(U-WIRE) PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Over 3,700 Iraqi civilians were killed in ethnic violence in October. That’s an annual rate of nearly 45,000. No one needs to be told that Iraq cannot afford to maintain this status quo. What these figures should tell us, however, is that the effort to bring stability to Iraq has taken on a new urgency. By 20th-century standards, not only is Iraq already embroiled in an ethnic civil war, it is one of history’s bloodier ones.
In this situation, we cannot afford the comfort of failed strategies and flawed thinking. President George W. Bush recently issued a declaration that he was “wide open” to new ideas for how to resolve the Iraqi conflict. However, the commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker III and military commissions that are reviewing Iraqi strategy have been singularly redundant in their thinking. Mr. President, if you are honest in seeking a solution to your quagmire, I have one.
Clearly, the effort to impose national unity on Iraq through military force is failing. De facto power in the country is already in the hands of ethnic militias, and every faction in Baghdad’s supposed “national unity” government is tied to an armed group that is engaged in perpetuating the violence that the government is supposedly trying to suppress.
The U.S. Army has recently released a report on the war in which it proposes three possible ways of moving forward: “going long,” “going big” or “going home.” For various reasons, none of these are acceptable options
“Going long” would consist of a continuation of the present, failed strategy of trying – in vain – to force national unity on Iraq. The situation in Baghdad is not going to magically change one day if we simply continue to “stay the course.” It took Saddam Hussein an enormous and ruthless security apparatus to hold Iraq together, and we are not capable of imposing a similar reign of terror.
If the public continues to grow weary of the quagmire our failure has created, the likely result will eventually be “going home,” which is an even more disastrous idea, and one which has been opportunistically championed by many Democrats who themselves voted to support the invasion. As many military experts on the ground have tried to make clear to the civilian audience, simply discontinuing the American military presence in Iraq will leave the country in the hands of ethnic militias and lead to an immediate explosion of violence. That violence will resolve Iraq’s ethnic problems, just as they were “resolved” in the former Yugoslavia – through ethnic cleansing.
The other option, “going big,” stems from the same kind of mentality that devastated Vietnam without achieving victory in that conflict. Simply putting more American “boots on the ground,” which Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has recently been calling for, will not fundamentally change the dynamics of the Iraqi conflict. It is naive to think that security problems in Iraq – which have political roots – can simply be crushed through military force. Bombing Vietnam into the ground with over 500,000 American soldiers did not make that country into a stable American ally, and neither would a similar strategy in Iraq.
The violence in Iraq requires a political solution. This is the argument proposed by the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. Biden’s plan, rejected offhand by influential figures in the White House, is the only approach that offers anything new to current strategic thinking. However, it, too, should be weighed solely on its merits.
In analyzing Iraq, we should take lessons from recent history. Contemporary Iraq is not the first time democratization has caused a country previously held together by dictatorship to disintegrate into ethnic violence. What is happening today in Iraq mirrors what took place in the 1990s in Yugoslavia. Just as in Yugoslavia, the only possible solution for Iraq is for the country to be divided along ethnic lines. Ever since that division took place in the Balkans, the homogeneous countries created there have slowly turned into stable democracies. In Iraq, that is what we could call victory.
Perhaps the most insidious criticism of Biden’s plan is that it would exacerbate divisions in Iraq. If there is one thing we desperately need to acknowledge, it is that our current policy is exacerbating those very divisions, despite all our best efforts. A policy of precipitate withdrawal would only accelerate the country’s disintegration in the bloodiest possible fashion. Like roads to Rome, every way forward in Iraq involves deepening ethnic divisions. The only question is, how bloody will the division be? And is there anything that we can do to make it less violent?
With the world’s most powerful military as our tool, that is a redundant question. The tragic quagmire in Iraq has thrown into doubt our soldiers’ ability to assist in nation building. However, this is only because we have been asking our men and women in uniform to do the impossible – to hold a country together that never should have been created to begin with.
Iraq was artificially formed by British imperialists in the aftermath of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Today, the principal problem in Iraq is that Sunnis do not want to be governed by Shi’ites, or Kurds by Arabs. And while we in the United States and our southern and northern neighbors may not lunge at one another’s throats if someone tried to lump us together into one country, doing so would inevitably create a perpetual conflict. We should not act so baffled by the attitude of Iraqis.
It is wrong to assume that democracy and stability in Iraq are impossible. To illustrate a metaphor, if someone took three cats and taped them together with duct tape, the result would probably not function well as an animal, but it would be incorrect to conclude that the idea of a cat itself is flawed. What needs to be done in Iraq is cutting the three democracies (Sunni, Shi’a and Kurd) free of one another so that they can function.
As critics have pointed out, however, splitting a country along ethnic lines is not a simple task. That is why the process would require the best efforts of our men and women in uniform. Where ethnic lines are not clear-cut, they would have to be created. The parts of Iraq that are homogeneously Shi’ite and Kurdish are already stable, suggesting strongly that homogenization is the way forward. The American military should re-deploy its forces in Iraq to protect the three ethnic groups from one another, while simultaneously assisting in a process of resettlement and population exchange that would homogenize the country’s three regions. This policy would doubtless spark controversy, but the only choice we have is between controversy on the one hand and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives lost annually in a quagmire on the other.
If the president does not act to implement a genuine change in strategy, the public will lose patience and force a precipitate withdrawal from Iraq. The result would be both tragic and strategically disastrous.
If we have been failing in Iraq, it has been largely because we have imposed our imaginations on the country rather than acknowledging its realities. If we act decisively now to accelerate a peaceful division of Iraq along ethnic lines, Iraq’s ethnic militias will no longer have target populations to attack, and they will disarm when they no longer fear one another. Then, for once, the future we imagined for Iraq will become a reality.