Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What do we do about Iraq?

What do we do about Iraq?

Let's start with what we want to do. Then we'll ask what can we do.

What do we want to do? The war's original objectives were to find and secure Hussein's WMD. It's clear now that before the war those WMD: (i) didn't exist; (ii) were destroyed; or (ii) were transported to Syria. Regardless of the explanation for our inability to find them, the WMD rationale for war no longer exists.

Following our failure to find WMD, the rationale for war evolved to include removing a dangerous dictator and establishing democracy. Hussein has been removed, so that objective has been achieved. Among the war's stated objectives, therefore, we're left with the establishment of democracy.

Before going on to the question of what we can do, it's important to consider possible unstated objectives, as well. I believe our unstated (and true) objective was to establish an overwhelming US military presence adjacent to Syria and Iran so as to pressure those regimes and possibly to change them. The current scope of the Iraqi insurgency, however, means we have neither the military means nor the domestic political support to invade Syria or Iran. It's likely that Assad and the mullahs understand this. Therefore, our objective of pressuring these regimes through our military presence in Iraq is not achievable -- unless can first achieve the final remaining stated objective of establishing democracy in Iraq. We'll come back to that in a moment.

Another of our unspoken objectives in Iraq was to get the country pumping oil again to build slack into global supply, thereby lowering prices and ensuring access in case of political instability elsewhere (the sequence would be: remove Hussein, end sanctions, rebuild the oil infrastructure). You need look no further than the prices posted at your corner gas station to know that this objective has not been achieved. But it might still be achievable -- more on which in a moment.

Although it would be impolite to say it out loud, let's accept that, at this point, we would settle for reasonably pro-western stability in Iraq as the fruits of our efforts there, even in the absence of democracy. Thus, the whole thrust of the war now boils down to this question: can we stabilize Iraq? If so, how? And what if we can't?

I don't believe we can stabilize Iraq within its present borders. First, the country has become too fissiparous. In the absence of centrally-supplied security, ethnic groups instinctively turn to their own militias, and, as Thomas Friedman has noted regarding his experience in Lebanon, once militias assume a prominent role in society they become extremely difficult to co-opt or eradicate. Moreover, I don't believe the Kurds have ever been interested in re-integrating into Arab Iraq. Why would they be? They've had de facto independence since the end of the first Gulf War, and have enjoyed reasonable amounts of democracy, prosperity, and, most of all, stability as as result. I have yet to read any plausible explanation of why the Kurds would agree to return to the Iraqi fold. Accordingly, I believe the Kurds' game is ostensibly support Washington's goal of keeping the country unified, while simultaneously doing all they can to prepare for and foster the day their independence becomes de jure. If one of the three players we're trying to get to live together has no interest in the project, how can it possibly succeed?

So: the current internal dynamic of Iraqi society tends toward a break-up into three Iraqs: Kurd, Shiite, and Sunni. External forces, chiefly in the form of the US military presence there, act to counter this tendency. Over time, I believe Iraq's internal tendency will prove stronger than the external forces acting to counter it, and the country will split into three.

All right. If it's true that we can't stabilize Iraq within its present borders, what should we be doing instead?

As a first step, we should change our currently stated objectives to make them more open-ended. The new emphasis would be along the lines of "supporting the future that Iraqis choose for themselves." Then, following the failure of some appropriate milestone (perhaps the current efforts to form a national unity government), we could shift our diplomatic efforts toward ensuring as orderly as possible a break-up of the country into three new entities.

To put it in slightly different terms: the first step would be to use different language to describe our current objectives in Iraq (part of our current difficulties lie in the overly lofty objectives the administration articulated following the failure to find WMD). For anyone who would object that we can't change our objectives in Iraq, I would argue that of course it's possible: indeed, we already have. One more change ought to be no more difficult than any of the previous ones.

Then, using the greater linguistic flexibility we have created, we can plausibly (in fact, accurately), note that the future which Iraqis have chosen for themselves involves three Iraqs rather than one, and that we must of course respect that choice. All our diplomatic and military efforts would then be in the service of steering the country in the direction its internal forces are currently taking it, rather than fighting against the tendency of those forces. Windmills, in other words, rather than windbreaks.

(One reason we need to change our view of our own objectives is that, so long as we see a departure from Iraq as a defeat, we will be inclined to stay there much longer than necessary. For more on how a nation decides when enough is enough, click here.)

