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August 25, 2005

Being Alternative Means being Realistic: Means and Ends in Iraq
Posted by Michael Kraig

Responding in part to Heather’s great piece “Open Floodgates Pt. 1: Plans for Iraq,”

First, we have to be honest with ourselves – events on the ground are too fluid and chaotic to have a stable, democratic, and highly centralized Iraqi state entity as a short- or medium-term goal.  Odds are that it will fragment, because we destroyed the Iraqi state by de-Ba’athification, and in the void have jumped all the sectarian and ethnic groups, who have their own militias – which the US military has given up on de-arming and de-mobilizing. 

The Kurds have no real interest in a real Federal Iraq; if you listen to their leaders’ statements, they basically want a confederal Iraq not too different from what our 13 American colonies started out as – a loosely knit collection of 13 autonomous states, with one central Capitol that had little power but which represented the confederation abroad.  In addition to the Kurds, it increasingly appears that top Shi’ite leaders have the same overall goal in mind.

Would such a loose confederation really constitute a functioning state?  Odds are that all things would exist simultaneously (a confederation Capitol alongside the reality of regional autonomous rule), as they do right now.  To whit:

1)      A largely autonomous Kurdish region, secured by militias, with representatives in Baghdad whose central mission is to preserve Kurdish autonomy and use central state resources and international political legitimacy to fend off any predations by Iran and Turkey next door.  In short: use the central diplomats of the state, and use the budget of the state, but use them toward the goal of an autonomous Kurdish region.

2)      A largely autonomous Shi’ite region, secured by militias, with representatives in Baghdad….etc. etc…..using central state resources to fend off predations by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other neighbors of southern Iraq.

3)      A largely autonomous Sunni region, secured by militias….you get the idea.

This would reflect the military, social, political, and economic realities on the ground already.  Yes, a new Iraqi economy could theoretically emerge that is not based on sectarian divisions; yes, a strong central military could take on the militias.  But the Sunni guerrillas (the fighters who are truly indigenous, not from far-flung South Asia or Southeast Asia) are simply not going to let either of these things to take shape because of the very understandable fear that de-Ba’athification means de-Sunni-fication in practice, and “central Iraqi economy and state” means a state run by a coalition of Kurds and Shi’ites, who agree to a bargain to keep the Sunnis down and out, as well as out of their own business in their respective sub-regions of Iraq. 

In sum: militarily, economically, and socially, Iraq is now being run on a day-to-day basis by different politico-religious groupings based on well-defined neighborhoods in urban areas and longstanding tribes in outlying areas.  It is starting to border on fantasy to assume this will change. The best hope to avoid this de-centralized, district-based rule was to avoid wholesale de-Ba’athification.  The damage was done in 2003 and now we have to live with the consequences.

If unity happens on a more substantial basis, it will likely happen as a slow evolutionary process of complex micro-level interactions between different tribes, sects, and groups, as was true of state building in many other parts of the world.  It isn’t pretty, but it is how today’s stronger states have historically evolved. 

This leads to the basic question: how to make such an arrangement stable, peaceful, and secure, in a way that doesn’t undermine regional security and the global economy?  On this, I agree with most of Juan Cole’s suggestions.

First, a confederal Iraq (with a bunch of Sunni tribes in outlying border areas doing pretty much what they want) can only be stabilized and regularized if every single neighbor is brought into the process. 

This means finally admitting that Iran is not the primary supporter of Iraqi internal terrorism or insurgency, and in fact, that Iran has played its cards cautiously and pragmatically since March 2003, as pointed out by the International Crisis Group in various reports.  Iran has been schizophrenic, like the U.S. (and like all other neighbors of Iraq) in supporting various factions here and there so as to avoid all worst-case outcomes while at the same time giving relatively higher support to like-minded groups. 

So, Iran has aided virulently pro-Tehran leaders and groups, but not nearly to the extent monetarily or militarily as some analysts would have you believe.  Further, Iran has aided secular groups and even the current central government, in large part because in the end, Najaf is not Qom and Baghdad is not Tehran, and Ayatollah Sistani does not care at all for the Iranian melding of the Koran with authoritarian religious rule (believing that Shariah law must have a central moral role in law-making is not the same as iron-fisted rule by theocrats). 

