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March 05, 2007

Samantha Power on how to stop genocide in Iraq
Posted by Rosa Brooks

Samantha Power, who knows a little something about how the US has historically handled (or failed to handle) genocides, has a strong piece in today's LA Times: How to stop genocide in Iraq:

Although critics of withdrawal do a masterful job of painting a grim picture of the apocalypse that awaits, they offer no account of how U.S. forces in Iraq will do more than preserve a status quo that is already deteriorating into wholesale ethnic cleansing.... What is needed to stave off even greater carnage than we see today is neither assuming massacres won't happen nor suspending thought until the surge has demonstrably failed in six months — at which point other options may no longer be viable. Rather, we must announce our intention to depart and use the intervening months to prioritize civilian protection by pursuing a bold set of measures combining political pressure, humanitarian relocation and judicial deterrence.


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Powers argument is constructive. But I think she fails in certain ways to grapple with the full dimensions of the problem.

First, I am a bit concerned by the tack of singling out genocide as a particularly awful and special kind problem of violence, and then approaching those wars that involve genocide as though they exist in a separate "humanitarian" category. As Powers recognizes, there is a civil war in Iraq. This particular war happens to involve fighting along ethnic and sectarian lines. But suppose the parties in the war were not organized along ethnic and sectarian lines, but along merely ideological lines instead. And suppose they were still killing people on the other side in the same numbers. Then we wouldn't have "genocide". We would just have regular "homicide" or "other-side-cide". Would that be better? I would think not. A civil war - ethno-sectrarian or not - is a political event that has geopolitical repercussions, and the challenge of ending it should be approached in the same way we would address other wars - as an exercise in viloent conflict resolution.

What stands out for me in Powers analysis is the extent to which she ignores the geopolitical context of the Iraq war. She rightly recognizes that to stop the war requires a political settlement. But that settlement will require the participation of other countries. Virtually every party fighting in Iraq has allies, supporters and suppliers outside the country, and they are involved in Iraq because of their own powerful national and strategic interests in what happens there, including domestic concerns about conflicting tribal and sectarian interests. I don't think there is much chance of ending this war without involving the surrounding countries, and working with them to bring pressure to bear on their associates, allies, kin and fellow sectaries in Iraq.

Also, some of the fighters in Iraq are radical Salafist jihadists who have declared, for example, an "Islamic Emirate of Samarra" inside and "Islamic republic of Iraq". It is not clear that such groups can be won over by simply by offering them a good deal in which they get, for example, a fair share of land and oil profits. They are opposed ideologically to other members of their own Sunni community, and have grand ambitions that extend beyond the control of particular regions. Unfortuanately, someone on the Sunni Arab side in Iraq is probably going to have to defeat them, and that will require participation from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other nearby Sunni states who understand, and have influence over, various rival Sunni groups.

The transfer proposal sounds good in theory. But I wonder about the logistics of such operations. Transfer operations would themselves become huge targets of opportunity for attack. If one organizes some sort of convoy to move Shia in Baghdad, for example to southern Iraq or just another part of Baghdad, it is like painting a big "Shia Here" sign on the convoy. Also, some areas are so contested that the mere fact of attempting to relocate people will itself be seen as provocative. For example, there may be various Sunni Arab or Kurdish families in Kirkuk who would just as soon leave their conflict-ridden city. But perhaps their ethnic and sectarian brothers and sisters do not want them to leave, and would seek to punish those who attempt it. These ethnic groups are in a sense "civilian armies" helping to settle and stake a claim on territory. And like many armies, there are officers at their backs who are ready to shoot those who desert the field.

Finally, I think we have to have some realism about why the US government is reluctant to open the gates to Iraqi refugees, and why why it is not so "astounding". First, Iraq is now home to numerous extremist jihadist elements, some foreign-based but many homegrown, in large measure due to the religious and ideological conflicts liberated by the war from Saddam's control. At least some of the refugees, I assume, will turn out to be al Qaeda or al Qaeda sympathizers. Can you imagine the political broohaha that would occur if some Iraqi refugee to the US committed a significant terrorist act here?

Second, there is some reason to fear that to the extent that good, peaceful people are offered a route out of Iraq to a better life elsewhere, the incentive for a political settlement inside Iraq is diminished. I am not saying these are adequate reasons to limit the flow of refugees to the puny levels they are at now. But there is more going on here than the US government simply refusing to step up to the plate.

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If we should be in Iraq then we must, out of a sense of national honor and duty, spend what it takes to get the job done. Now you see that we are finally pulling out because there may be an end near.

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