Tuesday, December 07, 2004

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Civil War

Charles Krauthammer penned a column for the Washington Post last week that would have slipped past my radar had not the always vigilant Tim Dunlop brought it to my attention. The piece begins with a peculiar argument about the imminent January elections in Iraq and the problems they portend. Answering unattributed declarations about the dubious legitimacy of the January elections given the probability that many Sunnis - entire provinces in fact - might not participate, Krauthammer draws on a pair of historical analogies:

In 1864, 11 of the 36 states did not participate in the presidential election. Was Lincoln's election therefore illegitimate?

In 1868, three years after the security situation had, shall we say, stabilized, three states (not insignificant ones: Texas, Virginia and Mississippi) did not participate in the election. Was Grant's election illegitimate?

There has been much talk that if the Iraqi election is held and some Sunni Arab provinces (perhaps three of the 18) do not participate, the election will be illegitimate. Nonsense. The election should be held. It should be open to everyone. If Iraq's Sunni Arabs -- barely 20 percent of the population -- decide they cannot abide giving up their 80 years of minority rule, ending with 30 years of Saddam Hussein's atrocious tyranny, then tough luck. They forfeit their chance to shape and participate in the new Iraq. [emphasis added]
That's all well and good, but it is a diversionary attack on a straw man to engage in this type of argumentation about the abstract nature of legitimacy and whether such a label should apply. Ultimately, it is unimportant whether there is a consensus in the international community that these elections are "legitimate" per se. What matters is how the Iraqi people view the elections - particularly the Sunnis who are fueling the stubborn insurgency. In this sense, legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder.

Using Krauthammer's analogies, the elections of Lincoln and Grant did not authorize the exercise of power because they possessed the ephemeral qualities of legitimacy. In the case of Lincoln in 1864, the Confederacy was being beaten back into the South, so Lincoln was able to maintain the mantle of leadership regardless of the true nature of his election - the legitimacy of which could be questioned. For Grant in 1868, "legitimacy" as an elevated concept did not guarantee his tenure, rather it was the fact that the Confederacy had been defeated and thus acquiesced to the rule of Grant and the United States regardless of the participation of certain states. For all practical purposes, the legitimacy of an election only goes as far as the willingness of the people being governed to accept the results. The rest is for historians and scholars to debate.

Thus in Iraq in January, whether politicians, academics, journalists and others consider the elections legitimate will be a moot point if the Sunnis fight on and drag Iraq into a civil war. It is easy for Krauthammer to advocate excluding the Sunnis from the process, or letting the Sunnis exclude themselves, by focusing on historical examples of the legitimacy question, but the "tough luck" might be had by all in Iraq should the Sunnis reject the results - even if Grant was able to preside over the nation in 1868.

But here, Krauthammer shrugs off the concerns over the flare-up of sectarian violence that would ensue if the Sunni population is sufficiently alienated by the electoral process by echoing the position of
Matthew Yglesias in a piece that I took issue with here:

People keep warning about the danger of civil war. This is absurd. There already is a civil war. It is raging before our eyes. Problem is, only one side is fighting it. The other side, the Shiites and the Kurds, are largely watching as their part of the fight is borne primarily by the United States. [emphasis added]
While acknowledging the unfortunate state of affairs, Krauthammer seems quite willing to accept this outcome, and a further escalation of such internecine fighting should it arise. In fact, he even suggests that such a collapse could serve our interests.

At some point, however, we must decide whether [a unified Iraq] is possible, and how many American lives should be sacrificed in its name.

Seven months ago I wrote in this space that while our "goal has been to build a united, pluralistic, democratic Iraq in which the factions negotiate their differences the way we do in the West" that "may be, in the short run, a bridge too far. . . . [W]e should lower our ambitions and see Iraqi factionalization as a useful tool"...

We must make it clear that we will be there to support that new government. But we also have to make it clear that we are not there to lead the fight indefinitely. It is their civil war.[emphasis added]
The problem with Krauthammer's flirtation with civil unrest is that it almost certainly will not accrue to our benefit, or provide for a "useful tool" easy to wield. Prolonged civil war, coupled with our exit from the theater even in a limited sense, will likely result in some manner of failed state in Iraq. This would bring to fruition the self fulfilling prophecy of the dangers that Iraq presented before the invasion. While Iraq was relatively devoid of radicals, extremists, fundamentalists and terrorists before our military intervention, a failed Iraqi state in the heart of the Middle East would attract every manner of evil, lured by the cover provided by the lack of a functioning sovereign. To some degree this is already happening.

