Catallaxy’s Heath Gibson has made a comeback to blogging with a heartfelt mea culpa for his support of the US-led Iraq war and occupation. I supported the war as well (albeit with reservations). However, I didn’t retire from blogging when I discovered I’d been wrong. Moreover, until now I have held out hope that the eventual outcome might still be a net positive, despite the absence of WMD and the evident bankruptcy of the justifications for war advanced by Bush, Blair and Howard.
It seemed possible (albeit only with difficulty and sacrifice) to at least leave Iraq in better shape than we entered it: for the Iraqi people, neighbouring countries and the world in general. But this article from the Spectator by Times diplomatic editor Richard Beeston (reproduced by a blogger) has put an end to those hopes. The horror, chaos and intractability of the situation seem overwhelming, with no prospect of an end in sight. Baathist and Al Qaeda terrorists and Shiite militias will maintain a reign of fear, intimidation and extreme violence for as long as the Americans and their allies remain there. They are determined to drive out the white ‘infidel’, and in the short term to prevent any democratic elections from taking place. It’s clear that they will succeed at least in the latter aim. It’s inconceivable that anything even marginally resembling free and fair elections could take place by January or at any other time in the foreseeable future.
In the current climate of fear and violence, there is simply no prospect of ever viably reconstructing Iraqi governance, rule of law or physical infrastructure. What is to be done? Will the Americans eventually be bombed and beheaded into an ignominious withdrawal, with the last few Yankees helicoptered from the roof of the US Embassy like in Vietnam all those years ago? At the moment that seems very likely. But it would leave behind civil war and a failed state, and a high probability that the dictatorial strongman ruler who eventually emerged from the chaos would be even worse than Saddam. At least Saddam was a secular bloodthirsty dictator.
Is there any viable alternative?
Once the Americans acknowledge (as they eventually must) the hopelessness of the present situation and the impossibility of imagining any even remotely satisfactory outcome, thoughts will inevitably turn to devising the least bad exit strategy. I’ve just attempted that exercise myself, albeit from a position of radically incomplete knowledge and understanding of all the influences and constraints.
It seems to me that partitioning of Iraq into 3 distinct new States, the Kurdish north, Sunni centre and Shiite south, is the only option that might possibly work. The Kurdish state would need to be supported by an ongoing US military presence, but the Sunni and Shiite states should largely be capable of maintaining themselves. The Americans would need to stick around long enough to establish generally sensible borders reflecting current settlement patterns, and to provide relocation support and assistance to those with the misfortune to live in a new state whose dominant faith/ethnicity differed from their own.
Fairly obviously, this is a risky strategy. But it seems to me that the risks are manageable, unlike the current situation. The Americans should seek agreement of Shiite, Kurd and Sunni leaders on appropriate borders, but realise that it’s extremely unlikely that complete agreement could ever be achieved. There might well be ongoing border warfare after the US withdrawal, although the US could go a fair way towards effectively supporting all three sides in maintaining their borders by promising to bomb any forces which attempted to invade and annex additional territory. There would also very probably be significant local ethnic cleansing activity as soon as Iraqis got wind of the American plan. US forces would need to be ready to undertake emergency evacuations of beleaguered minority populations.
A plan of this sort would inevitably meet kneejerk objections from UN-fixated internationalists. International law forbids occupying powers from altering the governance of a territory under military occupation, and permanent partitioning is a rather drastic alteration of governance. But that is merely a resort to sterile, impotent legalism to evade moral responsibility: a blind, wilful, morally corrupt acceptance of the inevitability of slaughter, chaos and genocide not dissimilar to the UN’s previous performance on Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo and its present similar behaviour in relation to the Darfur region of Sudan. Anyone making those sorts of objections deserves to be ignored unless they are prepared to suggest potentially viable solutions of their own.
It seems to me that the partitioning option offers at least the possibility of a permanent outcome that’s actually better all round than before the invasion and occupation. The Kurdish region has already developed its own stable and relatively democratic governance structure, and its future is bright (as long as the US is prepared to keep underwriting it and thumb its nose at Turkish hostility).
And the emerging Shiite and Sunni states may well be less murderously repressive than Saddam was, because violent repression was in part an unavoidable aspect of governing such an ethnically and religiously divided nation. Partitioning would massively reduce ethnic and religious divisions within all three partitioned states. A re-emergent Baathist regime in the Sunni heartland, without Saddam and his sons, might ultimately prove to be a relatively civilised, secular social-democratic government. And a Shiite regime in the southern half of the country would no doubt be religiously fundamentalist, but hopefully less extreme and anti-democratic than the Iranian ayatollahs.
Three smaller, less powerful states would also be much less likely ever to have the capacity to threaten neighbouring countries militarily, and would keep a close eye on each other to make sure none of them acquire WMD.
Externally-guided balkanisation seems to have worked fairly well in the Balkans itself. Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia et al seem now to have settled into a reasonably stable pattern of relatively peaceful co-existence, and there’s no reason to believe the same couldn’t occur in a balkanised Iraq. After all, Iraq itself is an artefact of early 20th century European colonialism. Why should the world’s response to intractable horror in that country be constrained by an unchallengeable commitment to the inviolability of irrational, evidently unsustainable territorial boundaries that the Iraqis themselves never chose anyway?