Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Iraq's Disintegration: What it Means

Well, tomorrow's the big day: the Baker Group issues its report on what we should do about Iraq. That the report has been so eagerly anticipated is a measure of the public's understanding of how bad the situation has become. The Bush administration has shown itself capable of managing almost nothing in Iraq; the hope now is that this bit of foreign policy outsourcing will help mitigate the disaster.

Ironies abound. The war was intended to put the fear of God into Iran and Syria; now, it seems, the Commission report will recommend that we seek their help in extricating ourselves. Want to take a guess at the Mullahs' price for cooperation? Stop interfering with Iran's quest for nukes. Translation: if we want the Mullahs' help in getting out of Iraq, we have to accept the nightmare scenario that was part of what brought us in.

I've been arguing since August 2005 that Iraq's disintegration is inevitable and that US policy should be to make the inevitable as least bad as possible. I get a decent amount of angry mail about this position, mostly of the "it's defeatists like you who will cause our defeat" type (the syntax is interesting; these letters won't acknowledge that the defeat is already an accomplished fact). I also get accused of being delighted at our defeat. That's absurd (although apparently comforting to people who like to level such accusations). In fact, I wish we could have relatively bloodlessly toppled Hussein and installed a democracy that would spread throughout the dysfunctional middle east. But it's not going to happen. I sound off about Iraq because I abhor denial, which has no survival value, and admire realism. And I believe the sooner the Bush administration accepts reality in Iraq, the fewer American families will lose sons and daughters there.

I don't understand why some people can't accept a foreign policy situation that has become unsalvageable. At an individual level, we don't have trouble with the notion of events that have moved beyond our control. We can understand the concept of inoperable cancer in an individual; what prevents us from recognizing the phenomenon in a country? Iraq is simply beyond saving now. The body is breaking down; further surgery won't save it, and might even hasten its demise. We need to shift our focus to pain management.

Last week, I asked if Iraq's further disintegration really is the disaster for the west that the conventional wisdom claims. The usual scenarios suggest that when Iraq disintegrates:

1) al Qaeda will establish bases there as it did in Taliban Afghanistan.
2) The Shiite south will become a vassal of Iran.
3) Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be drawn in on the side of the Sunnis, Iran on the side of the Shiites, and internal bloodshed will become a wider regional war. AKA, "instability in the middle east."
4) The price of oil would skyrocket.

Let's look at these one by one.

1) AQ will establish bases in Iraq as it did in Taliban Afghanistan.

Maybe, maybe not. I don't think anyone knows what things will be like on the ground as Iraq continues to break apart. But certainly the Sunnis -- and AQ is a Sunni organization -- will be under a lot of pressure from the Shiites. And certainly the US will maintain "over the horizon" quick reaction forces in Kurdistan and Kuwait capable of attacking AQ and anyone else as we deem appropriate.

2) The Shiite south will become a vassal of Iran.

I don't buy it. Once upon a time, this was the conventional wisdom about China and Vietnam, too: they're both communist, so Vietnam will do China's bidding. In fact, within four years of America's departure, Vietnam and China were at war again, as they had been intermittently for a thousand years. My bet is that, in ignoring the differences in Persian and Arab culture, history, language, and geopolitics, we are making the same mistake in Iraq. In other words, what unites Arab Shiites and Persian Shiites is America's presence. Deprived of a common enemy, they'll be inclined to fight each other. More on this in a moment.

3) Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be drawn in on the side of the Sunnis, Iran on the side of the Shiites, and internal bloodshed will become a wider regional war. AKA, "instability in the middle east."

Possibly. But is this so bad? Why do we insist on taking responsibility for all the middle east's problems? Why not let the neighbors have a go at sorting things out for a change?

There's a natural schism between the Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region and indeed the world. In many ways, America's presence in Iraq has helped both sides paper over their differences (witness popular Sunni Egyption support for Shiite Hezbollah, and Hezbollah's training of Sunni Hamas militants). If, after the US departs Iraq, the Sunni/Shiite feud there spreads to reignite regional sectarian animosity, I think we can live with that. I'd rather Sunnis and Shiites fighting each other than united against us.

That hoary foreign policy phrase "middle east instability" needs to be reexamined. It's been said too often, and now has all the clarifying freshness and insight of a mantra. The middle east is unstable and always has been. Outside powers haven't managed to stabilize it yet, and our latest efforts have coincided with a resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the election of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza; the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon; a Syria/Iran alliance; the Israeli/Hezbollah war; and a resurgent Iran on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power. I wonder if a laissez-faire would do worse. It would certainly cost less.

4) The price of oil would skyrocket.