So, Iran actually is spreading its various forms of aid in ways that avoids an overly strong, overly sectarian, overly-ideologized central grouping that could grow to challenge Iran on religious as well as political grounds. 

Sound familiar?  It should.  It is basically the strategy of all Iraq’s neighbors: keep Iraq together, but keep it weak.  If you believe that America’s six Arab “friends” in the Gulf are acting any differently from Tehran in this regard, then there is a bridge I could sell you in NY.   

Put another way: the balance of power and Realpolitik are not just concepts for international relations; they are the central concepts being applied to internal Iraqi affairs by Iraq’s neighbors.  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Kuwait, and other Gulf Arab Monarchies are playing balance-of-power politics in Iraq, just as Syria and Israel and others once did in Lebanon with various factions. 

Within this paradigm, Saudi Arabia will of course give more relative support to those Sunni groups that accept the Saudi version of Wahhabi Islam, just as Iran will support similar groups in its favor.  And the Turks will aid the Turkomans to the extent possible to provide challenges to Kurdish militia leaders.

But, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran, nor any other neighbor, is interested in a strong Iraqi state dominated by any such groups.  Hence the sly practice of aiding other forces as well.  If this sounds familiar, again, it should, because it’s what major corporations do in aiding politicians during election campaigns: relatively higher support goes to Republicans, but the Dems get a fistful of dollars as well.  It’s called playing the odds and spreading your bets, and Iran and Syria are no more “rogue-ish” in doing this within Iraq than any of the other neighbors. 

This reality of neighborly love for confederal fragmentation can work to the benefit of stability or against it.  It is the US job to use its muscle and pull to make sure that the neighbors’ strategy is coordinated (or at least constrained) in a way that supports a stable confederal arrangement rather than leading to all-out civil war, as happened in Lebanon. 

As Juan Cole points out, a much worse civil war could still break out, and if millions die because of it, the blood would be on our hands.  And, of course, such a war would severely disrupt oil supplies in the Gulf, leading to all sorts of nasty international outcomes. 

So what does this mean in practical terms?  First, it means customs, customs, customs, and border patrols, border patrols, border patrols.  It means defining a new military mission for the US that puts all of its gee-whiz high-tech gadgets to use with not only friends and allies, but also enemies such as Iran, in the region, to avoid a very real scenario of highly-trained Islamic insurgents leaving Iraq and destabilizing all neighboring states. 

At a recent Stanley Foundation off-the-record dialogue in Dubai, involving experts and officials from all 6 Arab monarchies, one of the main central security concerns expressed was this scenario: newly trained insurgents-cum-terrorists leaving Iraq when it finally stabilizes and destabilizing everything they can around it. 

I would venture to say that the same fear holds true for Syria (which has secular Ba’athist rule, not radical Wahhabi Islamic rule) and Iran, whose Shi’ite religious basis is antithetical to the radical Islamic insurgents being trained in terrorist methods in Iraq.  In fact, the most radical Sunni sects (which have followers in Iraq originating from far-flung areas such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Southeast Asia) believe that if you kill a Shi’ite child, you go to heaven. 

In sum: The first recommendation is that the US does everything in its power to aid all of Iraq’s neighbors in setting up a customs and border security “firewall” around Iraq. 

Second, see Juan Cole’s full column, which makes acid points about America’s dysfunctional and infeasible policies toward Syria and Iran, as well as good military and logistical points about how to get US troops out. 

What Juan doesn’t do is admit that the current reality is the future reality; he still holds out hope for a strong and meaningful centralized Iraqi state.  At this point in the game, though, the option of a stable confederal state – with an internationally recognized government that handles diplomacy but which has few real powers internally beyond coordinating common security policies between militias where common interests exist – should be studied further as a potentially more realistic and feasible goal of US policy. 

But this is not as pragmatic as it sounds: it means dumping decades of rogue-state strategies based on coercive diplomacy toward Iran and Syria, and actually engaging them, Richard Nixon-goes-to-China style.  This would constitute a radical policy shift for both Dems and Republicans, but it is one that is necessary and long overdue (see for instance the Stanley Foundation Policy Analysis Brief, “Realistic Solutions for Solving the Iranian Nuclear Crisis.”) 

