A Slippery Slope Back Into Iraq?

Despite having an increasingly autocratic and sectarian Shi’ite government that allows overflights of Iranian arms to a Syrian government opposed by U.S.-supported rebels, President Obama has pledged to increase military assistance to Iraq – reversing a five-year trend of disengagement and aid reduction. The Obama administration will increase intelligence support to the Iraqi government and push Congress to send it missiles, helicopter gunships, and other military equipment.

U.S. policy toward Iraq is beginning to exhibit the illogic of its policy in Pakistan. In Pakistan, for years, the United States has given military assistance to a government that has supported and harbored the Afghan Taliban rebel group fighting against and killing US troops in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the United States, fearing a resurgence of Sunni extremists there, will now increase military aid to a government that is close to the US archenemy Iran and is helping it to foil U.S.-backed rebels in Syria.

And although the United States will not yet send back to Iraq unpopular American troops that were withdrawn only at the end of 2011, the Iraqis haven’t ruled out asking for CIA or Special Operations advisors or US drone attacks to kill resurgent Sunni militants. Thus, succumbing to Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule” in which “you break it, you’ve bought it,” and again turning on the US military aid spigot, opens the road to a Vietnam-style escalation – or in the case of Iraq, re-escalation.

Many in the Obama administration and Congress believe that in exchange for more military aid, they can pressure the Shi’ite majority government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq to be more inclusive – that is, to allow greater genuine participation by the Kurdish and Sunni minorities. It is hoped that real power sharing, reversing the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Shi’ite government, will dampen the ardor of the Sunni insurgency. Yet al-Maliki and the Shi’ites fear a return takeover of the central government by the Sunni minority, which had ruled Iraq despotically for decades up until the US invasion.

In reality, power sharing among groups is unlikely to work in an Iraqi political culture that remains cutthroat, winner-take-all and thus unfriendly to real democracy. More likely is that the autocratically prone al-Maliki will use the US weapons and intelligence to attempt greater repression of the insurgency while just sprucing up the existing façade of inclusive government. This repression of the opposition – as in Syria, Libya and Egypt – is likely to just make it more determined to take over the levers of power, thus perpetuating violence.

All of these nations will continue to be unstable until the underlying societal tensions are resolved and will certainly not be helped by the United States or other outside parties fanning the flames of conflict with more arms transfers to unsavory governments (in the case of Iraq, Libya, and Egypt) or equally unappealing opposition movements (Syria).

In fact, the rekindled violence in Iraq, which already has unsuccessfully tried a power sharing arrangement to resolve societal tensions, should dissuade the United States from attempting to impose a similar solution in any negotiations to end the Syrian civil war. In such societies with no democratic culture and rampant ethno-sectarian hatred, simply pressuring governments to do better at power sharing is futile. The only way to avoid the United States getting sucked into the potential quagmires that these societies present may be to suggest and mildly encourage a voluntary – with emphasis on this word and the absence of overwhelming outside coercion – “soft” partition of the two countries into a loose confederation or confederations of autonomously governed regions. Each region would provide its own security and have its own judicial system, thus eliminating an aggregation of central government power, the use of it by one group to oppress the others, and therefore the intense conflict to control that power. The existing states of Iraq and Syria might still exist on the map, but only as free trade areas.

In the short term, this solution is unlikely to happen. But in the long term, as the warring factions in Syria or in an increasingly violent Iraq exhaust themselves with fighting, they likely will come to see that they are incapable of controlling the entire country. Partitioning into new ethnic or sectarian states or into a loose economic confederation or confederations of autonomous regions may become a viable solution. Critics of such an approach always say that political boundaries cannot be drawn to perfectly fit ethnic or sectarian dividing lines, but academic research indicates such perfection is unneeded. As long as the new boundaries are drawn so that no more than 10 percent of any new region’s population contains a minority living on the other side of a border – any larger minority would threaten the majority in that region – stability is much more likely.

It would be great if the ethno-sectarian minorities in Iraq or Syria could live together peacefully in a power sharing arrangement without a despotic ruler holding the country together by force, but stark evidence on the ground shows that in both cases, such an outcome is unlikely to happen in societies in which people have such strong ethnic or sectarian identities. Therefore, some sort of voluntary partition is probably the best and only realistic long-term solution.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.