Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Rhetorical Questions, Answered

Mickey Kaus asks:

'Balance of power' is why arming the Anbar Sunnis, as we've apparently done, does not seem necessarily a recipe for greater post-drawdown bloodshed. Isn't it possible that if Sunni tribes have enough firepower to deter Shiites, the two sides would reach some sort of detente? ...

Kaus is not entirely off track. It's true that roughly speaking, contending parties will more quickly come to some accommodation when the balance of power between them is roughly equal. Unfortunately, both sides usually only realize this after an indeterminate period of fighting. The entire written history of the human race supports this, but consider the Bosnian war if you'd like a modern example.

Of course, this defeats what was ostensibly the purpose of the surge, to produce stability in Baghdad that would spread out to the rest of Iraq. If our strategy were to support the Sunnis at all costs, even at the risk of furthering an already violent civil war, then we'd be following the correct approach in arming the Sunnis. Last time I checked this was not Bush's grand vision for Iraq, though given how the goalposts are moving it may be soon. I for one look forward to the day when the likes of our President (and Kaus, for what it's worth) have to try and explain why we're arming a population that propped up the person we invaded Iraq to depose. That will be explained probably as well as our support for a Shiite government that is sympathetic to our supposed enemy Iran has been.

UPDATE: People smarter than Kaus and myself address this question also:

When the United States courts Sunni militants, this fear and hyperbole only becomes magnified. Even if Shiite fears are misplaced, perception in Iraq is reality. By exacerbating Shiite anxieties, the U.S.-Sunni lovefest jeopardizes the United States’ ability to get Shiite politicians to take steps toward political reconciliation. It is also conceivable that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will judge U.S. aid to Sunni militias so intolerable that he demands a U.S. departure and turns to Iran or Syria for patronage. And this is to say nothing of another danger: Sunni blowback. The U.S. military’s desperate effort to destroy al Qaeda in Iraq also empowers Sunni groups that may one day further escalate the civil war, topple the current government, or turn their guns against the United States. Today’s saviors could very easily become tomorrow’s enemy.

Any successful strategy in Iraq must ensure that the sum of local initiatives will add up to a stable and lasting peace. Pulling this off will be tough. Efforts to build up local Sunni militias must be calibrated so that tribal leaders are strong enough to feel secure and fight al Qaeda, but weak enough to ensure they cannot topple the central government.

"Tough" is an understatement. In the midst of a war wherein various contending factions are actively warring motivated by either self-preservation or the desire for more power over the country, we're supposed to carefully "calibrate" the balance of forces so as to neither make the Sunni too strong nor enrage the Shiites? Do you see anyone in this administration pulling off this delicate balancing act? Do you see anyone pulling off this act? This approach has worked in Anbar Province, which is overwhelmingly Sunni. How are we supposed to pull this off in a Baghdad beset by ethnic cleansing and government death squads, where even the Shiites fight with each other?


Jeb Koogler said...

Hey xanthippas,

You make many good points. I have little to add on this particular topic, but have you seen Josh Marshall's recent YouTube video about the surge? It's worth looking at. Also, Juan Cole has a recent piece up diagnosing what's going on in Anbar. I'd recommend both.

Xanthippas said...

I've seen Juan Cole's post, which I link to in a prior post on Iraq. I haven't seen Marshall's video, which I'll try to find and provide a link to for our readers. Thanks for the tips.