Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 October 2006

Cut and Stay: A Strategy for Iraq

It should now be obvious to all who are not in complete denial that Iraq is no longer a viable state. It is already partitioned, and its people seem determined to make the partitioning permanent.

The evidence is overwhelming. Iraqi Kurdistan, including Kirkuk and Mosul, has been firmly in Kurdish hands since the beginning of the war. Except for occasional incursions of Sunni forces and Sunni-inspired suicide bombers, the Kurds have run it democratically, competently and mostly peacefully for a long time. It is by far the most secure part of Iraq. Therefore few Coalition troops are stationed there.

Next most peaceful is the Shiite south. There Sunni and Sunni-inspired incursions are more frequent, and interethnic violence is increasing. Shiite on Shiite violence has now reared its ugly head, in the recent battles between Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade in Amara. Yet the Shiites are armed and partly trained and appear capable, with some help, of holding their territory. Their short-lived but intense experience of democracy, coupled with the calming influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in time may help them achieve stable government, if they are left to their own devices in defensible territory.

Except for the parts of Baghdad where ethnic mayhem is flaring, the rest of Iraq is under Sunni control. Already the Coalition has abandoned Al-Anbar Province to the Sunni insurgents and their Al-Qaeda fellow travelers. The Sunnis hold their parts of Baghdad, from which they mount death-squad attacks against their Shiite neighbors. Now that the Coalition’s plan to pacify Baghdad has failed, there is de facto recognition of Sunni control even there.

The Iraqi National Parliament recently recognized this de facto partition. It passed a national law to give the three ethnic areas substantial autonomy in governance. It has consistently refused to do what the Coalition wanted it to do: throw the Sunnis a bone of control over additional territory or oil money in order to reduce the Sunni insurgency’s attraction. After suffering three decades of Sunni tyranny and terror, the Kurds and Shiites are understandably, if regrettably, reluctant to enrich their erstwhile oppressors.

Thus facts on the ground, the Coalition’s troop positions, and Iraqi law all implicitly recognize the same now-obvious fact. “Iraq” is a nation in name only.

Under these circumstances, there is not much left for Coalition troops to do but die for little purpose. Despite Tony Blair’s valiant attempts at “spin,” British forces have recognized this point implicitly. They have abandoned Amara, where they took relentless mortar fire from supposedly “friendly” Shiite militias, for the relative safety of patrolling the border with Iran. Our own forces have recognized this reality by abandoning Al-Anbar province. Now they have failed to secure even part of Baghdad despite heavy casualties. The cresting waves of ethnic reprisals are simply too strong to contain, and our troops are caught in the middle.

Perfecting the existing de facto partitioning of Iraq is the only sensible strategy left. There are three reasons for this conclusion.

First and most important, time has proved the notion of impartial and professional Iraqi security forces and police to be, like the notion of a unified Iraq itself, hopelessly quixotic. The soldiers and police whom we have tried to train professionally fight as Iraqis one day, then as ethnic death squads the next. Or they loan their uniforms and/or weapons to their less-trained compatriots for revenge killings.

Our attempt to overcome a millennium of ethnic rivalry and decades of terror, tyranny and torture with a few months of training in “military professionalism” was a pipe dream. It is now clear that the effort has failed. The so-called “Iraqi Security Forces” and national police have become part of the problem, not the solution. Dividing the forces into ethnic components and separating them is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for interethnic peace.

Second, mixed and adjacent ethnic neighborhoods have become centers of violence. Where inimical groups live cheek by jowl, there is simply too much risk of an escalating series of reprisals.

Iraq is awash in weapons and explosives. Three years of war with no front lines, coupled with constantly escalating random violence, has produced an atmosphere of hopelessness, fear, and unfocused anger and hatred. It is difficult for anyone who works at a desk in safety to imagine the kind of atmosphere that prevails on the streets and in the homes of Iraq today. Combined with inbred Iraqi ideas of “honor” and revenge, that atmosphere is combustible. It turns otherwise ordinary soldiers, police and civilians into ethnic death squads. Under these conditions, simple propinquity of ethnic rivals is an invitation to mayhem.

Therefore separating the warring factions is the only near-term solution. The Iraqi people themselves have already recognized this point. According to the U.N.’s “conservative” estimate, 300,000 of them are already internally displaced, and another 600,000 have fled the country entirely. Nearly a million refugees have voted for separation with their feet.

