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

09 August 2014

Iraq Now is Neither Syria nor Libya Then


[For a recent post on simplicity and “Obamacare,” click here.]

As the President authorizes strictly limited air strikes in Iraq, hand wringing becomes a national pastime. Analogies fly about like caged birds let go without warning. We are, we are told, repeating our errors in Iraq originally, in Syria, or in Libya.

In fact, we are doing none of the above.

One of the reasons the President’s popularity is so low is that he thinks. He responds to actual events and facts, in all their nuance and complexity, every time. He doesn’t govern—let alone commit our military—under a doctrine or ideology simplistic enough to fit on a bumper sticker.

In short, he’s not Dubya. Thank God! Unfortunately, ordinary people, and even some pundits, have gotten so used to that form of “reasoning” that actually thinking strikes them as the act of an alien species.

Let’s begin with the obvious. We are not going back into Iraq with ground troops. The President doesn’t want to. Our Yankee people would practically rebel. And despite some wistfulness about our overblown Yankee power, none of the three major ethnic groups in Iraq wants us to. Their memory of our series of cretinous blunders is too recent for that.

So forget about American tanks (except those that ISIS stole from Iraq’s Army) and ground troops. They are not even a gleam in John McCain’s eye.

And that, dear reader, is the sole point of analogy between our current “intervention” in Iraq and what we tried to do in Libya and didn’t do in Syria. Let me write it again: we aren’t committing our own ground forces, apart from observers, advisors and maybe a few clandestine special forces. Period.

Now, like good lawyers, let’s look at points of distinction. Why is Iraq today completely unlike Syria when we didn’t intervene a year or two ago, and unlike Libya when did intervene to keep Qaddafi from slaughtering the rebels trapped in Benghazi?

There are two clear points of distinction. First, Iraq is not a tyranny in which a tyrant bids fair to slaughter or oppress a big minority just to maintain his tyranny. Iraq may not be an ideal democracy, and Al Maliki may be an inept leader. But Iraq today is far from a military tyranny. We Yanks spent over 4,000 dead, 30,000 wounded, and an estimated two trillion dollars to make it so.

The President and his advisors hope that Iraq is a democracy in the making, and that the challenge of ISIS, like a hangman’s noose, may focus Iraqi pols’ attention and make it so. I think, as I’ve written recently, that Iraq is an unviable chimera, a bald fiction of the British Foreign Office. If it’s lucky, it may end up being three democracies that somehow manage to get along: Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite.

But in this particular instance, who’s right on that question doesn’t really matter. Whether Iraq is really one nation or three, it has indigenous population(s) that (together or separately) vastly outnumber the jihadis, that occupy territory containing their own homes, and that have, on occasion, have been known to fight for those homes.

None of these groups is, like the most effective rebels in Syria, composed primarily terrorists. And, whether individually or together, each group is far more cohesive, traditional, and organized than the ragtag band of rebels that eventually killed Qaddafi on the streets. Whether you think of Iraq as one nation or three, it or they are already real nation(s), with unique history, governance, and even a few passable elections under their belt(s).

The second major difference between Iraq now and Syria and Libya when we were considering intervening in them is the source of the trouble. Assad and the rebels who opposed him were purely domestic forces. Foreign jihadis only came later, much later. Qaddafi and the rebels who opposed him were entirely indigenous. They were all Libyans, born and raised. Each conflict started as a classic, indigenous civil war.

What’s happening in Iraq today is completely different. The jihadis in ISIS are primarily foreign fighters, with a foreign, messianic, pan-Islamic agenda that has virtually nothing to do with longstanding domestic disputes among the three ethnic groups in Iraq. It would be hard to conceive of an agenda farther from the concerns of territory, secular power and oil riches that are driving Iraq’s three ethnic groups apart.

All the trouble, apparently, comes from (at most!) between ten and twenty thousand foreign jihadis. ISIS’ self-proclaimed leader calls himself “Al-Baghdadi.” Whether that name is legitimate or a mere military goal is something that reporters and intelligence services should quickly discover. It makes a difference, doesn’t it, whether he’s a rare indigenous leader or actually just another foreign invader?

We know what’s going on in Kurdistan and in the Shia. Each is trying to protect its territory and homes from the ISIS onslaught, with uncertain success. But what’s happening among the Sunna? Isn’t that the big question?

