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January 22, 2008

Why there is no middle way in Iraq
Posted by Max Bergmann

I agree with a lot of what Shawn and Michael write below. Michael Gordon's piece does raise the problems with both the "get out" approach and the "stay forever" approach. And Glenn Greenwald's characterization of those arguing for a more middle of the road position is wrong.

But I think there is a real problem in this debate in thinking that because those are two positions at opposite ends of the spectrum that there must be a viable middle course.

I understand the temptation. Both positions sound totally unreasonable. On the one hand, the get out now position ignores the fact that we have an obligation to the Iraqis to stay and help them build a better country. On the other hand, the notion that we are going to be there indefinitely for possibly 50 years and the resulting costs in lives and treasure also seems incredibly unreasonable.

The problem though, from the way I see it, is that the two “extreme” positions are actually the two most reasonable positions. And the "middle" position of a medium term, 5-10 year commitment, is the one that actually is the most incoherent.

Michael Gordon writes:

counterinsurgency is inherently a long-term proposition, and that assumption has driven much of the military thinking about the future...

“Unless you are suppressing insurgents the way the Romans did — creating a desert and calling it peace — it typically can take the better part of a decade or more,” said Andrew Krepinevich, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The problem with this view is that it misreads the nature of the conflict. We are not just dealing with an insurgency directed against U.S. forces. We are also dealing with a civil war between Iraq's three major ethnic groups. While the Anbar strategy has been effective at blunting the ferocity of the anti-occupation insurgency, it has done nothing to resolve the problem that Kurds, Shia, and Sunni can't agree on the design of the Iraqi state.

Those who think that we can resolve this problem and be home in five - ten years are not looking at other comparable cases of significant ethnic conflice. Kashmir, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, are comparable examples where different groups fought along ethnic lines, either over control of the state or over the right of national self-determination. Many of these conflicts have proved incredibly durable and efforts to arbitrate or resolve them have failed more often than not. While I attacked Ken Pollack for using Northern Ireland as a model for success in Iraq, I do agree that it is a model for how hard and how long it can take to arbitrate these types of conflicts even under the best of circumstances (It took more than 30 years in one of the richest and most democratic countries in the world).

The problem therefore with a more middle of the road approach is that in my view we will still be in virtually the same place five to ten years from now. Stabilizing Iraq really is about creating a power-sharing democratic government in which all groups believe that their interests have been protected and safe-guarded. Anything short of such an agreement and the long-term prospects for stability are very slim, because if all groups - Sunni, Shia, and Kurds - are not perfectly balanced and feel that their interests are not adequately protected then conflict will continue. The reason these agreements take such a long time to form and stabilize is that to create such a power-sharing agreement requires not only for each ethnic group to compromise on their long-term interests, but it also requires that each ethnic group trust each other – i.e. the Sunnis must believe that the Shia won’t screw them after an agreement is made. To develop this inter-ethnic trust, especially after groups have been fighting a genocidal war against each other, takes a very very long time. Additionally, you cannot simply impose that everyone trust each other, especially after the ethnic strife that Iraq has experienced.

Therefore, in my view, the belief that Iraq can be stabilized in a relatively short-medium time period is unrealistic. If U.S. soldiers and Marines depart now or five to ten years from now the United States will still face the same dilemmas and uncertainties of withdrawal that Michael Gordon points too today, because Iraq’s underlying ethnic tensions will remain.

Those who advocate an indefinite presence, to some degree, have the right approach if their goal is to create a democratic and stable Iraq. The problem however is that it is based on the real gamble that such an outcome is achievable. I would argue that it is more than likely not and that the potential risks associated with such a strategy greatly outweigh the benefits to U.S. national security.

There are clearly no good options for the U.S. in Iraq and getting out is not wit