Completing the partitioning process will not be easy. It may require clearing defensible lines through the cities—even dynamiting buildings. For American troops, accustomed to a stable, multiethnic society at home, that work will be sordid and unpleasant. But the alternative is worse: escalating internal pogroms that make modern civilization, let alone stability, impossible.

The final reason for completing the partitioning process is a simple military principle: it’s easier to defend a perimeter than all the territory inside it. As ethnic separation progresses, the level of violence will subside. Death squads will have a harder time hiding in “enemy” territory, and the population will begin to see some peace. As fighting moves to the periphery, the war will begin to resemble conventional warfare, with front lines and relief for civilians. When death squads have to cross well-defended borders, the level of violence will subside.

Equally important, the troops that defend those borders will have their own natural motivation. Soldiers and police will defend their perimeters out of real loyalty to their ethnic group, locale, and tribe, rather than fictional loyalty to abstract and utopian ideas imposed by a foreign culture.

In the final analysis, the idea of an Iraq built on American notions of pluralism, interethnic tolerance and the rule of law was a dangerous fantasy from the start. The Roman Empire and Genghis Khan* had far better law and administration than most of the peoples they conquered. Yet after decades (sometimes centuries) of occupation—and far more ruthless methods of suppressing rebellion than any modern democracy would dare impose—most of the subject peoples reverted to type as soon as the occupation weakened or ended.

Changing cultures takes centuries, and neither modern weapons nor modern psychology can speed up the process. Modern weapons only enhance the violent reaction, and modern psychology only dulls the pain.

Therefore the “goal” of a democratic and stable Iraq, united and thriving under Western cultural norms, flouted reality. Iraq already has splintered along ethnic lines. The only question now is how to make the best of that reality.

This does not mean that our mission in Iraq has failed. We wanted to remove Saddam. We did that. We wanted to remove the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and we found there were none. We wanted to build democracy in Iraq, and we have succeeded partially in that mission. Iraqi Kurdistan is a thriving democracy and will remain so if we can protect it diplomatically from the Turks.

As for the Shiite south, we have liberated it from Saddam’s tyranny, armed and trained its soldiers, taken it through three elections, and guided it through forming a majority in a democratic parliament. In so doing we have partially expunged our national shame: allowing Saddam to slaughter the Shiite Marsh Arabs after Gulf I.

At this point, we have done about all that we are qualified by culture and language to do. If Shiites want to resolve their differences with the Sunni and among themselves with bullets, rather than ballots (as the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade appear to have done in Amara) there is little we can do to stop them. Nor is it our responsibility to impose peaceful democracy on them, far less by force. We have shown them the way; the rest is up to them.

The Iraqi Sunni, as always, appear to be the problem. But the real problem is our own ambivalence. We wanted their leader out, so we captured Saddam and killed his sons. Then we disbanded the army, largely run by Sunni Baathists, in order to avoid a Baathist comeback. Surely we didn’t hope to make the Sunni love us.

Now we appear to want Sunni participation in an Iraqi government. Our ostensible reason is fairness and equity. Our real reason is that we don’t trust the Shiites, who are too close to Iran, to deliver the sort of secular, mercenary management of the south’s oil resources that we’d like to see. We prefer to have Shiite control leavened with secular Sunni influence as a hedge against increasing Islamist tendencies.

The problem is that Sunni “playing nice” with Shiites and vice versa is never going to happen. That is no less a fantasy than Donald Rumsfeld’s “they’ll greet us as liberators with flowers” daydream when we went to war. The whole insurgency began as an attempt by the Sunni to preserve their power and influence. Now that we have armed and trained the Shiites, whom the Sunni oppressed, brutalized and slaughtered for decades, the Shiites are never going to give that power back. And despite overwhelming odds against them, the Sunni appear just as determined to get it back. We could wait decades for either side to back down, with our troops bogged down and dying all the while. Folks in the Middle East have long memories and bear grudges.

So what is the best we can realistically hope for now? A thriving and stable democracy already exists in Iraqi Kurdistan, in control of the northern oil resources. With our military help and guidance, the Shiite south could become a similar democratic enclave, in control of the greater southern oil resources. It might be more Islamist than we’d like, and it might be closer to Iran than we’d like. But we can use the Shiites’ gratitude for their liberation, plus their need for continued military and reconstruction support, to moderate their behavior.

