“You had your civil war. Why can’t we have ours?” -- a tough question to answer, and one I have heard put to pundits more than once in the last week. As whatever marginal ties of internal integrity Iraq may have mustered at the outset of this year continue to unravel, the US must face the possibility that cooler heads will not prevail, and that the opportunities for an uneasy truce and a return to the relative peace of weekly car-bombings will evaporate like so many drops of water scattered on the desert sand. If the worst should happen, and Iraq settles in for a long and bloody conflict like the one devastating its neighbor Syria, the U.S. will be left with a long list of unanswerables like that posed above.
To what extent, for example, must the US take responsibility for the lives such a conflict would claim? Would the body count exceed that which would have occurred under a still-extant Baathist regime? Should the Kurds revile or thank us? Could any meaningful, short-term foreign policy objectives have been expected to succeed given the violence of sectarian division in the region? Having expunged Saddam, was the US morally obliged to fill indefinitely the power vacuum left, if only to protect the civilian population, despite enormous ongoing cost?
These are all unanswerables, and with a great deal of luck and some very fast dealing, the US may be able to sidestep a few of them, but as things stand (or perhaps totter) in Iraq now, a period of unpleasant soul searching for the U.S. looms on the horizon.
More pressingly, should the worst come to pass, Iraqi civilians will not be the only innocents to suffer, although they would most certainly bear the brunt of the bloodshed. The forces occupying much of north-western Iraq offer little to no reassurance of stable, transparent governance in any scenario in which they retain long or even medium term control of large swaths of territory. On the contrary, an ISIS (The Islamic State of Iran and Syria) “controlled” no-man’s land would spawn an almost ideal nexus of neo-Wahabbist funding, sectarian venom, tribal government, and ambient materiel in which to train, equip, and dispatch exactly the sort of extremist terror attacks the US has spent the last decade and a half attempting to avenge and preempt.
There is, of course, the option of turning the clock back to 2003-2004 and fighting the entire war over again, at the cost of several thousand more American lives, several more trillions of dollars, and any shred of American credibility that might have been overlooked, but, as an American, it seems to me that the national will for such an undertaking has waned.
Perhaps we will all get lucky, ISIS will dissolve into competing factions, a US “advised” predecessor to Maliki will take over in Baghdad with the blessings of the appropriate clerics, Turkey will admit to the formation of an Independent Kurdish state, and much of Iraq’s population will be able to retain their homes and their lives. But if all of these eventualities do come to pass, it will be because of good fortune, not because of good policy. Good policy would have dictated pondering the unanswerables before thrusting our feet into the proverbial fire, something that has never been America’s strong point.
Our mythology makes us eager to topple the oppressor, to put an end to dictatorship and the arbitrary tyranny of the strong-man. We look to our own imagined history, a flowering of democratic egalitarianism germinated in the throwing off of the British monarchical hoof, and we fail to remember that the American “Revolution” and its success rested upon a substratum of accreted self-governance built up layer by layer over 150 years, and that even that foundation cracked and buckled under the stresses of sectionalism. After all, we had our Civil War.
Perhaps in examining it we can give our only good answer to those who want their own. We had ours, and it wasn’t pretty. It cost as many lives as all our other wars combined; the right side won, and it still took us another century to really begin stamping out the vicious prejudice that played so great a part in fueling the conflict; and we were lucky it didn’t come out worse than it did. Lucky only to lose 600,000 men. Lucky to impose democracy upon an unwilling population in only 100 years. Perhaps among all the unanswerables Iraq’s various factions can find one question that they can answer. Do they feel lucky?