The Very Unserious Optimism of Ken Pollack and other VSP
Posted by Max Bergmann
The irony of those claiming to pursue a “responsible” course in Iraq is that their case for staying is rooted in an absurd level of optimism about what the U.S. can achieve. Ken Pollack’s latest piece in the New Republic is just the latest example. He writes:
The civil war in Northern Ireland is a good example. In the 1970s, the British, much like the Americans today, began emphasizing neighborhood security and de-emphasizing search-and-destroy missions. That made economic and political development plans possible in the '80s, which in turn produced national-level reconciliation talks in the '90s. It is worth remembering that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were every bit as savage in their chauvinism as Moqtada Al Sadr and Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in Iraq. They changed their tunes only after a years-long bottom-up approach showed their constituents that peace was possible--and threatened their leadership roles if they didn't pursue it seriously.
What is so baffling is that Pollack would use the Northern Ireland case in an argument for staying in Iraq. In fact I have used the Northern Ireland case previously as an example for just how hard it is to resolve ethnic conflicts and how difficult if not impossible it will be to resolve the conflict in Iraq.
But Pollack does deserve credit for at least talking about a potential end game in Iraq. Most war supporters just talk about tactical improvements in violence numbers without making the connection to creating a long-term political solution. While Matt and others scoff at using Northern Ireland or Switzerland as a model for Iraq, the fact is that Ken is right about this. If Iraq is going to be stable it will have to create a system that replicates the ethnically based power-sharing systems (“consociational” systems in the academic phrasing) achieved in Northern Ireland, Switzerland, and Bosnia. The fact is that the dominant political division in Iraq is now ethnic/sectarian differences and therefore to create stability in Iraq the political system will have to emulate the power-sharing model of Northern Ireland. Anything less than a system that balances each sectarian group simply won’t work. So Pollack is right that for stability to happen in Iraq it would have to emulate the Northern Ireland or Swiss model.
But, and this is a very big but, the United States simply can’t achieve this in Iraq. In Northern Ireland despite the presence of significantly more troops, better intelligence, knowledge of the language, an understanding of the culture, the existence of western democratic traditions, phenomenal economic growth during the 1990s, and a regional peace process between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and with all of this it still took 35 years for peace and stability to be achieved!
35 years. And that is with conditions that no serious person could ever dream of for Iraq. So how exactly is staying in Iraq the responsible course for the United States in Iraq?