In a June 27 article on “Saving Iraq,” Robert Dreyfuss argues that it is “a bridge too far” to conclude, as I do, that the way things are going, “the only choices for Iraq now are how, and how violently, it will break up.” He maintains that this is throwing up one’s hands and saying that “there is no hope for Iraq.” That is a strange way to characterize facing reality. It is like a passenger on the Titanic saying that the ship may still be able to float after it hits the iceberg, so everyone should stay on board. Hoping for the best does not make it so.
Few challenge the fact that Iraq is disintegrating violently. While there may be pockets of improvement from the “surge,” they are transitory achievements that are about four years too late. We do not have enough US or Iraqi troops capable of holding ground and building on these inroads. Nor have they diminished the level of violence in the country as a whole, encouraged reconciliation, limited militia activity or stopped the spate of vengeance killings that are occurring every day.
The breakup of the country is occurring, with ordinary Iraqis fleeing in fear of the violence. Two million refugees and 1.7 million internally displaced people have already left their homes. Roughly 50,000 to 100,000 more are moving each month to safety in other countries or to homogenous ethno-religious communities. As a recent report from the Brookings Institution put it, “The impetus for ethno-sectarian flight comes from the ethno-sectarian nature of the killing, rather than armed conflict per se…. [Iraqis] are seeking security…where militias of their own group tend to be in control.” Even the United States is unintentionally abetting the process in an attempt to quell the killing. US troops are creating “gated communities” in many Baghdad neighborhoods and erecting a three-mile wall to discourage intercommunal violence.
Dreyfuss exhibits two characteristics typical of US foreign policy analysts in denying the impact of these trends. The first is an unwillingness to face up to facts on the ground if they contradict preconceived ideas of what they think “should” be the right outcome–in this case, a multiethnic democratic society. As noble as this goal is, it is grasping for straws to believe that it is achievable in the chaos that reigns in Iraq today. When internal war descends into systematic vengeance-seeking violence against civilians, such policies can worsen the conflict by hardening group identities and fostering faster fragmentation.
A second characteristic of US foreign policy analysts is the tendency to “pick winners” who they believe are imbued with the power to miraculously save the situation. There is a school of thought that holds that leaders matter more than underlying social forces in critical transitions or crises. In truth, of course, both are important. But where exemplary leaders are not available, social forces take over. It is fanciful to think that we can find in Iraq the kind of nonviolent bridge-building figures of integrity, such as Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, who can turn the situation around.
Dreyfuss is trying to pick winners nonetheless. He trumpets a “nascent bloc of Iraqi nationalists who, against all odds, are working to put together a pan-Iraq coalition that would topple the US-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki” [italics mine]. Without citing evidence, he asserts that “outside Parliament the nationalists represent an overwhelming majority of rank- and-file Iraqis.” Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is the titular leader of this “emerging nationalist coalition” that could “oust Maliki,” although Dreyfuss does not spell out how this would occur. He warns, nonetheless, that this is “probably Iraq’s last chance to avoid civil war, collapse and fragmentation.”