The conventional wisdom on Iraq is dead. Long live the conventional wisdom on Iraq! That seems to be the view of the two authors of a lengthy article in the Post detailing all of the potential consequences of a full slide into general civil war in Iraq. While there are some problems with some the examples they cite in their article, that is not what concerns me so much as the assumption that the United States must remain to manage a conflict that has so far shown no signs of being manageable. First, they admit that any effort to manage the conflict may only be postponing the inevitable, which underscores the need to get out while they getting is good.
The authors’ estimate that 450,000 soldiers would be needed to impose a settlement of the conflicts in Iraq is probably accurate, but what puzzles me is where the authors believe we will find the necessary extra 300,000 soldiers to accomplish this and how exactly they expect any administration to convince the public, already weary of this adventure, to support a policy of managing the deteriorating situation. Because we should be under no illusions if we go down that road–it means at least 10 to 15 years of direct management, which would involve large-scale deployment of military and civil assets to the virtual exclusion of all other foreign policy initiatives. The country would in all likelihood have to be formally returned to the status of an occupied country (not that it has ever really ceased having that status), the sham Iraqi government that presently exists–because its military is simply a front for one side in the civil war–would have to be dissolved and the days of American soldiers putting force protection as priority number one would be gone for good. To defeat the old insurgency and suppress the sectarian violence we would require the development of long-term working relationships between the occupying forces and the native population that would preclude frequent massive rotations and would, in all likelihood, require the end of a volunteer military as the basis for the army of occupation. None of this guarantees success, but it would be the bare minimum required if we were going to make a serious effort to stop the collapse of Iraq into civil war.
Clearly, as a matter of American interests, none of these necessary things is tolerable, much less desirable. Managing an Iraqi civil war, whatever its knock-on effects in the region, would be a devastating drain on national resources. Imagine if, even after the collapse of the USSR, Russia were still in Afghanistan today with no end in sight–that would be our future in 2020. Imagine 15,000 more American dead and possibly six times as many wounded before it’s all over. Iraq would become little more than our protectorate for the next generation, and possibly longer than that if we could retain control that long. If you commit to managing the civil war and preventing the consequences of Iraq’s collapse, you are committing yourself to an endless obligation, because the longer Americans remain as “protectors” of Iraq the harder it will be to justify leaving. If today we have a solid core who believe we cannot have let the soldiers who have died in Iraq die in vain, we will have an even larger number in 25 years who will be even more committed to making a go of Iraq, as it will have become the national endeavour above all else.
An Iraqi civil war will result in terrible instability, but it will in the end result in a new, stable balance of power if Western interventionists do not prolong and counterbalance against whichever side is winning at any given moment, as they did in the Balkans. The only real reason why the foreign policy establishment grimaces at the thought of not preventing this conflict is that they refuse to accept the likely strengthening of Iran that follows from an Iraqi civil war. Washington does not fear chaos and a vacuum in the Near East–they fear the alternative order, the alternative “new Middle East” that they have unleashed but did not plan to have.