Anbar’s Sunni sheikhs made short work of the jihadis during the period 2006-2009. They got fed up with the jihadis’ wanton and senseless killing, and we Yanks paid them to fight. We paid to the tune of $400 million.

But whatever the reasons, the sheikhs did well. Why was that? They didn’t actually fight alone, in their fine white desert robes. Remember those 100,000-plus Baathist troops and officers that Paul Bremer purged categorically from the Iraqi Army without even vetting them? They didn’t just evaporate. And many of the older ones had vast combat experience in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

If ISIS is winning surprising victories, including over the Kurds’ competent peshmerga, it’s not because Allah is backing ISIS. It’s not because ISIS has that much better fighters than the veterans of Saddam’s Army. And it’s not because the jihadis instantaneously became experts in using all those Yankee heavy weapons that ISIS just captured less than two weeks ago. It’s probably because a significant number of Saddam’s former army are fighting alongside them, or perhaps directing them.

So the big, big question, which every reporter and intelligence operative should be trying to answer, is why. Why are Saddam’s former army officers—who are about as secular as you can get—fighting alongside religious fanatics who want to make their country into a Caliphate unlike anything they know or grew up with?

The most likely answer is that the veterans of Saddam’s army have joined with the jihadis in a temporary military/political alliance to: (1) gain as much territory and oil as they can, as quickly as they can; and (2) scare the hell out of the Shiites and Maliki in the hope of improving their political bargaining position.

Even their military strategy supports this view. The oil fields near Kirkuk and the Kurdish city of Irbil are closer and smaller than Baghdad. Both are far closer and easier to penetrate that Basra, whose capture would require taking Baghdad first. If the Sunni jihadis were really in charge, wouldn’t they throw themselves first at Baghdad and their traditional Shiite enemies?

So the unholy alliance of ISIS and Saddam’s ghost army may be going straight for Irbil because it sees that city and the Kurds as the path of least resistance. If so, the airborne intervention on which the President has now embarked may be longer than he anticipates.

Nevertheless, our intervention is a worthwhile enterprise for two reasons. First, of all the three ethnic groups in Iraq, the Kurds are most worthy of our help. They have renounced terrorism in Turkey. They have never sought to seize or conquer territory outside their traditional domain. They have never sought to subjugate the other two groups in Iraq, despite having been gassed and slaughtered by Saddam.

In the entire volatile Middle East, the Kurds are virtually unique in having tried to build their new nation patiently, moderately and responsibly, with a minimum of violence. They deserve our help. And if we give it, they will undoubtedly be good and reliable friends in a region in which we have few.

Second, while military action is never without risk, the risk of air strikes in or near Kurdistan is low. None of the three ethnic groups has a anything like an air force that can match ours. And no neighbor, let alone Russia or Iran, is likely to give Sunni jihadis anti-aircraft missiles like the Russian Buk that shot down MH17, for fear that they would end up in terrorists’ hands. With our stealth technology, advanced avionics, and anti-missile defenses, our skilled pilots should not incur undue risk.

You may have noticed that I’ve not yet even mentioned the Yazidis. As many of ten thousand of them, unarmed civilians, are hiding on a mounting top, fearful to come down lest ISIS slaughter them just for being who they are.

Our species has a name for that: genocide. For Saddam’s ghost army, this atrocity-in-the-making may just be a feint—a diversion from the real goals, namely, Irbil and the oil fields near Kirkuk. In fact, even Irbil may be a diversion from the oil. (It goes without saying that the ghost army probably intends to take care of the jihadis later, just as it did before.)

Some may think our President a wimp for seeking to aid such a tiny, helpless minority, which doesn’t even budge the needle of our selfish national interest. But I don’t. If we can help this tiny group survive and maintain its ethnic identity, we will advance the values of our Bill of Rights and the principles of the Western Enlightenment that forged our nation. If the Turks take the Yazidis and protect them as refugees, even temporarily, they will come one step closer to deserving EU membership.

The Yazidis’ mountain and the Kurdish frontier are in the same general region, a short distance by plane, and our pilots can fly and chew gum at the same time. And the Yazidis, like the Kurds, will remember us Yanks and our President fondly for a long, long time. Isn’t is about time that we did something with our big guns that has a clear moral imperative and clear and deserving beneficiaries? If nothing else, we Yanks might feel just a little bit better about ourselves.