Yes, with the remnants of Iraq's oil production taken off line, and possible disruptions elsewhere in the region, the price of oil would rise. Our economy might take a short term hit. I think that as a society we ought to be willing to endure this rather than continuing to send young Americans to be killed for no real gain.

But here's the beautiful part: the economy would adapt. Economies are like organisms, and grow stronger in response to graduated stress. Japan's multinationals, for example, had a tough time of it during the 90's when the yen was at an all time high against the dollar, but they adapted their tactics and actually became more competitive in the face of exchange rate stress.

I once owned a salt water aquarium, and learned that marine fish are among the most fragile organisms because they've never had to adapt to change. They've evolved in an environment of constant temperature, pH, and salinity. Alter any one of those variables even a little, and marine fish die because they've never had to adapt to change before.

The tragedy of US petropolicy is that its sole aim has been to maintain the constancy of the external environment, rather than focusing on how to increase the underlying organism's adaptability. As a result, our economy is as vulnerable to an oil shock as a marine fish is to sudden change in salinity. If we had any sense, we would manage a process of gradual change -- that is, a gradual increase in the price of oil through a carbon tax -- so the economy would learn to adapt, and grow stronger. A managed process would have been less painful than the inevitable course of events imposed from outside. But still, our economy will survive those events, and, after the initial pain of adjustment, will emerge stronger than it was before. Despite us, in other words, rather than because of.

What do we do? Accept the inevitable. Draw down to garrisons. Ride it out. The fall of Saigon was going to be the end of the world, too. But thirty years later, Vietnam is a capitalistic, albeit authoritarian, nation, on the brink of WTO entry and a bulwark against a resurgent China. We'll survive the current misadventure, too. The only question is, how much worse will we make things first. We'll have a better idea tomorrow, when we find out what the Baker commission recommends, and how the Bush administration reacts to it.

P.S. I guess I'm on a Monty Python kick... but the way Bush keeps talking about "finishing the job" in Iraq made me think of this scene from The Holy Grail...


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Anonymous said...

I would like to see us evolve a little more quickly towards less oil dependency.

Frankly, I feel like burying my head in the sand and not looking at Iraq. If we stay, it's not good. If we go, it's not good, either. But I think your option is America's best, so far.

I'm interested to hear what the report has to say, and your comments about it, too.

Patry Francis said...

I only hope the report makes as much sense as you do.

Mark Terry said...

I was amused by The Daily Show last night when they had two bouts of wordplay:

1. Bush has repeatedly said that we're going to "stay the course" and we will not leave, because only by staying can we succeed, that success is only defined by our staying, therefore, the soldiers can never come home, because only by staying can they be a success.

2. We need to give war and violence a chance to succeed. Only when war and violence have finally proven to not be effective, will we give talking a chance, and then we'll have the diplomats hitting the ground.

For all those folks who haven't wanted to compare Iraq to Vietnam, does the notion of "declaring victory and leaving" ring a bell at all?

Anonymous said...

Hmm, with all the discussion on a new Iraq policy in recent days, and particularly how it came about as Donald Rumsfeld was departing, I'm wondering what Mr. Eisler personally thinks of the new SecDef, Robert Gates.

Barry Eisler said...

Hi everyone, and sorry I haven't been responding as much as I like to. The new manuscript is due by the end of the year, and I'm scrambling...

Spyscribbler and Patry, I'm going to try to post about the ISG report later today, or maybe tomorrow.

Mark, thanks for those quotes from the Daily Show. I came across another somewhere, from Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update. They described the Democratic victory in the midterms as a stunning case of irony in which Iraq brought about regime change in the US...

BAK, thanks for the link.

Sendai, I don't yet know enough about Gates to have an opinion. I found his relative confirmation candor refreshing... let's hope he's even more blunt in cabinet meetings.

Back soon -- thanks again everyone for coming by and for all the civil debate.


PBI said...


I agree with your main points - although I put the likelihood of Shia/Iranian cooperation a little higher - and I share your puzzlement over the apparent unwillingness or incapacity to recognize a lost cause when it appears. In my own post on the ISG Report, I used the metaphor of sunk costs rather than terminal cancer, but we're saying the same thing. It concerns me deeply that, rather than real leadership, we're essentially witnessing pathology from the White House.

Like Vietnamization, I think the "Iraqification" recommended by the ISG will have roughly the same result: few - if any - of its declared goals will be achieved, but it will provide an avenue of escape from our current quagmire.

I also agree that our energy policy is short-sighted and inextricably linked to our foreign policy problems. Perhaps it comes as no surprise given the current administration's views on Iraq, but we continue to put near-term gains over long-term health in that arena as well.

Sensen No Sen