Across the Bay

Monday, September 27, 2004

Michael Young Replies

Michael Young was gracious enough to weigh in on the last post ("Iraq and US Withdrawal") and has responded specifically to Joshua Landis' note. Be sure to read Josh's additional comment in the comments section. That they both took the time to contribute is greatly appreciated. Oh, and I'm not going near deciding who's Popeye and who's Bluto (Hukukukuk).

Michael's response follows:

Given the now frequent back and forth between Josh and I, it’s about time we started making money off of this; a sort of Middle Eastern Popeye and Bluto show.

I must admit that I never realized how easy France would make my riposte. Here I was struggling to detain a few berries, but now I can dine on a round Frankish boar. In the interim since my Reason piece, the French government went out and sort of specified what was hitherto an ambiguity and openly stated its support for placing a U.S. withdrawal on the agenda of an international conference on Iraq that the Bush administration would like to organize before the American presidential election. France’s foreign minister, Michel Barnier, declared that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq “must be on the agenda of such a conference, if it is to take place.” 

Better still, as Barnier was quoted as saying in Le Monde, the matter of the U.S. withdrawal “is already posed by the situation” that of “chaos in Iraq with general insecurity, including in the Green Zone.” Remarkable. Here were the French whining how the U.S. was keeping its Iraqi cards close to its chest and “doing” Iraq unilaterally, and now, when there is a chance to internationalize the conflict, they raise the barrier on approving it. Better still, Barnier suggests the U.S. should pull out as the situation in Iraq becomes more chaotic. Good plan.

The irony, of course, is that France and Russia were the two states that most ardently supported an international conference on Iraq many months ago; even John Kerry, “the world’s candidate”, backed it. Barnier didn’t torpedo the idea; he merely set an impossible condition, and hopes the damn thing will collapse under its own weight. Why? Because Chirac and his government cannot contemplate giving George W. Bush a conference that just might reassure American voters and ensure that Bush wins the U.S. election.

Now back to my friend Josh, who has just been abandoned by his hardy Gaullist allies. I disagree with his mischaracterization of my argument in Reason as encouraging France and the other European critics of the Iraq war to “get sucked into Iraq.” I was proposing nothing of the sort: Reading the dangers of Iraq more clearly, and avoiding wanton criticism of the U.S. there, without offering ideas; ensuring that democratic change can triumph in Iraq; and building an EU consensus on Iraq that includes Britain (but also Italy, I might add) are all hardly tantamount to getting sucked in. Yes, the French have now clarified their desire to see the U.S. set a timetable to withdraw, but anybody can see this would turn the Americans into lame ducks and very probably precipitate an even worse loss of control. It’s demagoguery of the worst sort that Paris is deploying.

Josh’s more serious claim is that Iraq will not turn into a Hobbesian free-for-all if the U.S. pulls out. He even offers a mechanism that is all negotiations and compromise. All I can say is that I disagree with his Yankee optimism on this, (and agree with Tony) even if several of his claims are more than acceptable (I don’t think the Shiites are “bloodthirsty” either). However, civil wars take on a dynamic that is all their own, and while I do not think Iraqis want a civil war, and while I do not think they are a gaggle of brutes waiting for a chance to kill each other (how tired I am to hear that line on Lebanon), I do think that the centrifugal forces can very easily get out of control without a central authority to control the situation. Who are “the Shiites” Josh refers to? The SCIRI? Muqtada al-Sadr? Ayatollah Sistani? He speaks of confessional groups as if they were people, but who decides? Why assume unity among Shiites or Sunnis? In a later passage, in fact, Josh himself posits Shiite disunity.

If civil war happens, the regional powers will, to my mind, get sucked into the conflict, much as they did in Lebanon. That may not occur simultaneously, or mean Saudis will be fighting Iranians. Not at all. However, vacuums invite intervention, and where Josh sees “triangulation” between different rational regional powers, I also see a whole lot of contradictory interests that might well propel dissonant dynamics of their own. Even Josh’s claim that “Iran has stayed out of Iraq” seems an odd one to me. He makes it sound like the Iranians have been watching from the sidelines. Nonsense. They have been meeting with the various actors, sizing up the situation, supporting some groups, and have only done so in an understated way because the U.S. is in Iraq. But using traditional balance of power reasoning, Iran will surely be more active in Iraq if the U.S. departs and Tehran perceives a situation that may turn to its disadvantage: witness Syria in Lebanon in 1976.

I’m puzzled that Josh should write: “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.” Surely the possibility of a chaotic Iraq is a compelling reason; and who says there will be a Shiite compromise in the short term? But worse, Josh follows up with an odd phrase further on: “ The US will have to pressure the Saudis and Iran not to get involved.” How does that line square with the argument that Iran has no compelling reason to get involved? With no such compelling reason, why would the U.S. have to apply pressure in the first place?

Josh’s last words are that a U.S. pullout “needn't be the end of the world.” However, as Keynes once said--I believe he was debunking the irrelevance of long-term economic optimism--“in the long run we’re all dead.” Yes, we may survive, but at what short- and medium-term cost to Iraq and the region?