One more thing. The President was visibly reluctant to commit to military action, especially in Iraq. Isn’t that precisely how we want our leaders to be?

Counterpoint: the Dam and the Oil

If the foregoing analysis is correct, then the Sunni sheikhs and Saddam’s ghost army, not the jihadis, are really calling the shots in the fighting in northern Iraq. That hypothesis makes sense. Collectively, Iraq’s indigenous Sunni people, as compared to the jihadis, are far more numerous, more experienced in fighting in Iraq, and more connected to the land, the people and the culture. They are also likely better trained and more experienced with the Yankee heavy weapons just captured from Iraq’s fleeing army.

If we follow this line of thought, then the reasons for the fighting today are both more pedestrian and simpler than the jihadis’ daydreams of a global Caliphate. Iraq’s Sunna is after what it couldn’t get under Maliki: a generous share of Iraq’s power and wealth. It seeks its share whether or not Iraq holds together as a nation; hence its resort to military force.

If Iraq splits up, its Sunna wants to own a big share of Iraq’s oil. And if not, the same. So Iraq’s Sunna is trying to take and control the oil by force because politics under Maliki haven’t worked for it.

Why did it fight so hard to control the big dam near Mosul? The dam is a source of hydroelectric power and therefore wealth. And if it’s built right, it could produce revenue long after Iraq’s oil runs out. It’s a valuable renewable resource.

The jihadis may want the dam for extortion. By blowing it up, they could cut the power to a large part of northern Iraq and, in addition, flood the valley below. But the secular Iraqi Sunnis who ruled under Saddam (and, in my view, are really calling the shots) may want the dam simply because it’s something of value.

For reasons of geography, propinquity and numbers, Iraq’s Sunnis appear to have concluded that it’s easier to grab wealth from the Kurds than from the Shiites, especially if doing the latter requires fighting their way through Baghdad. And so we have a brand new phase to the now-eleven-year-old Iraqi civil war: the Kurdish-Sunni front.

Most of Iraq’s oil wealth is in the south, in the gigantic fields near Basra. Relatively speaking, the Kurds and Sunnis are fighting over scraps. But the Sunnis will likely keep fighting until they get at least a substantial share of the scraps.

This conclusion bodes ill for a quick and easy resolution of the civil war’s new phase through American air power.

So maybe the President and his advisors are right and I was wrong. Maybe the quickest and easiest end to the long-running, intermittent civil war does run through Baghdad, in a political solution to the crisis and a fair division of Iraq’s wealth by political means. That sure beats turning Iraq, or even northern Iraq, into Syria.

Iraq’s indigenous Sunnis are, for the most part, practical, secular, sensible people. They easily overcame the last wave of jihadis after we Yanks paid them to fight and promised them a fair share of the spoils. They might do the same for this new wave, if they can see their way to receiving a fair share of power and wealth in the country that, not so long ago, they once ruled absolutely.

The alternative is for us Yanks to support the Kurds in a new phase of the civil war, with the probable result that the Kurds will suffer greatly and, in the end, lose some of the oil wealth they, too, have fought for. From a moral perspective alone, that is not an attractive outcome. The Kurds have suffered enough already.

The problem with my theory of partition is that there’s not much wealth in the traditional desert homeland of Iraq’s native Sunna. So partitioning Iraq without some equitable wealth sharing might create, not resolve, conflict. Having once ruled all of Iraq, the Sunnis will not likely be content to remain paupers in their traditional homeland.

Thus the best and quickest resolution of the crisis may indeed lie in political change in Baghdad. Nevertheless, limited application of American air power may now be necessary to avoid an unfair division of northern Iraq, in which the powerful Sunnis, using captured Yankee weapons, oppress Kurds in their homeland as they once oppressed both Kurds and Shiites in all of Iraq.

It seems to me that, having made the dual blunders of marginalizing Iraq’s Sunna (under Bremer, Rumsfeld and Dubya) and now letting our heavy weapons fall into its hands, we owe what is left of the Iraqi chimera, and the dim prospects for peace in the region, at least that much. The goal is not so much a Kurdish victory and a Sunni defeat as a disincentive toward wealth acquisition by violence and an incentive for a political solution, however hard Iraqi politics may be.

