon, etc. Surely, the administration cannot be so irresponsible as to leave such a mess behind, especially if terrorists are seen to thrive in an Iraq where it's truly all against all."

Young repeated his thoughts on the possibility and ramifications of a post-withdrawal civil war in Iraq, and the (non) role of the Europeans, in a piece for Reason that I noted a couple of posts ago:

"At the simplest level, where there is conflict there are migrants, and very many would wash up on Europe's shores. More ominously, an Iraqi civil war could quickly turn into a regional fracas, as Turks, Iranians, Saudis, Jordanians and Syrians enter the fray, endangering a host of vital international interests, most prominently the price of oil."

Ali of "Iraq the Model" wrote an understandbly more personal and passionate response to Novak's piece, but didn't really address the possibility of civil war.

On the other hand, another Iraqi blogger, "IraqPundit," while not responding to Novak's piece, had written a couple of posts addressing other pundits of doom and gloom, such as the oh-so-engaging Paul Krugman, and The Guardian's Luke Harding. IraqPundit voiced his outrage at some attitudes in the media that almost want to see a civil war. He thus mirrored Young's criticism of the French and Spanish smugness.

My good friend Joshua Landis of Syria Comment responded to Michael's Reason piece, and showed more skepticism at the possibility of a regional war in the case of a US withdrawal. In an email message he wrote:

"I just read Michael's very smart and witty Reason piece as always. I don't agree with him as usual though. I think he is being too alarmist.

If I were France, I would not get sucked into Iraq now either. Old Europe was very clear from the beginning that it didn't want any part of this US venture. They believed Iraq was contained and a mess. Every one with knowledge of the region suspected it would be a hellhole. America has bungled it badly - most likely irredeemably.

Of course France is ungentlemanly to gloat and do the I-told-you-so quadrille. But what goes around, comes around. We were pretty beastly with all our triumphalism and old Europe cheese eating, surrender monkey, freedom fries nonsense. Who can get too bent out of shape if the frogs make us eat our freedom fries now - topped off with a bit of Bordeaux? That is the least of our problems.

I don't think Iraq will turn into a cataclysm if we are forced to withdraw. The Shiites, as I have ventured before, will contain the Sunni resistance fairly quickly, I suspect, and try to cut a deal, offering the Sunnis some cabinet positions and a bit of autonomy. I don't think the Shiites are blood thirsty, at least they haven't shown it so far.

The Sunnis are blood thirsty, but maybe they will be less so without America to focus on. There has been surprisingly little
inter-confessional killing as of yet. Maybe that is a hopeful sign that the Arabs will be able to work something out in Iraq. The Kurdish-Arab problem is much deeper. Maybe Kurdistan would declare the independence it has already taken?

I don't think Saudi and Syria will get sucked into the fighting in a big way. They know that the Shiites will win and will not want to alienate whoever is going to come out on top. They will triangulate. The last thing Bashar would want is a bunch of Sunni fundamentalists taking power in Iraq or surviving in a failed state to become ever more troublesome for Syria. I think he would be happier with a Sistani type holding sway. Isn't he happy with Hizballah? Iran would also squeeze him if he advanced a pro-Sunni strategy in Iraq.

The Shiites, at least, have no greater-Middle East ambitions, unlike the Sunni fundamentalists. They are Iraqists and will be happy just to get a taste of state power after 1,400 years of eating Karbala dirt. They will kill the "international terrorists" that the US fears. There is no reason Iraq must turn into al-Qaida central.

Iran has stayed out of Iraq to a large degree. There is no reason for it to change that policy if America withdraws. It has already explored the Shiite messianic revolutionary thing. Shiites learned to curtail ambition and think locally. The Iranians have no compelling reason to dive into Iraq should the US depart. The Iraqis don't want them and Iran has already tasted the bitter fruit of war in Iraq. So long as America is out, they can find satisfaction in whatever Shiite compromise emerges.

The logic of American intervention was to unseat the Sunnis. Disbanding the army made that clear and irrevocable. Saudi Arabia went along with it. A Shiite Iraq is already in the cards - especially if the elections go ahead as Rumsfeld says they might, without the Sunni districts participating. If we pull out, it will mean sacrificing Allawi and the pro-American types we groomed for leadership. That will be bitter and a treason. But the sooner we pull out the less damage will be done. It will not be like Vietnam. So many of the people working with us are Shiites and likely to survive in a post US Iraq. They will have to live with a whole lot more religion than they want, but they won't be killed as out Vietnamese supporters were.

If the resistance continues and elections aren't brought off successfully, America will really have no choice. We will have to
prepare to allow the factions to find a non-American equilibrium.

The US will have to pressure the Saudis and Iran not to get involved. Europe can keep Turkey out by offering them EU membership for good behavior. Saudi Arabia is too precarious internally to go against the US on Iraq. They don't want Bin Ladenists running around Baghdad, which would be the result of their helping the Sunni opposition.

I don't think Iraq has to turn into Lebanon if the US withdraws. That is what everyone says may happen - but the analogy is not convincing to me. Lebanon was much more equally divided between its various communities than Iraq is. All Lebanon's neighbors wanted to get in on the action. Iraq's don't. They have been very reluctant to so far. Everyone knows the Shiites will rule. Which particular Shiite faction will end up on top does not have the same regional importance. In Lebanon it was Christians versus Muslims and Israel versus Damascus. The stakes were very high for the regional balance of power. In Iraq it will be a struggle between SCIRI, Da'wa and Sadrists. They may be able to work some power-sharing arrangement out amongst themselves and then patch in the Sunnis after offing the worst jihadists. It needn't be the end of the world.

I think that Josh paints an awfully rosy and incomplete picture. Note how the Kurdish question is handled. Their independence is taken as a forgone conclusion with little repercussions from the Turks, the Syrians, or the Arab Iraqis themselves who have not been hot on that proposition. Sadr, in fact, has been explicit in proclaiming "no more Kurdistan!"

Furthermore, I'm not sure how easy it would be for "the Shiites" to eliminate the foreign Sunni Jihadists. First of all, what does it mean for "the Shiites" to take care of that? Is it to be understood in terms of Shiite militias? And that's supposed to avert a civil war!? If what's meant is an Iraqi army, Jeff Taylor addressed their lack of preparation militarily to fully take responsibility for such a task, let alone what that entails politically. Taylor notes that it's no coincidence that the Jihadists are systematically targetting the Iraqi forces.

Landis might be right that Saudi Arabia wouldn't want to be involved, but the question is would it be able to help it? They already have their Jihadist problem, and should the US withdraw from the region, would the Saudis really be able to stop them from crossing over to Iraq, or, more importantly, from crossing over from Iraq into Saudi Arabia to wage war on the ruling family? Same question applies to Jordan. Given Jordan's past history with these groups, I would be shocked if King Abdullah wouldn't want to make sure his fragile realm is secure.

Josh seems a bit generous with Iran to say the least! I mean the notion that they would stay out if Iraqis don't want them to interfere is a bit much! Of course I'm being caricaturish.

This is without even mentioning oil (see Lee Smith's take on that). But overall I think that while Josh offers a highly optimistic vision, he ignores many variables, and creates several questions on democratization and reform in the region.

I don't see how any good could come out of a US withdrawal next year, be it for the US, the Iraqis, or the region, let alone the comatosed Europeans.

Update: Richard Cohen ponders the question of a US pull-out in the NYT. (From IraqPundit's Maureen Dowd smackdown post. Always a pleasant, and cathartic exercise.)