Failed states, like Afghanistan, also encourage the radicalization of the indigenous population. This will likely be the case in Iraq, as the outnumbered Iraqi Sunnis will seek support from radical Islamist Sunnis whose numbers dominate the populations of most of the nations that ring Iraq. What was once a relatively secular populous will drift ever closer to radicalization and extremism. Again, these changes are already taking place on a smaller scale.

If Iraq's Sunni neighbors do step up their involvement, this would likely compel Iran to seek to counterbalance those efforts by expanding their own meddling. Likewise, if the Kurdish north seizes on the chaos to justify its long held goal of secession, Turkey would be tempted to intervene militarily which would give the Iraqi civil war a dangerously regional scope.

In the alternative, even if the Shiite's are able to prevail and dominate the Sunnis absent a larger regional conflict or Kurdish secession, what type of government or ruling regime would likely emerge from this process? Civil wars generally do not birth democracies, and it is more than likely that the Shiite ruling power structure would be comprised of hard liners and religious zealots - as was the case following Iran's upheaval in the late 1970s. Conflicts tend to empower the most strident voices, while the moderates and reconcilers are pushed to the margins. Once undermined in such a manner, it is hard for enlightened leaders to command the support needed to rule in the aftermath.

Krauthammer never offers details as to why or how civil war could be a "useful tool" to American interests, let alone Iraqi, nor does he acknowledge the destructive potential of widespread destabilization and unintended consequences attendant to further hostilities. In his defense, one column does not offer enough space to flesh out such intricate ideas. On the other hand, I do not recall him, or any other member of the coterie of neo-conservatives surrounding the White House discussing the benefits of civil war in Iraq before the invasion. I just don't remember this campaign being sold that way. Quite the contrary, Wolfowitz famously testified before Congress that fewer troops were needed proportionally than in Kosovo because Iraq did not have as bitter a history of ethnic discord.

But in an interesting rhetorical twist, when someone points out the magnitude of the problems that could result from civil war, or from the conflict in Iraq in general, the speaker is belittled as naive by the right-wing punditry. "Of course wars are difficult," it is said. "There are always hidden costs, and unforseen consequences," the pro-Iraq war crowd reflexively declares. And, "Nothing goes according to plan when the fighting starts," others are quick to add. Never mind the fact that those same arguments were sneered at before this war when they were made in an attempt to warn about the potential ramifications of such an endeavor.

President Bush similarly coopts an anti-Iraq war argument while adopting the tone of the mature grown up tut-tutting the restive masses in response to
two CIA reports that told of the deteriorating situation in Iraq:

"The American people must understand that democracy just doesn't happen overnight," [Bush] said. "It is a process. It is an evolution. After all, look at our own history. We had great principles enunciated in our Declarations of Independence and our Constitution, yet, we had slavery for a hundred years. It takes a while for democracy to take hold. And this is a major first step in a society which enables people to express their beliefs and their opinions."
Funny, I remember saying that before the war and being ridiculed for being racist and implying that Arabs are incapable of democracy. I was told about candies and flowers, liberation, an elimination of threats, a democratic domino effect, a reconstruction that would pay for itself and an end to the occupation, for all intents and purposes, in August of 2003. But now I am a child for reminding those in the Bush camp of the foresight of those that opposed this particular war. It is truly maddening to be lectured using the same arguments I used being put forth by the same people that expended so much effort in an attempt to refute those exact arguments just a matter of months ago. It has taken on a dimension of duplicity that would make Orwell blush. To the purveyors of this inverted reality, who seem intent on trying the parameters of my sanity, all I have to say is: Mission Accomplished.

[Update: Juan Cole has an intriguing solution to the potential disaster that a Sunni boycott would bring about: "a one-time set-aside of 25% of seats in Parliament for the predominantly Sunni parties that do take part in the elections." This would insure that the Sunnis are well represented in the assembly, and thus lessen the likelihood of all-out rejection of the nascent government. As Cole points out, and I was remiss for failing to mention, this exercise in January is more than just an election because the assembly will also double as a constitutional convention that will determine the make-up and structure of Iraq's government for generations to come. Assuring Sunni involvement in this process is absolutely vital, unless like Krauthammer, you think civil war would serve our interests.]

[Update II: A piece on Juan Cole's site and an article on Needlenose.com (hat tip to praktike) both discuss a disturbing move by Shiite's to establish a new semi-autonomous Shiite province. This could be the precursor to the fragmentation of Iraq.]

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