An Analogy and a Strategy for Iraq Now

The essay above debunks the easy analogies to what is going on now in Iraq. It’s not like Syria or Libya. Like most current events—especially in the ever-complex Middle East—it’s sui generis.

But there is an analogy worth making. It requires going back a lot farther back than Syria’s civil war or Libya’s disintegration after Qaddafi. It requires going back a whole century.

Although the causes of World War I were hardly simple, most observers would say that the German Kaiser started it because he thought he had a lot to gain. Anyway, the German nation prosecuted the war with uncommon fierceness and vigor, even dreaming up the suigenocidal notion of “total war.”

So when the Germans ultimately lost, the victorious Allies piled on. They punished the defeated German people collectively with war reparations, enormous debt and economic isolation. The result was the Weimar Hyperinflation, the worst economic punishment ever visited upon a single nation (if you include Austria). Like rats driven into an economic and political corner, the German people bit back, with Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II, which ultimately killed 50 million people. What a bite!

Our Yankee president at the time of the first victory was Woodrow Wilson. Like our current President, he was a former professor, accustomed to thinking about consequences. He begged, pleaded and cajoled the other Allies not to punish the German people collectively, but to no avail. He didn’t live long enough to see the catastrophic consequences of their failure to heed his advice: he died in 1924.

Like the German people, Iraqi Sunnis are smart, strong and vigorous. They are no one to mess around with. Although less than a quarter of all Iraqis, they ruled the nation with an iron hand for three decades. Under Saddam’s tyranny, they gassed the Kurds. They slaughtered the Shiite Marsh Arabs, with our inexplicable acquiescence.

Now the Kurds and Shiites, with our Yankee help, have the upper hand. They want to treat the Sunnis just as the victorious World War I Allies treated the defeated Germans. They want to punish, ostracize, isolate, and impoverish them.

That strategy didn’t work out so well for the European Allies, did it?

You can already see the reactionary explosion developing. Iraqi Sunnis have made an unholy alliance with ISIS. With their 100,000-plus experienced and largely secular Baathist soldiers—which Dubya’s administration also purged and isolated for no good reason—and with the Yankee weapons recently captured from fleeing, mostly Shiite, federal soldiers, the Iraqi Sunnis and ISIS have taken over significant parts of northern Iraq. Without American intervention, they could easily take more.

So our President has intervened with air power. Ever an honest man, he tells us the intervention may take months.

But the intervention is only half of the strategy—a temporary expedient to prevent more territory and wealth falling into Sunni/ISIS hands, or a brutal, general civil war in the north. The other half of the strategy has to be stopping the reactionary explosion at its source: the Sunna of Iraq.

How can the Kurds and Shiites do that? By holding their noses and giving the Sunna a fair shake in oil wealth and local governance.

From an emotional standpoint, a thirst for retribution and revenge is all too understandable. But the Code of Hammurabi simply doesn’t work. That’s why human social evolution has left it in the dustbin of history.

It didn’t work for the World War I Allies, and it won’t work for the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq. It will only produce an interminable cycle of violence and suffering, as in Syria today, or as in Israel and Palestine.

So Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites have to do what we Yanks did after the second great explosion in Europe, which failing to heed Woodrow Wilson’s advice had caused. They have to engage with their Iraqi Sunni enemies, cooperate with them, insure their survival and minimal welfare, and give them a fair share of Iraq’s wealth—just as we Yanks did with the defeated Germans and Japanese in our occupations and our Marshall Plan.

We Yanks, of course, can’t force the Kurds and Shiites to take this absolutely essential step. All we can do is show and exhort them, and use our air power to give them breathing room, time to think.

That’s why the President said he will use our air power only to insure the continuation of existing borders and hegemonies, and will not seek a defeat or collapse of the Sunni powers in Iraq. And that’s why the President said we will likely be running air missions for months. It may take that long for the Kurdish and Shiite leadership to recognize that there is no way out of a general (and terrible!) civil war except the way that Professors and Presidents Wilson and Obama have showed.

Footnote: Besides trying to preserve as much of the status quo as possible, there’s an humanitarian reason for not trying to dislodge existing conquests. Especially in open, mostly treeless country like Iraq, air power can stop armies on the move without causing massive civilian casualties. Trying to use air power to dislodge forces entrenched in cities or towns would just make us Yanks look like Assad.

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