A three-Iraq solution is probably not as bad as the conventional wisdom would have us believe. In the absence of a foreign military presence to unite them, Shiite Iraq and Shiite Iran would quickly rediscover their historic differences of language, culture, and nationality (China and Vietnam were allies during America's engagement in Indochina, but were at war within four years after our departure from Saigon). The Sunni center of the country is without oil, and could probably be quarantined until its current pathologies receded. As for Kurdistan, I believe the basis exists for a grand bargain between Iraq's Kurds and Turkey: in return for Turkey's recognition and declared respect for Kurdistan's independence, Kurdistan renounces all revanchist objectives with regard to territory that is now Turkey, renounces support for the PKK, and publicly or privately assures Turkey of access to cut-rate oil from Kirkuk.

Moreover, freed of the constant sabotage wrought by a largely Sunni insurgency, the Kurds and Shiites could rebuild their oil industries. The oil they would then make available to the world market would be a huge boon to the US economy.

For anyone who finds my proposed three state solution unacceptable, I ask: compared to what realistic alternative? We have to work with the facts as we find them (indeed, as we have created them), not with what might have been or what we wish could be.

To some, my prescription might seem overly pessimistic. Many people note that there is much good news in Iraq that goes unreported. I'm sure this is true. But I'm equally sure of much bad news that we're missing, too. The country has become so unsafe that journalists no longer have even minimally acceptable access or insights into what's going on. When that's the case, my sense is that what you're missing is more bad than it is good.

As a society, we're probably not ready to accept that a three state solution is now the best outcome we can hope to retrieve in Iraq. But the good news, if you want to call it that, is that three states is where Iraq is heading whether we like it or not. We can always get behind it later. But the effort would be easier, more plausible, and probably less bloody if we did so now.


JD Rhoades said...

I believe our unstated (and true) objective was to establish an overwhelming US military presence adjacent to Syria and Iran so as to pressure those regimes and possibly to change them.

I fear you're right. And if so, it's a perfect illustration of how little our government understands the Middle East. Anyone who thought we could build a military platform in an Arab country that was stable and safe enough to influence Syria and Iran to that degree was living in a dream world.

Here's the thing...most Arabs really don't like non-Muslim foreigners in their countries. Period. Some tolerate it, a few may even welcome it, but it enrages enough to make a continued military presence a dicey proposition. We can't launch a strike on Iran or Syria if we're constantly worried about our bases getting car bombed.

I like your three state solution in principle, but in practice:

(1)I don't think the Sunnis are just going to let the Shi'ia secede with all the oil. I'm not sure what you mean by "quarantined" looks a lot like the sort of taking sides which we've tried so hard to avoid (and which, if we do it, will make things worth with other Sunni Arabs).

(2) Turkey might agree to an independent Kurdistan if the Kurds agree that "Kurdistan" doesn't include a big chunk of southern Turkey, but does anyone here know if there's enough trust between them to make that work?

(3) In the final analysis, any solution we attempt to impose from outside is going to be tainted by virtue of that fact. Barry, the three-state solution is merely a more benign manifestation of the kind of "we can fix them" mentality that got us into this mess in the first place. If there's any solution, it's going to have to be drafted by the Iraqi's themselves, whether or not we like the outcome. We need to give the Iraqis a deadline. January 31, 2007, we're gone. Get your shit together by then, because we're done trying to get it together for you.
I'm sure the apologists of the failed Iraqi policy are going to be doing a lot of chest-beating about "cut and run," but that's just too bad. They're like people playing poker who think its "unmanly" to fold when they have a bad hand. Just stay in, they think. The next draw will save me, or maybe they'll fold when they see what a bad-ass I am.
I love playing with people like that.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the Sunnis are just going to let the Shi'ia secede with all the oil.

Exactly. I don't think you can achieve stability with a split, unless all three feel like they've ended up with what is rightfully theirs, and nothing that is rightfully theirs ended up in someone else's territory. And you can't fix such problems by re-drawing geographic boundaries to give every side a portion of the oil, if the re-drawing forces large numbers of people to end up in the "wrong" territory because of where their house happens to be.

I don't have nearly enough knowledge to understand the Middle East, let alone think of how to leave behind stability in Iraq. Unfortunately, history bored me in high school (couldn't they have done something more than require us to memorize names and dates?). Therefore, I avoided the subject in college. So I have to ask (naively, perhaps): is there even a single case of one country invading another for its own purposes, dismantling the government, then leaving the invaded country in a stable state--without the invader continuing to occupy and retaining rule?

I could be entirely wrong. If there are counterexamples, I'd like to hear about them. Perhaps looking at successes would give some idea of how to achieve a good outcome in Iraq (if it's not far too late for that already, and I admit feeling pessimistic on that front).

