Friday, April 25, 2008

why the surge could be worse than nothing

Two interesting Foreign Affairs pieces help explain why the entire Iraq debated in this country is wrong-headed. There's a simple reason for this: the underlying problems in Iraq cannot be fixed, and it doesn't behoove any current or future president to admit it. For those who would stay, what they don't want to admit is that the surge could quite conceivably make Iraq WORSE in the long run, as Steve Simon argues in this month's issue.

And for those who wish to leave, they don't want to be the ones that make the decision that rips the country apart. This piece in the March-April issue by Jerry Muller details the enduring power of ethnonationalism, a force that with the end of colonialism and the Cold War has grown more, not less, intense.

Reading these two stories, it is difficult to imagine, even with today's announcement that the Sunni bloc is considering rejoining the government, that the long-term problems of Iraq can be fixed. Some people argue that "Arabs can't handle democracy," but I find this argument to be baseless and offensive. The underlying problem is a ethno-geographically/tribally divided country with arbitrary colonial borders and -- most disastrously -- oil as a single extractive resource that creates zero-sum-game politics and rampant corruption. No country with this set of characteristics has EVER been able to achieve democracy, anywhere. A "diplomatic surge" will not fix these underlying problems. Thinking of what Iraq might look like post-US, there are several existing countries that fit Iraq's basic country description, the most appropriate of which are Sudan and Nigeria. In both cases, you've had what Iraq has experienced for most of the century: one ethnic group seizing control of the government, exploiting the oil wealth, and ruthlessly suppressing the other groups. In Nigeria, you have rampant poverty, relative stability, a simmering insurgency, undemocratic elections based largely on ethnic lines, and a history of civil wars whenever someone tries to take a census. Under Sudan you have multiple interlocking episodes of genocidal civil warfare and a region-destabilizing catastrophe. (For more on Sudan, do read yet another Foreign Affairs piece, by Andrew Natsios.) Sudan and Nigeria, perhaps, can be gauged as the worst and best scenarios for Iraq. Whether either is worth the cost of the invasion, both to the US and to Iraq itself, is a question I'll leave you to answer.

Reading Muller, it strikes me that Iraq -- and Sudan like it -- should be viewed less as a country and more as a very tiny empire. Under Hussein, the Sunni region lorded over the Shiite and Kurdish regions. Now, the Shiites have the upper hand and the Kurds are in on the alliance in exchange for de facto sovereignty in the north. Our solution to the Sunni insurgency, as Muller points out, has been to pay off the Sunnis and give them weapons. To me, that doesn't sound like a solution. It sounds like a very clever way to pass the problem to the next president. And our next president, whoever it is, doesn't want to admit that Iraq will, whether next year or in five or ten, descend into chaotic, region-destabilizing civil warfare before being either partitioned or more likely ruled with an iron Iran-backed Shiite fist. Because that would be bad news, and we voters don't like to hear bad news.

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