Michael Kraig

The Stanley Foundation


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» War in Iraq: The Current Mood from Hampton Stephens
This is worrisome indeed. With the constitution talks seemingly at an impasse, it's worth surveying the general mood on Iraq. (Note: Because the views of far-left critics of the war have not really changed, and are thus less revealing about... [Read More]

» War in Iraq: The Current Mood from Hampton Stephens
This is worrisome indeed. With the constitution talks seemingly at an impasse, it is worth surveying the general mood of a few thinkers, pundits and polemicists regarding the Iraq war. Among the sea of ideas about where we stand and... [Read More]

» War in Iraq: The Current Mood from Hampton Stephens
This is worrisome indeed. With the constitution talks seemingly at an impasse, it is worth surveying the general mood of a few thinkers, pundits and polemicists regarding the Iraq war. Among the sea of ideas about where we stand and... [Read More]

» War in Iraq: The Current Mood from Hampton Stephens
This is worrisome indeed. With the constitution talks seemingly at an impasse, it is worth surveying the general mood of a few thinkers, pundits and polemicists regarding the Iraq war. Among the sea of ideas about where we stand and... [Read More]

» An Iraqi Confederation? from Political Animal
AN IRAQI CONFEDERATION?....What's the likely end state for Iraq? Heather Hurlburt argues that we're already there for the Kurds: they have no interest in a centrally governed Iraq, and they have both the economy and the militias to make their... [Read More]


...great post - highly informative.

however...not being contrary here, but i don't see this WH doing much of this, especially changing its 'evil axis' diplomacy policy, unless forced into it. which, to my mind, means bushco will continue to 'stay the course' until such point that our overall military posture is jeopardized, and even then (assuming it happens in the next 2 years) i see them pulling a 'vietnam': declaring victory and leaving rather than changing their policies. more, assuming they work with a modified version of Juan's 10 point plan, i also don't see them leaving the 'democracy thing' alone - it's just not in their nature.

and i think i’m picking up a little dissonance between Juan’s plan and your post: are you inferring a continued US military presence in iraq for the foreseeable future, maybe 10 years?

...ideas on Clark's piece?

Yeah, I loved Clark's piece. I have to admit to playing a devil's advocate and seeing what turned up; I'm hoping there's more response today.

If we do everything Clark says we should RIGHT NOW, DON'T WAIT, DON'T PASS GO AND PICK UP $200, then I think there actually is a reasonable chance of saving a stronger, more federal and centralized, Iraq, contrary to my arguments posted yesterday. But the problem really is time. Clark says these measures are desperately needed NOW, not a year from now, and he's right. I'm afriad if another 6 months pass, Clark's brilliant and concise listing of policy options/practices will be besides the point. Hence my Devil's Advocate piece, because yes, I have my severe doubts that the Bush Adm. will in fact follow Clark's advice (if they haven't yet, what are the chances they will now?), and so Iraqi fragmentation is made much more probable than under a different Administration.

However: the weakness in my piece is that I have my own brand of idealism: engaging Syria and Iran. Obviously, if the Bush Adm. fails to adopt Wes Clark's pragmatic advice, they will certainly fail to engage Syria and Iran. In which case, I will have to say, my analysis is that Iraq will not only fragment, but will fragment badly in a way that spreads the chaos and confusion to neighboring states.

Or in other words: our current approach is dysfunctional in two ways:

1) It will not produce a stable centralized federal Iraq;
2) It will not even produce a stable and peaceful confederal Iraq with high sub-regional autonomy.

In sum: We're probably on the road to the civil war that Jaun Cole talked about.
Michael Kraig


One person asked if I disagreed with Juan's pull-out points. Actually, I might disagree with the idea of an immediate pull-out, but I would say his logistical order of operations seems very plausible.

When you combine Juan's piece with Wes Clark's piece, the picture you get is rather simple: there must be better regional diplomacy, better regional security practices, and better political solutions within Iraq itself. Once you have these, the specific pull-out sequence will be much easier. We don't have these ingredients right now, which is why it is an "all or nothing" question: stay or pull out. I think what Wes Clark is saying is that we need to lay the political ground.

And that's where my Devil's Advocate piece comes in: is our goal one of producing a central, strong, federal Iraqi state, or is our goal rather a confederation based on strong autonomy and local militias? \

The truth is that either option is probably credible -- but the diplomatic and political and socio-economic basis (including reconstruction) must be laid for BOTH alternatives, as laid out by myself for the autonomy option and by Wes Clark for the strong Iraq option. You can't do either by just pulling troops out immediately.