It seems to me that invasion leads to instability, and we were foolish to think that somehow it would go differently this time. I don't think societies and governments are something you manufacture and install like software. I think they are something that grow organically over time, and that growth has to come from within, not without (so I do agree with that aspect of Barry's post).

David Terrenoire said...

One of the reasons for establishing long-term military bases in Iraq was so we could move our troops out of Saudi Arabia and away from Mecca and Medina. That can still work.

The three state solution is going to be tough. (BTW, you taught me a new word today: fissiparous, very nice.) It makes sense from our point of view, but I've read that the Sunni area in particular breaks down further into tribal fiefdoms which is pretty much how the British found it a century ago. So we may be dealing with more than just three groups here.

The Turks are going to be a tough sell on Kurdistan, not so much because of the Kurds over the border, but their own Kurdish minority wanting more autonomy.

The administration keeps saying they don't want a 3-state solution, and, as peregrine suggests, if the Sunnis don't get their share of oil money the insurgency will become a civil war, if we're not there already.

I'd like some discussion of a tactics from someone who knows counterinsurgency better than I do. There appears to be a growing number of voices opting for the "oil spot" tactic of pacifying the country, versus our present policy. That is, simplistically speaking, abandoning the most violent places in Iraq and concentrating our security forces on those parts of the country that can be brought up to civilized standards, with relative safety and a working infrastructure that, like an oil spot on the water, will spread on its own, bringing more communities into the fold.

This has appeal, but I also see problems. I don't think our present tactics are working, but I don't know. I was just an enlisted man, after all. I'd like to hear others' opinions on this as well as the political realities Barry's outlined here.

I do know this: It's a mess, and Laura Ingraham can fault journalists all day (from the safety of the Green Zone), but it says a lot when reporters who live on the adrenaline of a shooting war don't feel safe in the streets of Baghdad.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the good comments, everyone. I had a feeling this subject might produce some disagreement... ;-)

Agreed that the Sunnis won't be happy to see the Kurds and Shiites secede and leave the Sunnis oilless. The question is, how much can they do to stop it, and whether this is what's happening anyway. And if I'm right that it's happening anyway, the US won't really be taking a side so much as facilitating reality. Moreover, the imperative for US impartiality between the three parties becomes significantly less important once the country is splitting in three and we're on our way out.

It's true that there's little trust between the Kurds and Turks. But there are also many points that favor compromise, if the parties can be rational... which, I admit, is the big question.

Again, I don't think of three states so much as a solution imposed from outside as an outcome driven by internal forces. We can give the Iraqis a deadline -- I favor the idea -- but my guess is that the deadline results in three states. At that point, do we work with that reality or against it?

David, glad you liked fissiparous. I've never seen it outside The Economist and have always liked it.

I'm familiar with the oil spot strategy; Rice has been talking about it a lot. I have two general concerns with it. First, I don't know how you abandon Baghdad, which is one of Iraq's violent places right now. Second, I'm always a little leery of theories with such appealing imagery. My sense is that, rather than enhancing an underlying concept, the imagery comes to supplant it. The domino theory is probably the classic example. Another example, not exactly on point but related, was Rice's suggestion as Hussein fell that US policy should now be to "punish France, forgive Russia, ignore Germany." It flowed so nicely, functioned as an appealing list of three... but wait, what the hell did it really mean?

As always, the devil is in the details; I'm no counterinsurgency expert, and have never even served in the military. I'm trying to focus on the broad trends, the prevailing dynamics in Iraq, as I see them from afar. I could certainly be wrong. But I don't hear anything more convincing coming out of the administration... only more slogans, like "we can't cut and run" and that we have a "strategy for victory." If there's a strategy for victory in all this, the administration is hiding it better than Hussein hid those WMDs.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Good job on the post Barry! I like your ideas, but I have to agree more with David's analysis.

As things stand now the Kurds are not really a problem. They are our friends, have good control over their lands and are not part of the insurgency.

Now the Shiites are another story. They want control because they are the majority people in the country, but they too are not part of the insurgency.

The Sunnis are in the minority, but Saadam is a Sunni, so they've always been the 'privileged' class. They are the insurgency...still loyal to Saadam...and banking on civil war keeping the country on edge until they can reclaim the throne.

Even if by some fluke of nature, the country could be divided among the three, the insurgency would continue...that is where the problem lies.

The Kurds are peaceful, most of southern Iraq is peaceful for that's the insurgency that needs to be quelled, and their constant influx of Syrian and Iran help.

Oh, I also love the word fissiparous...try saying that three times fast...LOL

Anonymous said...

