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August 21, 2005

Top 10 List: Consequences of Iraq Becoming A Failed State
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

There is genuine uncertainty over whether, at this point, there’s anything the U.S can do to turn things around in Iraq. Kevin Drum suggests that the only reason to hesitate in calling for a pull out is the fear of looking weak.   As we debate what’s next, though, its worth considering what the consequences of a failed Iraq will be. 

I define failure as a situation in which the result of the U.S.’s invasion and subsequent occupation are not the stability (never mind the democracy) that we all hoped for, but instead continued chaos, factionalism, violence, and uncontrollable outside influence by the likes of Iran and Syria. It’s a scenario in which Iraq’s domestic security forces never gain the upper hand against insurgents, the economy does not recover, the fractious politics never coalesces into a functioning government, and the violence goes on unabated. In short, current conditions persist.

Noone, neither hawk nor peacenik, wants this to happen. But as we contemplate options that we long dismissed, its worth remembering why we’ve said for so long that the prospect of Iraq as a failed state was unacceptable. Even if we come to the conclusion that – though it may leave the country in ruins - U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is the best of an array of terrible options, if Iraq becomes a failed state that choice will not be without devastating consequences.

This post is intended not to suggest a particular course of action, but rather to point out that the result of recent years’ policies in Iraq is a painfully short list of options, all bad. Those guiding the war effort bear responsibility for backing us into this corner. At every stage, proposals have been made (to internationalize, involve the UN, improve planning, increase the number of troops when it still could have made a difference etc.) that could have helped us avoid this conundrum.

Some of the casualties if Iraq becomes a failed state:

1.   The fate of the Iraqi people – The Iraqi people will be left with a state that’s vulnerable to rampant violence, possible civil war and economic ruin. Those that believe that virtually anything is better than life under Saddam may face a Baathist resurgence.

2.   Stability in the Middle East – Chaos in Iraq will bleed over to the wider region.  Iraq’s neighbors can be expected to react opportunistically to the void, meddling in Iraqi affairs to serve their own interests, and very likely entering into violent conflict with one another.

3. Attitudes toward the U.S. in the Middle East – The U.S.’s image in the Middle East has gone from bad to worse in much of the Middle East as a result of the Iraq war. If the result of our efforts leaves the Iraqi people worse off, all the resentment over the perceived unilateralism of the Iraq invasion and the distortions of fact over WMD will harden into even deeper bitterness.

4. The fight against terrorism – Everyone from President Bush to al Qaeda #2 Ayman al Zawahri has declared the Iraqi insurgency the primary front of the fight against terrorism. If Iraq winds up a failed state, it will represent a territory terrorists have conquered and can claim. In addition to offering terrorists safe harbor to operate, the resources of the Iraqi state – oil, military, communications infrastructure, and funds – may fuel terrorist purposes.

5. Fight Against WMD, especially in Iran - Iranian influence is already on the rise in a chaotic Iraq; if Iraq fails, the role of the mullahs will only grow.  As illustrated by Ahmadinejad's election, the Iraq war has already undercut the support we used to enjoy among moderate Iranians sick of their repressive regime.  If Iraq becomes a failed state and U.S. influence in the Middle East correspondingly diminishes, the pressure on Iran to accede to American demands in relation to its nuclear program will further weaken.  Chinese and Russian economic ties to Iran will pose increasingly powerful buffers against counter-proliferation efforts.  Its hard to imagine Kim Jong Il won't find some way of scoring points off this as well; he's already benefitted from the consensus that a military response to N. Korea's nuclear program is off the table.

6. American credibility - Let's face it:  a failed state in Iraq will alter perceptions of American power the world over. Iraq is the most ambitious and important U.S. foreign policy undertaking in a generation.  Despite all the rifts, the U.S. has been united in its determination that Iraq not become a failed state.  For the U.S. to mount a massive effort to prevent that outcome, only to witness it anyway has to call into question the credibility of American power.

