April 8, 2007

time to look in the impossible places

There's a short article in the NYT magazine by Noah Feldman this week that purports to be about the lack of any political candidates with clear statements about how to get out of Iraq. While the article frames it as being about politicians' trying to negotiate conflicting electoral desires and paradigms for resolving the conflict, it's notable for what it lacks: a clear statement of the real options for dealing with Iraq. To my mind, this is because there aren't any. For most political problems (access to health care, the global AIDS crisis, global climate change, crime in the inner city, equal rights for queer people) there's some action the government should take, even if it's not enough to fully solve the problem. In Iraq, all of our possible options are hopelessly compromised: whatever action the US government takes, some unacceptable consequence will almost certainly ensue. Notably, these unacceptable consequences are unacceptable to Iraqis, Americans, politicians, academics, and the world community, meaning that politicians literally have nowhere to go to find a reasonable strategy for resolving US involvement in Iraq.

The conclusion of US involvement in Iraq will only happen once we accept one of the unacceptable consequences. Thus, while the article sets up the problem as one of political will, it's in fact a problem of available options. We're going to have to accept at least one, and maybe more, of the following consequences in order for the current unproductive muddle to end.

1. Genocidal civil war, coupled with a major refugee crisis, destabilization of the region as the various surrounding countries jockey for influence, massive loss of face for the US, and loss of access to Iraq's oil production. I should say, more of these things than we have now. This is the likely consequence of withdrawing all US troops on the timelines set out by the House and Senate bills. No one is willing to accept this consequence explicitly: it's a humanitarian and international-relations disaster. It is, however, very likely to be the consequence we accept by default.

2. A major increase in US troop commitment. Not a surge, not a small escalation, but overwhelming force. Despite Iraqi hostility to the US presence, I think a massive escalation that actually established security and helped rebuild infrastructure might be welcome. You'd need a draft and a complete change in the US political scene. The US wouldn't lose quite as much face, but Iraq would become our major effort for the next five or so years. Say goodbye to any other policy priorities that might compete with the war effort. Also to your male relatives.

3. Giving other countries in the Middle East a lot of say in Iraq. It might work to have a federally partitioned Iraq - something along the lines of the former Yugoslavia - with large protector states for each section. There's precedent for major powers coming together to split up powerless states, and while I don't think it's so great, it might be better than door #1. It might also be possible just to have Saudi and Iranian involvement and protection without dividing up in the country. The downside risk is that, like in Yugoslavia, lots of people might end up having to leave their homes as the ethnic and religious borders got defined, and there would almost certainly be some serious violence and brutality. The US would have to explicitly provide Iran with influence in Shiite Iraq, and the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia would probably have to be the minimal guarantors of the peace. You'd also need assent from Syria, Jordan, and Turkey - Iraq's other neighbors - though Turkey is pretty likely to just accept whatever it is, since the Kurdish section along its border is relatively stable. There'd be a lot of arguing about oil and borders, Baghdad might have to be partitioned, and it has the potential to set up a major future war about oil, religion, and whatever violations of the peace are certain to happen periodically. This consequence is the least likely to happen, and is also the least defined right now. It carries enormous risks, and might be impossible anyway.

On the other hand, Juan Cole, who, as a professor of modern Middle East history, knows a smidge more than I do about these things, thinks it might work. His vision depends, though, on the US actively engaging with Iran, which is going to take a change of administration at a bare minimum.

The defining theme of these consequences is that Iraq needs some major force if we're not going through door #1. The US could provide it, or other countries could provide it, but I think we've seen that the Iraqi government is, at the moment, totally unable to provide it. Both sides of the American political fight present the canard that "The Iraqi political classes could deliver law and order and reconstruction if only they really wanted to, but their incentive to save their country is somehow reduced by the presence of the U.S.," but Feldman points out that "It is hard to overstate how absurd this view would sound to anyone who wasn’t looking for excuses to withdraw." Basically, putting total responsibility for stability and reconstruction on a brand-new government in an extremely unstable state in which being a member of the government at any level is likely to get you killed? Not reasonable. Not going to work, anyway. Choosing that means choosing door #1.

And what do I think? Well. I don't really know. But door #3 is the only one that might, possibly maybe, not be a human catastrophe. So I'll go with that.

1. The title comes from something my mom says. If you can't find your keys after you've looked in all the possible places, it's time to look in the impossible places.
2. Edited because I read Juan Cole.

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