Barry, now you have my curiousity aroused. Why choose fissiparous? For choice it must have been since such words do not roll readily off one's tongue - William Safire excepted. It is indeed a wonderous word.

But, why not factious, which many would have understood to mean the same and would not have sent so many of us scurrying for our dictionaries?

Just wondering.

Barry Eisler said...

Bonnie, you said, "The Kurds are peaceful, most of [Shiite] southern Iraq is peaceful for that's the insurgency that needs to be quelled, and their constant influx of Syrian and Iran help."

Well, that's pretty much my point... where is the insurgency located geographically? Primarliy the Sunni center.

When the country breaks into three, it won't be by a fluke of nature; it'll split along sectarian lines. At that point, where does the insurgency continue? In the Sunni center. The Kurds are out at that point, and the Sunnis are the Shiites' problem, if the Shiites want to fight for the oilless center.

Doug, I like factious, but at this point factionalism doesn't feel strong enough to me. Hell, with all the red and blue states, America can be described as factious (although common contempt of Congress might be drawing us together). I like fissiparous because, probably due in part to the sound, it sounds stronger to me, more like something flying apart. As for dictionary scurrying, I know it's not for everyone, but I always enjoy it, and so -- perhaps mistakenly -- assume everyone else does, too.

One I looked up recently and loved was bloviate (noun: bloviation). "To speak or write at length in a pompous or boastful manner." I'll be looking for opportunities to use it now...


Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Okay, Barry, I see what you mean...I agree...but I don't think the Shiites would be able to contain the insurgents...they're only staying where they are now, cause that's where the Americans are. I think a year down the road, they'll have retaken the country!

LOL...I love must be watching my buddy Bill O'Reilly!

Anonymous said...


Not entirely on topic, but I love dictionary scurrying. One of my new favorite words is kakistocracy: goverment by the worst people. Another one is abulia: abnormal lack of ability to think or make decisions. Don't know why they seem so useful at the moment ;-)

Unknown said...


Frankly, I think your analysis of Iraq should be copied and left on the desk of everyone in the Administration, Capitol Hill, and all the major political parties. It's the only way forward. And it's a fairly just one too. The Kurds in their new Kurdistan nation would add a stable country to the Middle East and the Turks could be incented to carve out some territory by accelerating their admission to the European Union. Something they want very badly.

Yes, the Sunni and Shiite nations will be more difficult to carve out so they could evolve over time with an agreement drafted between them (just like the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement) where their aspirations are achieved by consent... perhaps a federal system to start .. then eventual separation with shared agreements on energy (oil), defense, human rights, etc. And a major attempt to bring the insurgents 'in from the cold' by giving them a seat at the table in return for an 'end to their war' and by convincing them that their aims of retaining a huge measure of autonomy and power can be attained by peaceful means. And none of this will immediately defeat the most extreme - so suicide bombings would continue. But bringing the insurgents 'in from the cold' and getting them to participate in local policing would gradually lead to the extinction of those violent extremes. They do not go away easily, but justice and ownership of their own people's future erodes their support foundation and their martyrs become part of history.

Northern Ireland may not have been Iraq but it had many similarities. Now it's not over yet and there's a November deadline to reach a power sharing agreement, set by the two governments: The Irish and British governments. I believe that that will be achieved and that Sinn Fein (the IRA's political party) will finally 'come in from the cold' and join the Policing Board. They have not been asked to abandon their aspirations for a United Ireland, only to agree to pursue them by peaceful democratic means.

Twenty years ago when Northern Irish cities were in shambles and the heart of England was constantly being bombed by the IRA (they almost killed the British Prime Minister in Brighton and narrowly missed taking out the entire cabinet when their mortars just missed 10 Downing Street) I would not have believed that we would be here today. But we are - and in large measure the vision goes to America: Bill Clinton and George Mitchell. No, we have no oil and we really don't command any strategic position but I think the 40 or 50 million Irish Americans wield a fair amount of political clout.

And most recently Archbishop Tutu was here helping those whose relatives were murdered achieve some degree of reconciliation with those who murdered them.

I have a poem on my wall, signed to me by the Irish poet, Michael Longley, called CEASEFIRE. I am sure that Michael won't mind me putting it here:


Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old King's sake,
Dressed in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam goodlooking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'

John DuMond said...

If your three-state solution is implemented, what do you think will become of the foreign fighters in Iraq (Zarqawi, and others of his ilk)? Will they pack up and move on to other battlegrounds, or will they stay and press on with their stated goal of igniting a civil war between the Shiites and the Sunni Arabs?

Barry Eisler said...

Rae, those are *great* words, especially abulia. Gotta find a place to use it...