7. Prospects for democracy in the Middle East – The Bush Administration has often described how the creation of a stable and democratic Iraq would prompt liberalization throughout the Middle East. While this is true in theory, so is the opposite. The failure of Iraq’s democratic experiment will be a mortal blow, weakening moderates in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere and reinforcing the notion that democracy cannot succeed in the region.

8. Americans’ willingness to use military force - Iraq as a failed state is likely to herald an era of deep reservations among the U.S. public regarding the use of force - - a kind of post-Vietnam, post-Mogadishu hangover. While this Administration has made the prospect of greater circumspection in the use of force very attractive, a level of public skepticism that makes it impossible to intervene to prevent genocide or stop live conflicts from further spreading could result in more Rwandas and Bosnias.

9. Military morale - Military morale has already been damaged by a conflict that put our troops at risk without adequate preparation or equipment, that has disrupted families and livelihoods through long extensions in tours of duty.  The unexpected difficulties confronted on the battlefield have provoked a crisis of confidence in Pentagon leadership.  Despite their frustration, those who have served want to be sure that their sacrifices result in an Iraq that's better off.  If, after all this, Iraq devolves into a failed state the blow to the military will be brutal.

10. Today’s definition of a superpower - The combined impact of Iraq's emergence as a failed state on America's image, military, credibility influence in the Middle East, and on our battles against terrorism and WMD will be profound.   In both bilateral and multi-lateral relations, most countries' dealings with the U.S. are predicated on the idea that we are capable of accomplishing whatever we set out to do.  That notion is so well understood that we rarely have to prove it.  The prevalence of this belief has made it immeasurably easier to rally others behind our causes, thwart opposition and work our will.  While failure in Iraq won't change that overnight, it will open a question about what superpowerdom means in an era of terrorism and insurgency. 

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Top 10 List: Consequences of Iraq Becoming A Failed State:

» The Best Hope For Iraq from Political Animal
THE BEST HOPE FOR IRAQ....Juan Cole and Suzanne Nossel argue today that immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster: it would leave Iraq in chaos, probably instigate a civil war, provide a safe haven for terrorism, and destabilize the... [Read More]

» The Best Hope For Iraq from Political Animal
THE BEST HOPE FOR IRAQ....Juan Cole and Suzanne Nossel argue today that immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster: it would leave Iraq in chaos, probably instigate a civil war, provide a safe haven for terrorism, and destabilize the... [Read More]

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» New allies in "Mission Damage Control" from chez Nadezhda
As the past week or so of high-volume debates about Iraq has demonstrated, you don't have to have been a supporter of the US invasion of Iraq to be equally wary of the consequences<... [Read More]

» The Best Hope For Iraq from Political Animal
THE BEST HOPE FOR IRAQ....Juan Cole and Suzanne Nossel argue today that immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster: it would leave Iraq in chaos, probably instigate a civil war, provide a safe haven for terrorism, and destabilize the... [Read More]

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Comments

Pity that we didn't consider the risks *before* we went ahead and did a bunch of stupid things.

A sobering list! What you don't answer is whether US withdrawal will inevitably lead to Iraq's becoming a failed state.

I tend to agree with the implicit assumption behind this post - namely that Democrats need to point out more forcefully the ruin wrought by the Bush Administration's policies, rather than futilely trying to point the way out of the paper bag. There is no way out, so the key now is distance, distance, distance, while pointing out the error of the ways that led us here.

Republicans never let their inability to proffer better alternatives stand in the way of the impulse to criticize. Why do we??

I am worried that the debate is polarizing between the stay-and-try-to-do-someting-constructive view and the get-out-now view. I think we should save our wrath--our entirely justified wrath-- for all politicians, Democrat or Republican, who still cling to the irresponible contention that the original invasion was a good idea. Anyone still clinging to that position should be euthanized. (metaphorically ,of course).
It is possible for honorable, well-informed, ethical people to disagree about what we should do now. Those adjectives can't be applied to politicians who still support the initial invasion.