In any event, our fear of a close alliance of the Shiite south with Iran is overblown, for three reasons. First, the Iraqi Shiites have a different language, culture and history. The people of Persia and the Arabs of Iraq have been rivals for centuries. Second, Iraq fought an eight-year war with Iran not so long ago, and the resulting pain is still fresh in memory. Finally, Muqtada Al-Sadr has the closest relationship with Iran, and it is far from clear whether he will emerge as the eventual leader of all the Shiite south. We can certainly have some influence over how the south evolves as time goes on.

The most difficult problem is what to do with the disgruntled Sunnis. Will their territory become a failed state and an Al-Qaeda haven?

There is that risk, but three factors suggest it also is overblown. First, the Baathist Sunni were the most secular of all Iraqis. The war may have Islamicized some rural folk in Al-Anbar province, but the savvy, secular, business-oriented Baathists in the cities are hardly ready fodder for recruitment as suicide bombers. Second, for the foreseeable future, Iraqi Sunnis’ primary goal will be regaining what they’ve lost. If they recruit any suicide bombers from abroad and send them out to kill, the targets will be in Iraqi Kurdistan or the Shiite south, not the United States. Our fears to the contrary are but a paranoid fantasy. Third, the only possible allies of Iraqi Sunniland—Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—are hardly eager to encourage an Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, which would target their own regimes long before ours.

Even if an Al-Qaeda enclave developed, its first targets would be the rest of Iraq and the neighboring Sunni autocracies. Three of those neighbors—Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan—are our allies and will help to contain the danger, for example, by gathering intelligence and providing financial support for reconstruction in Iraqi Sunniland. With a little arm-twisting on our part, they might even provide some compensation for the lost oil revenue to assuage Sunni bitterness. Syria also has a strong common interest with them in this regard, which is why we should be talking with Syria.

Thus recognizing the existing partitioning of Iraq as reality will not be so bad. It is not a matter of “victory” or “defeat,” as some argue so simplistically. It is a matter of making the best of a complex, fluid and rapidly deteriorating situation.

Stabilizing a partitioned Iraq will require further effort. We must do all we can to minimize bloodshed and hardship. “Ethic cleansing” will be inevitable, at least in the sense of relocating people to ethnically safe areas. Yet that process has already begun with 900,000 Iraqi refugees, a third of them still inside Iraq. We must help insure that the remaining relocations occur without slaughter or needless hardship, and we must help to establish perimeters that are defensible enough to permit stability.

To this end, we should take the following steps, beginning immediately:

    1. Officially recognize the de facto partitioning of Iraq and announce our intention to oversee its completion as fairly, bloodlessly, and efficiently as possible.

    2. Announce our intention to begin withdrawing our troops as soon as secure borders are drawn and ethnic relocations have been completed. (This step might help reduce our casualties.)

    3. Announce our intention, for the foreseeable future, to provide air power, logistical support and (where necessary) direct military support to prevent any incursions into partitioned territory and to neutralize any Al-Qaeda operations that are identified to our satisfaction.

    4. Announce our intention to assist in reconstruction, as requested, anywhere in the present territory of Iraq.

    5. Announce our intention to seek just compensation (for example, in international tribunals and among friendly neighbors) for the Sunnis’ loss of their fair share of oil revenue.

    6. Withdraw our troops, as soon as practicable, to Kuwait, with the bulk heading home but a substantial force remaining in relative safety for contingencies.

    7. Maintain a substantial base in Kuwait, as long as requested and as long as necessary, to provide assistance for the purpose of maintaining stability and minimizing conflict and bloodshed in partitioned Iraq.

    8. Continue to offer training in Kuwait, in military, police and democratic political skills, for suitably screened personnel from all three ethnic areas.

    9. Enforce a “no-fly zone” throughout Iraq to insure that any combat remains on the ground and to discourage an arms race among the three ethnic groups.

This “cut and stay” strategy has several advantages. First, it would minimize Coalition casualties and preserve domestic support for maintaining a military presence in the region. The presence of that force would be a symbol of American commitment and a bulwark against regional turmoil. Second, this strategy would recognize reality on the ground and offer a real chance of peace and stability for large portions of Iraq in the near future. Third, it would place on Iraqis, as early as possible, the responsibility for their own future. Fourth, it would result in one stable, prosperous and democratic entity (Iraqi Kurdistan) in the near future, and the strong possibility of another (the Shiite south) in the medium term. Fifth, by separating the ethnic groups and identifying clear and defensible borders between them, it would help curb inter-ethnic violence and set the stage for reconstruction.

