Tuesday, March 06, 2007

More on Backing the Shiites

I highly recommend this article by James Fearon in Foreign Affairs, which does much to put the Iraqi civil war and our options in that war in the context of other recent civil wars. You should read the article in full, but I want to point out one particular passage that I found very interesting:

Suppose that the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad continues and Sunni insurgent groups and Shiite militias continue to fight one another, U.S. troops, and civilians. If the Bush administration sticks to its "stay the course toward victory" approach, of which the surge option is the latest incarnation, it will become increasingly apparent that this policy amounts to siding with the Shiites in an extremely vicious Sunni-Shiite war. U.S. troops may play some positive role in preventing human rights abuses by Iraqi army units and slowing down violence and ethnic cleansing. But as long as the United States remains committed to trying to make this Iraqi government "succeed" on the terms President Bush has laid out, there is no escaping the fact that the central function of U.S. troops will be to backstop Maliki's government or its successor. That security gives Maliki and his coalition the ability to tacitly pursue (or acquiesce in) a dirty war against actual and imagined Sunni antagonists while publicly supporting "national reconciliation."
I'm ashamed to admit that I hadn't thought of this before. We discussed a few months back the rumor making the rounds that elements of the Bush administration were in fact leaning towards a policy of fully backing the Shiites against the Sunni insurgents, in essence accepting that the national government represented (or would eventually represent) only the Shiites and was not a fully inclusive goverment. I commented at the time that this was a stupid and insupportable plan. Well, it's simply a matter of fact that everything we're doing conforms to our stated goal of supporting the Iraqi national government, which as Fearon points out, is gradually coming more and more to represent the interests of the Shiites only. In other words, we are sort of sliding our way into a policy of supporting the Shiites against the Sunnis, something that should have been obvious as I was criticizing three months ago the overt plan to do the same thing. In other words, no plan for success in Iraq is feasible so long as the national government falls more and more under the sway of Shiite parties, which appears to be happening in slow motion. More from Fearon:

This policy is hard to defend on the grounds of either morality or national interest. Even if Shiite thugs and their facilitators in the government could succeed in ridding Baghdad of Sunnis, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to suppress the insurgency in the Sunni-majority provinces in western Iraq or to prevent attacks in Baghdad and other places where Shiites live. In other words, the current U.S. policy probably will not lead to a decisive military victory anytime soon, if ever. And even if it did, would Washington want it to? The rise of a brutal, ethnically exclusivist, Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad would further the perception of Iran as the ascendant regional power. Moreover, U.S. backing for such a government would give Iraqi Sunnis and the Sunni-dominated countries in the Middle East no reason not to support al Qaeda as an ally in Iraq. By spurring these states to support Sunni forces fighting the Shiite government, such backing would ultimately pit the United States against those states in a proxy war.

To avail itself of more attractive policy options, the Bush administration (or its successor) must break off its unconditional military support for the Shiite-dominated government that it helped bring to power in Baghdad.
Which as you'll remember some have advocated as the approach we should take to force the Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites to "get serious" about reconciliation of some kind, a position I've been somewhat critical of as I perceived it to be a result of wishful thinking. But Fearon explains how such an approach might be beneficial:

Washington's commitment to Maliki's government undermines U.S. diplomatic and military leverage with almost every relevant party in the country and the region. Starting to move away from this commitment by shifting combat troops out of the central theaters could, accordingly, increase U.S. leverage with almost all parties. The current Shiite political leadership would then have incentives to try to gain back U.S. military support by, for example, making more genuine efforts to incorporate Sunnis into the government or reining in Shiite militias. (Admittedly, whether it has the capacity to do either is unclear.) As U.S. troops departed, Sunni insurgent groups would begin to see the United States less as a committed ally of the "Persians" and more as a potential source of financial or even military backing. Washington would also have more leverage with Iran and Syria, because the U.S. military would not be completely bogged down in Baghdad and Anbar Province -- and because both of those countries have a direct interest in avoiding increased chaos in Iraq.
If that sounds familiar, it's because Stephen Biddle proposed something similar last year. Of course this is premised on us maintaining an active, if somewhat smaller, footprint in Iraq. The upside to this approach is that it requires far less troops, and puts them in far less dangerous situations, and would blend well with any sort of "hunker down" approach inside the country.

The only problem with this approach is that it's somewhat sophisticated and nuanced, which means that it would be difficult for the Bush administration to implement (yes that's a back-handed insult) even if they admitted it was necessary (which is no certainty by any means) and difficult for Democrats to explain to the American people as our strategy even as we're trying to draw down the number of American troops in Iraq.

Regardless, it's something worth considering. Certainly we cannot find ourselves in the position of supporting a repressive and ethno-centric regime in Iraq, and so we must be willing to consider alternatives, even as we advocate to radically cut down the number of soldiers in Iraq.

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