Tuesday, February 20, 2007

James Fearon's comments on Civil War in Iraq

This post was put together in November, but it remains pertinent to discussions of the war in Iraq so I'm bringing it to the top. Despite reality, the term civil war is still not being used to describe what is happening there. I suspect the reluctance may derive from some "slippery slope" fear that if we start using terms like "civil war" then next thing you know somebody might start talking about ethnic cleansing or genocide. We wouldn't want that, now would we? It might cause a reassessment of our political bedfellows.

As we speak, a blending of religious, tribal and ethnic traditions that has been part of the historic fabric of Iraq is slowly coming unraveled. That part of the world has seen people living together from Bible days, even intermarrying, who have in recent times become bitter enemies. Communities, neighbors, even families are being torn to pieces by the events of the last few years.

Cowboy Hegemony

The international hubris of the US is breathtaking. With less than three centuries of history, we presume to teach the rest of the world a lesson in becoming a melting pot operating as a representative democracy. How very short our memory is with a generation still alive whose grandparents participated in one of history's bloodiest wars, the American Civil War. And anyone who thinks the depravity of our own people just three or four generations back is not comparable to what is being reported in Iraq is simply in denial of more historic facts.


James Fearon has impeccable credentials as a political scientist and commentator on international relations. Mark Lynch points to remarks he recently made before a House subcommittee suggesting that what is occurring in Iraq can be understood as a civil war. If that is the case, he says, it is not realistic to expect a resolution any time soon. [PDF link here]

Civil wars, Fearon points out, typically last a long time (on average, post-1945 civil wars have lasted a decade), and when they end, "they usually end with decisive military victories. Successful power-sharing agreements to end civil wars are rare, occurring in one in six cases, at best. When they have occurred, stable power-sharing agreements have usually required years of fighting to reach, and combatants who were not internally factionalized."

In other words, once a civil war starts it is unlikely to end until one side wins. In Iraq, Sunni-Shia fighting hasn't yet come close to producing either a clear victory or a stable equilibrium reflecting the real balance of forces on the ground: each side reasonably believes that further military action could help its cause, and that the other side believes the same. This creates what rational choice theorists call a commitment problem: there is no reason that Sunnis would believe that the Shia would continue to honor any agreements made under US auspices once the Americans left. Fearon concludes that "Civil wars for control of a central government typically end with one-sided military victories rather than power-sharing agreements, because the parties are organized for combat and this makes trust in written agreements on the allocation of revenues or military force both dangerous and naive."

Remarks of both Mark Lynch and James Fearon are worth reading. Fearon is of the opinion that in the wake of a US withdrawal Iran will attempt to fill the void, creating for itself more problems than solutions.

...Fearon expects that Iran will likely intervene heavily in a post-American Iraq, but that this will hurt Iran more than the US: "As in Lebanon, we can expect a good deal of intervention by neighboring states, and especially Iran, but this intervention will not necessarily bring them great strategic gains. To the contrary, it may
bring them a great deal of grief, just as it has the US." Iran would find itself bogged down in the turbulence of Iraq just as the US does today. As a result, "the scenario of a Lebanon-like civil war in Iraq... probably implies less Iranian influence in the Middle East as a whole."

My own opinion is that any (further) Iranian intervention would by necessity be restricted to Shiite areas, leaving Kurds, Sunnis and possibly Shiite Arabs prey to other "neighboring states." Ahmedinejad's "controlled chaos" in Iraq could get out of hand at the same time that he might have to face Turkey, Russia or angry Moslem cousins, not to mention meddling Europeans.

The more I think about it, the better I like Dr. Hadar's suggestions I blogged about last week. [ed. last year] This is realpolitik at its best.

...the president should re-embrace the kind of "humility" in foreign policy that he projected during the 2000 president race. Then, it seemed that he did not support the grand designs of "nation building" in Iraq and working with a coalition of other powers to maintain stability in Iraq and the Middle East. Now that the war is over, the United States should declare victory and use its power to secure limited, core U.S. interests. Those are (1) that a new government in Baghdad doesn't maintain ties with anti-American terrorist groups and (2) doesn't try to develop or acquire WMD.

To lower public expectations about Iraq would require the White House to accept that the two most likely scenarios under which U.S. troops could exit from Iraq will shatter neoconservative dreams. Those scenarios are (1) the rise of an authoritarian leader who could maintain a unified Iraq by centralizing power in Baghdad, and (2) the division of Iraq into three separate Kosovo-like mini-states, under some kind of regional and international safeguards. That could be an American-Turkish protectorate in the Kurdish North; a European-Arab military presence in the Sunni areas; and a U.N. authority in the Shiite parts. (Perhaps with some measure of Iranian participation? Hmm? Just sayin'...)

The comments thread at Aardvark's has drifted into carping as though Iraq is a piece of political meat to be cut up for body parts. Poor grasp of history in my view. Many see the world through nationalistic lenses while much of the world is figuring out how to modernize tribal, ethnic, confessional and other traditional bonds without paying that much attention to nationalism. Whether Iran is one state or three, the same conflicts will remain until they are resolved. International intervention can pacify the place as well as any other device. It's time to end what appears to be cowboy hegemony.

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