The model would be Yugoslavia. Ethnic partitioning there led relatively quickly to peace and a real chance to rebuild. Despite a few bombed-out buildings, Dubrovnik is now a peaceful and pleasant resort town. Without a change in strategy, how soon can we say that any part of Iraq will remain peaceful?

Our present policy in Iraq exemplifies the old truism, "the best is the enemy of the good." We have an impossible dream of a stable, unified, and multiethnic Iraq. Events on the ground, recent history, ancient history, and the minds and hearts of three warring ethnic groups have turned that dream into a nightmare. If we continue to pursue it, Iraq will continue to fester, and images of needless death and destruction will continue to radicalize Muslims from Jakarta to Jeddah, not to mention Paris and London. Our pursuit of perfection subverts our larger dream of sowing the seeds of democracy in the heart of a stable Muslim Middle East.

Yet that larger dream is within our reach. Partition will recognize an already thriving new Muslim democracy, Iraqi Kurdistan. With patience plus financial and military support, another will soon rise out of the rubble in the Shiite south. The same air power that we used to contain Saddam for so long can prevent the contagion of Iraqi Sunniland from spreading, while we work diplomatically to stabilize Sunni territory through reconstruction aid and the help of friendly neighbors.

We have a chance for achieving significant partial success in a dangerous situation that is rapidly spiraling out of control. It may be our last chance, and we should take it.

*Genghis Khan has gotten a very bad rap in the West. His regime's rules included religious freedom, reward based on merit, protection of women, legitimacy for all children, regulation of hunting, prohibitions on adultery and theft, written codification of law, and subjection of everyone, including the Great Khan himself, to the rule of law. See Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World 67-70 (2004). His grandson Khubilai Khan's administration respected property rights, protected trade routes, used paper money, regulated the professions of medicine and law, disfavored torture as punishment, and established early rules of evidence and procedure in criminal trials, among many other things. See id. at 200-206.

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20 October 2006

Stiff-Necked Diplomacy

Every year, when Yom Kippur rolls around, Jews around the world recite prayers of contrition. The prayers take many forms, but most contain something like the following language:

    “[W]e are not so arrogant and stiff-necked that we should say before You, 0 Lord our God, . . . that we are righteous and have not sinned. For we have sinned. We have trespassed . . . . [W]e have transgressed; we have oppressed.”

This confession of humility and error is the highlight of the Jews’ holiest of days, the Day of Atonement.

To anyone who sees it, this prayer of contrition evokes important questions. Why only on a single day? Any why only before God? Doesn’t humility make miracles every day, in the course of ordinary human relations? Haven’t simple acts of humility reconciled families, business rivals, and even nations?

The greatest political “miracle” of the twentieth century was the fall of the fearsome Soviet Union, without anyone firing a shot. Yet that blessing was not a miracle in any supernatural sense. It was the result of consistent, patient, and intelligent policy, plus a bit of humility.

The policy stood on two legs. First was our strategic deterrent, which kept Soviet leaders from acting out their fantasies. Second was the Russian people’s intelligent self-interest, informed in part by decades of professional reporting from the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

Yet there was also a third factor: humility on our part. We recognized an undeniable fact: the Soviets had an arsenal of nuclear weapons that could annihilate us, if not the world. So we went to talk to them about the possibility of slowing the arms race.

The Soviets were aggressive and blustering. They threatened to replace our capitalism with Communism, worldwide. They tried hard to realize that threat with a combination of revolution and conquest. Nikita Khrushchev said they would “bury” us. Yet we swallowed our pride, fear and resentment and went to talk with them.

The Russians, too, were fearful. Their long and bloody history included invasions from every direction but the frozen north. In last two centuries alone, they had been attacked four times from the west (twice by Napoleonic France, twice by Germany) and twice from the east (both times by Japan). The last invasion, by the Nazis, had killed 20 million of their people and produced casualties in virtually every surviving family. Nevertheless, their leaders came to talk with us, their “enemy.”

Eventually, marginally successful arms-control talks became summits between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. With his legendary charm and affability, Reagan managed to convince Gorbachev that the United States had no designs on his nation, his people, or their territory. Gorbachev was intelligent and far-sighted enough to draw the right conclusions.