And this is the problem the progressive community faces: the Bush Adm. simply is not laying the ground for EITHER of these two strategic options. In which case, it is probably irresponsible to call simply for immediate pull-out.

Michael Kraig

"the Bush Adm. simply is not laying the ground for EITHER of these two strategic options. In which case, it is probably irresponsible to call simply for immediate pull-out."

um, yeah, but…what’s your idea of ‘immediate’? mine is 2 years. and yes, i understand that you don’t expect the initial government to stand – so, taking a priori bushco's lack of a coherent strategy to coalesce iraq into a sustainable state (or willingness to achieve a workable balance in the ME in general) what would we be staying for? And for how long?

" analysis is that Iraq will not only fragment, but will fragment badly in a way that spreads the chaos and confusion to neighboring states."

…would we be staying to ameliorate the above? because, if so, we’re there for a generation.

" analysis is that Iraq will not only fragment, but will fragment badly in a way that spreads the chaos and confusion to neighboring states."

I like your analysis, not your conclusuions.

I don't want to sound overly simplistic, but if the nukes are in the air, why should we spend hours discussing how to position the tanks?

The possibilty of civil war in Iraq has the same level of relevency as our partisan fighting here at home, little to none as far as the big picture is concerned. The infighting in Iraq and at home also serve the same purpose: smoke screen.

The 5000 lbs elephant that everyone left and right is avoiding is oil. Our discount coupon (now 3.24 for premium in Chicago) is super major important. Anything that jeopardizes our gas prices must be considered into the equation. When we invaded Iraq, we broke and thus own the oil market coupon.

Look at the U.S. soldiers occupying Iraq, as the largest warlord gang. As such we have alot of pull so long as we remain in Iraq. If we depart and employ a Nixon-goes-to-China type approach, I feel it would be similar to the Sunni-goes-to-Bagdad approach as far as getting any traction there. Our ground troops or warlords are the price we pay for cheap oil. If we leave Iraq and use diplomatic skills alone, we'll lose our oil coupon.

Let think about this elephant in future arguments.

Great article
I posted an elaboration on these ideas and some of my own here

let's talk about the elephant right now: i have contended that access to iraq's oil was a large reason we invaded the country. i have also posited that the US will occupy iraq, much like germany and korea, for the forseeable future, mostly to control the oil.

this argument gets no traction here: i haven't decided if it's because no one wants to believe those running the administration are that brilliantly venal; that they believe the administration to be, lacking in the intellectual acuity to achieve that end; because they don't believe the administration had the brass; they don't want to believe what they also tacitly bought when they bought their SUV; some combination of all the above...

yet, if the commanders-in-the-field say our long term situation is bad to untenable; if we have no hope of installing a democratic government in iraq; if we have no announced, much less nuanced, plan for quelling the ongoing insurgency; if an ex-supreme commander of allied forces starts publicly advising the WH on how to withdraw because it's obvious they have no clue; if we’re not bloody wanted, what are we staying for - sheer mulishness?

i think we’re still there in the main because we want a say in how the oil is handled: even though norway out-produces iraq in bbl/d [and best estimates of pre-invasion iraqi quantities were roughly 1.3 bbl/d, though – in theory, a max of 2.5 bbl/d is possible], we get a higher percentage of total output from iraq: 13.5 mil bbl/month vs. 10 bbl/month from norway: the US consumes, what, 20 mbl/d? the numbers aren’t anything to laugh at…

so, even if we can’t get our hands directly on the oil, i don’t believe the administration feels we can leave until those fields are secure…if they ever are again.

So let's put it into context. I know discussing Iraq is more sexy than alternate energy. But we have people planning things that come to fruition in 2010 to 2025, which is too little too late.

How do we start to demand increased funding for MagLev trains, Pebble Bed Reactors and electro magnetic mass driver research. These are not sci-fi notions. They are tried tested, virtually oilless technologies, that need to be put into the infrastructure right now. We want to be oilless by 2010.
Then we'll never have to visit the Middle East again.

Well at least not for oil.

"How do we start to demand increased funding for MagLev trains, Pebble Bed Reactors and electro magnetic mass driver research...."

polite or not?

polite: we make the system work for us.

not: we start working to out the most venal, bought and totally corrutp politicians at every level and rid ourselves of them.

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