Pat, always good to see you here and it's great to get some foreign perspective -- particularly one from Northern Ireland, certainly no stranger to sectarian troubles. Have you ever read Conor Cruise O'Brien? One of the best minds (and pens) I've ever encountered, whose perspective, like yours, was shaped by the Troubles. He covered South Africa for the Atlantic Monthly and wrote a fantastic book on Israel called "The Siege: The Saga of Zionism and Jerusalem."

John D, excellent questions. If Zarqawi stays in Iraq, he'll be the Sunnis' problem, if they decide he's more trouble than he's worth once the excuse of the US occupation is gone; and the Shiites', if he tries to stir up trouble in the south. But either way, he's someone else's problem, not ours. If he decamps to other battlegrounds, he'll be deprived of his natural cover, and accordingly more vulnerable to Predator-fired Hellfire missiles and the other occupational hazards of being a terrorist on the run.

But that's just my guess from afar, of course. I hope these questions will be studied in depth by people with greater expertise so we can make the hard decisions that need to be made, and make them correctly.

Unknown said...

..yes, I have read Conor, or 'the Cruiser' as he is known to some (not pejoratively, I think) in Ireland. He's a fairly controversial figure and often takes unpopular stands. But I think very highly of him. He held the chair of history at New York University, was the UN representative in the Congo, editor-in-chief of the Observer in the UK, etc, etc ...

He has had an immense interest in Israel and the Middle East - and the American political and religious connections (both Jewish and fundamental Christian) to Israel. A very learned man. I wouldn't be at all qualified to go dowm to the pub for a pint with him.

A little off the topic of Iraq but I wonder what solution Conor would propose.

As a matter of fact he makes a cameo appearance in my latest book, Blood Red Square - and I didn't ask his permission. He has also written a lot about Edmund Burke and that has a resonance with me too - if you read Dublin Noir, on your bookshelves now ..

I didn't mean to turn this into the 'name dropping' of my writings - so I'll have to blame your good self and 'The Cruiser' !

David Terrenoire said...

It's Murtha's belief that the insurgency exists because we're there, and if we're not there the insurgency will dry up on its own. Could be.

As for Mr. Mullan, I have Dublin Noir next to my reading chair now. His story will be next up.

And if we can't shamelessly self-promote amongst ourselves, where could we?

Unknown said...


I do hope you enjoy 'Tribunal' (Dublin Noir)'s actually the opening chapters of my new novel ..

You see, there you go, it's all your fault for saying:

"And if we can't shamelessly self-promote amongst ourselves, where could we?"

And Murtha has a point. I served in the US Army in Korea - long after the Korean war (I'm not that old) and, even though America may have thought that we were there to protect the South Koreans, they were resentful. A foreign army is never loved, even when it comes to help. And if it stays too long it's often hated. People don't like to see foreign soldiers walking their streets - for any reason!

Unknown said...


Looks like Joe Biden's been reading this. He presented your proposal as his own to The New York Times yesterday !

WagerWitch said...

How about the WMD were just transported to the country who is now proclaiming the right to the enrichment process and is having a fit that anyone doesn't want them to?


Just a thought.

Barry Eisler said...

Pat, thanks for mentioning Biden's op-ed; I hadn't seen it. For anyone who's curious, it's at:

I'm not sure I agree with some of his points, but obviously I think he's heading in the right direction. I don't know if any form of federation will satisfy the parties at this point. Also, as Biden notes, the new constitution already provides for a significant degree of federalism.

Maybe the way to look at this is as a continuum, with strong central govt on one end and a total breakup on the other. And maybe what Biden is really saying is, if we can tease out a solution that's closer to the breakup end of the continuum, things will stabilize such that eventually the country can move less bloodily toward greater central control or to a full breakup. I'd be all for that.

Lady M, all the reports I've read indicate that Hussein's WMD, if they existed, were moved to Syria. Hussein and the mullahs hate each other, so I doubt he would have moved any WMD to Iran. I think he did send a few MIGs to Iran to keep them safe during the first gulf war, though, but he never got them back...

WagerWitch said...

OK - so let me get this straight...

Iran is enriching uranium for peaceful power... But... as a caveat, if the US does something... ahem - they're going to reach out and bitchslap Israel. The same country they've said they were going to destroy - throughout history.

A slaps B so B slaps C.

Oh yeah. Peace baby. And so... uhm... sanely reasonable.


This says to me Iran and Israel will be fighting within a few months.

Sigh. Why can't we all just play happily in the sand box?

Thanks Barry - too bad he didn't get them back. *sarcasm*