The rest is history. Within a few years, there were solid, verifiable and substantial mutual reductions in nuclear arms. A few years later, the fearsome Soviet menace was gone forever. Relieved of the millennial stress of fending off repeated invasions, the Russian people could devote their energy to turning their nuclear-armed Sparta into a modern, prosperous state. None of this would have happened had we not sat down to talk with them.

The most bewildering aspect of today’s international relations is our failure to follow this golden example, despite its spectacular success. We won’t talk with Iran or (directly) with North Korea. We won’t talk with Syria. The Israelis won’t talk with Hamas or Hezbollah, and so won’t we. The very Jews who annually recite the prayer of contrition are too stiff-necked to sit down with their enemies, and we follow their bad example. Stiff-necked diplomacy has infected us like a plague.

If the truth be told, no intelligent or thoughtful policy lies behind these refusals to talk. Their source is the same arrogance that the prayer of contrition warns against.

We talked to the Soviets because we had to. The risk of mutual nuclear annihilation made us humble, and so we talked. The result was a more glorious conclusion than anyone could have imagined at the time.

In contrast, we don’t talk with Iran, North Korea, Hamas, or Hezbollah because we think they are weak. Deep down in our unconscious forebrain, we think of our nuclear arsenal and say to ourselves, “Don’t these idiots realize that we could wipe them out by pressing a button? Why aren’t they more pliable?” That arrogance---not any rational policy---keeps us from sitting down with them as we sat down with the Reds.

We do have ultimate power of life and death over these enemies. A single nuclear submarine, armed with multiple thermonuclear missiles, could turn Iran or North Korea into a radioactive wasteland, uninhabitable by man or beast for thousands of years. A single missile would do for Hamas or Hezbollah. Our technology has given us the destructive power of the Old Testament’s God.

Yet we won’t and can’t use that power. Why? Because we are human and civilized. We know that any such act of destruction would be a grievous and irretrievable moral wrong. It would contravene our laws and moral code, to say nothing of our various religions. It would taint our history with a stench of evil that time could never wash away.

The days are gone when a Cato the Elder, crying “Cartago delenda est!” could whip the Romans into such a frenzy of destruction that they not only murdered Carthage’s people, but burned the city to the ground, tore down its walls, and sowed its fields with salt. Today we see that sort of behavior as barbarism. For us that kind of act is inconceivable.

So we won’t use our ultimate power because we are both human and civilized. We know, deep down, that our enemies are human, too. Our acknowledgement of their humanity stays our nuclear hand but won’t let us talk with them. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Our main excuse for stiff-necked diplomacy is that our enemies should take the first step. But why should they? With the possible exception of Iran and Syria, all of them are weak. Without exception, all of them are much weaker than we. Should we expect the weak to show good sense and reason, when we, the strongest, fail to do so?

The weakest, of course, is North Korea. Despite its formidable army, it can’t feed its people. It can’t produce anything that that rest of the world wants. It has to import its food, its energy and its “Dear Leader’s” luxuries. It doesn’t even enjoy the sympathy and respect that Hamas and Hezbollah engender throughout the Islamic world. Its neighbors on all sides fear and loathe it. It is an object of global derision.

From a human standpoint, North Korea has no leverage over anyone at all, save this: it can threaten. It threatens Seoul---a gem of modern Asia---with destruction by 10,000 conventional rockets poised to launch. Now it threatens the world with nuclear fire and crude missiles.

That’s all it has, nothing else. Yet we expect it to give up its threats---its only leverage---before we even come to the table. How rational a policy is that?

Now take Hamas and Hezbollah. What power do they have? They can send their youth into Israel strapped with explosives to blow themselves up. They can use foreign money and weapons to create havoc, as did Hezbollah in last summer’s war. But with what result? Hezbollah’s so-called “moral victory” left southern Lebanon in ruins and Hezbollah’s compatriots deeply suspicious and resentful of Hezbollah. It may take decades for Hezbollah’s political capital, let alone southern Lebanon’s infrastructure, to recover. And still Hamas wallows in the isolated poverty of Gaza.

For both Hamas and Hezbollah, words are a key source of power, for talk is cheap. By threatening to destroy Israel, they maintain the respect of the frustrated and oppressed Palestinians and the admiration of an increasingly militant Muslim world. With that respect, they attract money, attention, and arms. Their threat to destroy Israel is a key source of what little power and influence they have in the world. Yet we and Israel expect them to give up that power before we’ll even come to the table. How rational is that?