I tend, with deep reluctance, to agree that we can't just walk away. However, on the issue of what to do now: all choices are bad. We can only attempt to identify the least bad choice, the choice most likely to result in something more positive than things as they are now. We have to accept the fact that the Iraqis will create a society that is acceptable to them and might not be acceptable to us. For example, they will continue to align themselves with Iran and there isn't a damn thing we can do about it. Also a unified Iraq will be close to a thoecracy with sharia law at its foundation whether we like it or not. Those are outcomes that we should have considered before the invasion. Too late now.
One little ray of light; after this administration the myth that Republicans are strong on defense will be dispelled along with the myth that they manage the nation's finances more prudently than Democrats.

Welcome back Suzanne.

While there are many very dreadful outcomes that one can imagine resulting from the failure of the Iraqi central government - and believe me, my thoughts are plagued with these images - there are also conceivable outcomes in which the Iraqi state could fail, but in which something better could emerge - something better at least than the Baathist monstrosity that proceeded it. Perhaps we should begin to think more often of Iraq as an artificial colonial creation, and entertain the possibility that the invasion has created the opportunity for what was once Iraq to evolve into several successor states that are each more natural than what came before.

Of course, such an outcome would not represent the sort of clear and easy victory that the supporters of the war hoped for. In the words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, most of them certainly expected an outcome "less fundamental and astounding" and it would be appropriate for pro-war Americans to be chagrined and humbled by the way in which events spun away from our ability to control them, and also ashamed of the degree of destruction they helped cause.

But neither would such an outcome represent the sort of clear and catastrophic loss that the enemies of America desired, and American critics of the war feared. It wouldn't be like Afghanistan and Vietnam, for example, where the Soviets and Americans were driven out by the forces of their enemies, which forces then assumed control of the state. In Iraq it would be a much more mixed result. The Shiites and the Kurds, whom the US encouraged to rise up in the wake of the Gulf War, would have succeeded at long last in achieving the result at which the US prodded them to aim in 1991. We should enjoy excellent relations with the Kurdish successor state, and with diligence could enjoy tolerably good relations with the Shiite successor state. Yet it is true that the Sunni Arab result is likely to be far less wholesome for us. So where America and its enemies are concerned, perhaps we could then also say with Lincoln "the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

I agree with the appropraiteness of most of the items on your list, taken as cautionary notes. But I have problems with a couple:

If Iraq winds up a failed state, it will represent a territory terrorists have conquered and can claim. In addition to offering terrorists safe harbor to operate, the resources of the Iraqi state – oil, military, communications infrastructure, and funds – may fuel terrorist purposes.

Are the Kurds terrorists? Is Sistani a terrorist? We really have to get out of this dichotomy of thinking either "we win" or the "terrorists win." That is not to say that Iraq does not pose a serious problem now on the terrorism front. It does - and likely will whether the central govenment holds together or not. Preventing Iraqi oil wealth from funding terrorist networks will be a challenge. But it is hard for me to see how a state that was once Sunni-owned and Sunni-run, and that has perished in spawning rival Kurdish and Shiite states as offspring, leaving the once powerful dominant Sunni class flailing about in an oil-deprived rump, would represent a victory for the Sunni Salafist radicals and their aim of creating a pan-Islamic Salafist state. Surely others in the region would laugh at that claim.

And what could very well emerge in central Iraq is a neo-Baathist or Arabist entity of some kind, or perhaps a traditionalist Sunni shaikhdom or emirate more akin to Saudi Arabia or the other states of the Arabian peninsula. None of these people like Salafist jihadists running rampant in their country and threatening their rule (although they are occasionally happy to get rid of them by exporting them to other countries), and are likely to deal harshly with them once the Americans are gone.

By the way, you may have read recently that it is the Sunnis who are now the party most opposed to "federalism" - such federalism being a harbinger of autonomy and separation. Federalism, autonomy or independence will all carry with them local control over oil and its revenues. The Sunni Arabs have no oil in their region, and are terrified of losing a share of that revenue. Tough luck.

If we really want to keep oil revenue out of the hands of Sunni jihadists, then perhaps the best plan is to assign those revenues to to the Kurdish and Shiite states that would occupy the regions where the oil reserves are located - that is, safely under the control of the regions where the jihadists ain't at.

