Monday, May 01, 2006

Finding a Course to Stay

Military thinkers and planners are looking for exit strategies in Iraq. Some maintain that the current strategy, Clear and Hold, can ultimately work given more time and effort. Others are seeing the choices narrowing down to partition or civil war. Partition has been suggested more than once but practical realities, especially population distribution, limit its potential for success. Civil War is always seen as the evil to be avoided.

One officer thinks civil war may be needed to create a final solution (my words, no caps).

The most radical view, which even now appears to have only a few proponents in the U.S. military establishment, is that the United States should step back and let a civil war occur. In this argument, the U.S. government created a revolutionary situation when it invaded Iraq and brought about a wholesale transfer of power from the country's Sunnis to its Shiites. So, this argument goes, civil war isn't something to be avoided, but rather a necessary part of the process of changing Iraq.

One of the few officers who have expressed this view publicly is Maj. Isaiah Wilson III, an inventive former planner with the 101st Airborne in Iraq who now teaches at West Point.

"Should we give civil war a chance in Iraq?" Wilson asked in an essay posted on the Internet last month. His answer: probably yes. That is, such a conflict may be what is needed to save the country.

"For Iraq, as ironic and illogical as it may seem," he said, "a true and sustainable future may come in the aftermath of the very sectarian-based civil war we have been striving to prevent."

Civil wars do, indeed, settle things decisively. For a while at least. As the major says, civil wars are part of the revolutionary process in which a society makes decisions by force. History provides many examples: the English Civil War, the Terror in France, the American Civil War, the Russian Civil War, Ireland, Yugoslavia. These wars all made change–brutally. This brutality may be America’s legacy in Iraq.

Juan Cole clearly believes that civil war in Iraq should be avoided. He was in Lebanon during that nation’s civil war and knows what that option does to a nation. Cole does not think much of partition either but he does offer his ideas about how Iraq can be divided geographically and economically in a way that offers incentives for avoiding violence and civil war. Cole’s idea is thoughtful and clever; I don’t know how practical it will be but I like its direction because it leaves much of the choice to the Iraqis themselves.

Greenboy at Needlenose doesn’t think Cole’s idea is practical at all. He notes that “we” don’t control much in Iraq; creating this kind of change is most likely beyond America’s capability. Greenboy may well be right; I thought the original story was deficient in its omission of the Iraqi people and their institutions. In the end, any “success” America will achieve requires their assent. So far, that assent, when granted, skeptical, conditional and uncertain. Any decision that “we” make will not have the legitimacy needed to create long term stability and democracy in Iraq.