Iran and Syria are a bit different. Like it or not, both are viable, apparently stable states with strong armies and functioning economies. They do not need to rely on threats as sources of power, and so their threats against Israel and sponsorship of terrorists are more troubling.

Nevertheless, they and we have common interests. As a secular, relatively prosperous but repressive autocracy, Syria does not want an Al-Qaeda base on its doorstep in Iraq. Nor does it want a widespread civil war that could spread across its borders. Despite its regional ambitions, Iran has similar interests. There may be those inside Iran who are willing to gamble security for regional power, but there are many cooler heads as well. Iran has not been aggressive and expansionist since the old Persian empire, and it suffered terribly in the eight-year war with Saddam’s Iraq. Many inside Iran rightly fear a regional conflagration more than we do. After all, they will be much closer to it. Don’t these common interests give us something to talk about?

Strong we have been since World War II. Once we were also clever, patient, and wise. Those qualities helped us “conquer” what might have been the most fearsome “evil empire” in world history, without the nuclear holocaust that everyone feared. If we summon up the same qualities again, surely we can neutralize or contain the much smaller threats of today’s petty tyrants. Yet we can’t even begin until we abandon stiff-necked diplomacy.

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18 October 2006

Is Iraq Irretrievably Lost?

Over four months ago, this writer speculated that Iraq was at a turning point. The near-simultaneous extermination of Zarqawi and completion of the Al-Maliki cabinet gave reason for hope. Now, over four months later, further optimism seems hopelessly naïve.

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. After only four months, the reasons for the accelerating collapse are too painfully apparent. They are simple but profound.

The first reason is our own strategic blunder. We sent too few troops. From that simple fact flowed all the subsequent tragedy. It remains the chief and ultimate cause of the mess we see today.

Because we sent too few troops, we could not secure the mountains of ordnance left scattered around the countryside when Saddam’s rule ended. Those explosives fueled the insurgency and random violence from the very beginning. Sequestered by insurgents, they have become IEDs, suicide bombs and other instruments of terror. They have killed and maimed thousands of our own soldiers. Now they are increasingly used in instruments of mayhem directed against the Iraqis themselves.

Because we sent too few troops, we could not maintain order in the places that needed it most. We still cannot today. From Fallujah to Ramadi, from Al-Anbar Province to the bloody ethnic neighborhoods of Baghdad, we have played a persistent game of “whack a mole.” We’ve have done so because we’ve had too few troops to hold and secure all the places that need stabilizing.

Virtually everyone but our first North American junta---Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld---acknowledges that we sent too few troops initially. But if we sent fewer troops than we needed initially, don’t we have far fewer than we need now? Did the war get any easier as the Sunni insurgency grew, jihadis flocked to Iraq from the four corners of the Earth, and Sunni and Shia began slaughtering each other in a low-grade civil war? If we had too few troops to begin with, we have far, far too few troops now.

The second reason for the present collapse is equally simple and equally profound. Iraq is Yugoslavia redux. It is not a nation. It is a tale spun by the British Foreign Office---an odd amalgam of inimical ethnic groups, with little in common, held together only under a strongman’s heel. Once we deposed Saddam, eventual collapse was the likely outcome.

If we had not been so ignorant of both Communism and Islam, we might have seen the parallels sooner. One of the few good things about Communism was its tendency to repress longstanding ethnic and religious hatreds. Ditto Sunni Baathism.

The vicious police states of Tito and Saddam suppressed grievances that go back over a millennium. Remember the butcher Milosevic stirring up Serbian troops with tales of the Battle of Kosovo Pole in 1389? Tales of Sunni-Shia rivalry go back even further. They are mostly about a struggle for power, not religious doctrine. Now those millennial enmities have burst into open warfare on the streets of Iraq.

Maybe, just maybe, things might have been different. With 300,000 to 400,000 troops, we might have stopped the looting, picked up all those loose explosives, stabilized key locales, and created an atmosphere in which political reconciliation might have been possible. But that chance vanished only months after the President prematurely declared “Mission Accomplished.” Now it is surely gone forever. Some mistakes don’t come with second chances.

The third reason why optimism is futile is the knot we have tied in Iraq. We disbanded the Iraqi Army and fought the Sunni insurgency because, we thought, both threatened to restore the rule of Saddam or someone like him. Our doing so convinced many Sunnis, irrevocably, that we are not on their side.