Iraq as a failed state is likely to herald an era of deep reservations among the U.S. public regarding the use of force - - a kind of post-Vietnam, post-Mogadishu hangover. While this Administration has made the prospect of greater circumspection in the use of force very attractive, a level of public skepticism that makes it impossible to intervene to prevent genocide or stop live conflicts from further spreading could result in more Rwandas and Bosnias.

Yes, but perhaps it would also finally shake Americans out of their stubborn, go-it-alone hero-complex, and their fanatical and jealous regard for their uncomplicated national sovereignty; and perhaps it would jolt them into the recognition that the prevention of more Rwandas and Bosnias will require the establishment of a truly potent and transnational, UN-centered, pacification and stabilization force. Mnay idealistic young American men and women could proudly volunteer to serve in such a force and play a part in ending wars and crimes against humanity, without having to throw in their lot in with the hired imperial muscle and US protection racket occasionally run out of the White House under the aegis of the Department of "Defense".

If I thought Americans currently suffered from a debilitating unwillingness to use force for their own defense, I would be worried about your outcome #8. But given that the current problem is precisely the opposite, I would be delighted with an overall increase in national military reticence.

I disagree with the premise of this essay. Far from there being nothing the US can do to "turn things around" I would like to go way out on a limb and say that the tide has turned. Many sunni leaders, secular and religious, are urging fellow sunni's to stop boycotting the political process and get involved. These people are the newest targets of the insurgents. This is excellent news.

While it is not apparent from reading the press, which often indicates the reverse, the insurgency mostly stopped targetting Coalition forces some time ago. For some time they've been targetting other Iraqi's, mostly shia. The shia have almost totally resisted going in for a tit for tat series of revenge attacks.

So now we have the mostly sunni insurgency going after fellow sunni's. Along with this trend are multiple reports of Iraqi security units getting much better, and timely, intell from fellow Iraqi's.

This is not to justify Iraq, or put aside the many mistakes made, but just as the press reported a quagmire a few days before both Kabul and Baghdad fell they seem to be reporting a current quagmire. War is ugly and bloody and during war people die. The press seems to often get confused between the facts of war, death, and what those facts mean. People dying does not equate to quagmire. More people will die before this is over but it's far from a static situation.

Certainly this view could be wrong. We'll know one way or the other in 12 months or so.

Lane Brody

Great list. And by great, I mean well thought out, obviously not great news...

The one point I'd take issue with is the low morale among the Army. Far from it, reports seem to indicate that morale is high - http://news.yahoo.com/s/krwashbureau/20050819/
ts_krwashbureau/_bc_usiraq_media_wa

Army Capt. Sherman Powell reinforced that view with his comments during an interview Wednesday with "Today" show host Matt Lauer in Baghdad. Lauer wondered how troop morale could be so high, given the problems in Iraq.

"If I got my news from the newspapers also, I'd be pretty depressed as well," Powell replied. "Those of us who've actually had a chance to get out and go on patrols and meet the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police and go on patrols with them, we are very satisfied with the way things are going here."

News also of a request from Fallujah for more voter registration offices to cope with demand prior to the October election.

Things aren't perfect there but when some Sunni clerics and terrorist groups have to issue warnings that democracy is incompatible with Islam and that those who vote or join the Army or police are infidels and heretics, you have to assume that it's because they need to try and stop the surge towards democracy.

http://crypticsubterranean.blogspot.com/2005/08/islam-uncovered.html

They are losing.

More good news from Iraq The Model- this time he tells of how he was stopped inthe street close to a Sunni mosque and handed a flyer- advocating that Sunnis take part in the upcoming elections. The most interesting aspect for me was that they had included proofs from the Koran and Hadith to support their position.

Again, when we hear news actually coming from Iraq (here and Michael Yon being my prime two examples) the situation is not always as bad as it appears.

What Iraq the Mouthpiece neglects to inform you is that the flyer was advocating rejecting the constitution.

Yay team! We've achieved the Worst Case Scenario! A constitution which shafts the driving force behind the insurrection while simultaneously papering over irreconcialiable differences between the Kurds and Shia.

Hoo-fsckin-ray.

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