That knot of suspicion is only getting tighter. According to the press, our most recent pacification policy employs a two-step strategy. We aim to pacify the Sunni areas first, in order to relieve Shiites’ fears and convince them to disband their militias. Then we hope that the Iraqi government will assuage Sunni fears and reduce the level of violence by actually disbanding them.

But as we tighten the knot on the Sunni insurgency, they neither see nor believe that the second step is coming. They only see what they have seen since March 2003: a powerful, foreign occupying army that appears to wish them ill. As Sunni suspicions and fears increase, so does the level of violence, against both Shiites and our own troops. As the level of Sunni violence increases, the chance of Shiites voluntarily disbanding their militias vanishes. This vicious circle makes a farce of our naïve two-step strategy.

And how can we blame the Shia? We are the ones who abandoned the Shiite Marsh Arabs to Saddam’s tender mercies after Gulf I. Do we really expect them to trust us to protect them now? If anything in Iraq is easy to understand, it is Shiites’ desire---at last---to have armed forces loyal to them alone, which they know will protect them. Survival is a very strong motivator.

The prospects seemed better four months ago when Al-Maliki took the helm. He promised to crush the militias with an “iron fist.” But in hindsight that promise seems empty talk. The historical, political and military reasons for the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government not to disband the militias are just too strong. No Shiite politician can credibly ask for that kind of seemingly unilateral sacrifice with three decades of Baathist tyranny and the Marsh Arabs’ slaughter so fresh in Shiites’ minds.

We might have prevented all this had we sent enough troops to do the job. We might still pacify the country, if we are willing to commit half a million troops and put our nation on a war footing for at least five years. But our people have no stomach for that kind of commitment, and our leaders have never asked it of us.

We have tried to “win” a war on the cheap, with unclear and utopian objectives. From the beginning, we have been unwilling to devote the resources needed to “win”—whatever that means. Now that fate and our own stupidity have upped the ante by an order of magnitude, can we really talk about staying in the game?

We are left to face an increasingly clear reality: Iraq will splinter and become like Yugoslavia. Baghdad may have to be partitioned, perhaps with Arab League soldiers enforcing the partition. The Kurds may have to be protected from Turkey and prevented from destabilizing that nation, which so far is the sole beacon of democracy in the Islamic Middle East. Everyone will have to work hard to minimize casualties and hardship.

That ultimate future, however, is not so terrifying. The Kurds have shown themselves to be eminently capable of both self-government and self-defense. The Shia are learning rapidly. The only big question is the Sunnis’ future.

Our own nightmare, of course, is an Iraqi Sunniland becoming what Afghanistan was under the Taliban. But how likely is that? The Sunnis are secular, and they have the infrastructure (albeit battered) of a modern industrial state. Their “invitation” to jihadis seems to have been a temporary marriage of convenience. Moreover, Iraqi Sunnis’ supporters and potential supporters abroad---Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan--are concerned about the rise of Shiite radicalism and the Iran’s increasingly muscular foreign policy. As autocracies that (except for Saudi Arabia) are largely secular, they have little reason to encourage an Al-Qaeda haven. And Saudi Arabia is first in Al-Qaeda's crosshairs.

Even Syria has common interests with the United States in this regard. As a Baathist dictatorship and a secular, Sunni autocracy, it has only a little less to fear from an Al-Qaeda haven in what is now Iraq than do the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians. We should be talking to the Syrians about these common interests, rather than stiff-arming them like some fifteenth-century Pope.

It is time, therefore, for a return to realpolitik. What used to be Yugoslavia is relatively stable, now that it has been balkanized. Secure within its own borders, each of the splinters is returning to the path of economic progress and civilization. Eventually, most or all of them may become parts of an expanding Europe.

In the long run, a similar future may unfold for divided Iraqi Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish nations. Once secure within their separate borders, perhaps they might eventually join an Arabic or Muslim free trade area and begin the long march back to peace and prosperity.

In the meantime, the prospects for successful Shiite and Kurdish democracies are excellent. We’ve no business sacrificing more of our blood and treasure in a futile and half-hearted attempt to fix the future of the Iraqi Sunnis, who hate our guts and are determined to go their own way.

A partitioned Iraq would likely produce two strong new democracies, one Shiite and the other Kurdish. Two out of three ain’t bad. Given the cost and risk of alternatives, we should be content to leave it at that.

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