Give Civil War a Chance

TCS Daily

February 27, 2006

Blogger and TCS contributor Stephen Green argues that civil war in Iraq might not be such a bad thing, noting that, “A civil war is the nastiest way to get a good result.” He cites several examples, notably the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, and the American war between the states of where internecine conflict settled major disputes and paved the way for a much brighter future for all concerned.

Center for Strategic and International Studies senior fellow Edward Luttwak made a similar argument in a controversial piece for the July/August 1999 edition of Foreign Affairs entitled “Give War a Chance.” He noted that, “although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached.”

Luttwak and Green are doubtless correct. Wars, even bloody internal wars, are sometimes the only way to solve conflicts on issues where neither side feels it can compromise. They come at a terrible price, however, and resentments can live on for decades, even centuries. Just ask a Bosnian Muslim or an American Southerner with a “Forget, Hell!” bumper sticker on his F-150. Further, as Lee Harris explained in a recent piece for TCS Daily, “Once a society has lapsed back into tribal anarchy, a vicious cycle sets in, one in which each of the feuding tribes will be egged on, by their own members, to perpetrate more and more ruthless acts against the enemy tribe.”

Fortunately, all but the most extreme elements in Iraq seem to understand this. Sunni and Shiite leaders alike are calling for calm and the cycle of violence seems to have eased, at least for now. The events of last week could be provide the type of wake-up call that the Cuban Missile Crisis did for both sides during the Cold War, permanently keeping everyone from the brink of disaster. But there are no guarantees. Indeed, al Qaeda may well decide that exploiting sectarian fears is their best hope for victory.

In these pages in December 2004, I argued that civil war could be avoided in Iraq if a reasonable amount of security was established and legitimate elections went forth as scheduled. The latter happened beyond my expectations but, sadly, the former has not. Still, as long as major factional leaders continue to view a peaceful, unified Iraq as the most desirable endstate, civil war may be averted.

But what if it is not? Green argues that, if there is civil war in Iraq, the United States must “choose a side right the now, and stick to it until the bloody end” and “increase our troop strength in-theater ASAP, so that the bloody end comes sooner rather than later.” If civil war erupts in Iraq and we decide it in our interest to engage, that’s absolutely right. Columbia political scientist Richard Betts described “The Delusion of Impartial Intervention” in the November/December 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs.

“Limited intervention may end a war if the intervener takes sides, tilts the local balance of power, and helps one of the rivals to win – that is, if it is not impartial. Impartial intervention may end a war if the outsiders take complete command of the situation, overawe all the local competitors, and impose a peace settlement – that is, if it is not limited. Trying to have it both ways usually blocks peace by doing enough to keep either belligerent from defeating the other, but not enough to make them stop trying. And the attempt to have it both ways has brought the United Nations and the United States – and those whom they sought to help – to varying degrees of grief in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti.

“Wars have many causes, and each war is unique and complicated, but the root issue is always the same: Who rules when the fighting stops? In wars between countries, the issue may be sovereignty over disputed territory, or suzerainty over third parties, or influence over international transactions. In wars within countries the issue may be which group will control the government, or how the country should be divided so that adversaries can have separate governments. When political groups resort to war, it is because they cannot agree on who gets to call the tune in peace.”

Discussing the means by which the United States should engage in an Iraqi civil war, however, prompts the question: Should the United States engage an Iraqi civil war at all?

Despite Luttwak’s enthusiasm for war as a means of achieving clarity, he adamantly opposes the intervention of foreigners: “Policy elites should actively resist the emotional impulse to intervene in other peoples’ wars — not because they are indifferent to human suffering but precisely because they care about it and want to facilitate the advent of peace.” Still, he was talking about a Bosnia-type intervention where the goal was peace rather than the quick, decisive victory of one party.

Other scholars reached similar conclusions. Cato Institute foreign policy analyst Barbara Conry argued in a widely-cited 1994 study that,

“Intervening powers are at a disadvantage because their stake in the outcome is usually far smaller than that of the primary combatants. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs are fighting out of nationalism, which they perceive as closely related to their very existence as states (or as distinct cultures). Nationalism in that case is an ideal for which many people are prepared to kill and die. Outside parties that become involved for essentially altruistic reasons are not prepared to fight with the same intensity or endurance. Altruism and nationalism simply do not inspire equal determination.

“Moreover, the American public is renowned for its unwillingness to sustain heavy casualties in remote regional wars. American support for military action abroad tends to decline dramatically at the prospect of an extended occupation that will entail significant U.S. casualties. The erosion of public support usually leads to the erosion of congressional support, resulting in serious divisions within the government that is supposed to be directing the intervention. With leadership divided, there is little chance for success. The military, already operating under handicaps inherent to intervention, is virtually assured of failure. As political scientist Richard Falk has commented, “It is not that intervention can never work but that it will almost never succeed unless a costly, prolonged occupation is an ingredient of the commitment.”

Indeed, much of that has already happened in Iraq, despite fighting that has been only sporadic and fewer American dead in three years (2,292) sustained on D-Day (about 2,500) much less Gettysburg (7,058).

So long as the fight remains one of the Coalition and the forces of Iraqi democracy on one side and jihadist terrorists and the forces of instability on the other, the United States has a stake in the outcome and even a duty to remain engaged. If, however, it devolves into an Iraqi factional conflict over the internal control of the country, the cause is lost and the United States must leave.

Not only are there no angels in such a fight but there is no way for the United States to win it. Presumably, we would side with the Shi’a majority. While a sectarian Shiite government sympathetic to Iran is a possible outcome of a democratic process, and thus one we could live with, it would be unacceptable to install such a regime through the force of American arms. But, surely, putting the minority Sunnis back in power, let alone the Kurds, would be unthinkable. Regardless, the factions that were routed with the help of American forces — presuming that they did not simply go underground and continue to fight as guerrillas — would remain our enemies for generations.

We owe it to the Iraqi people to do everything we can to help avert a civil war and give their fledgling democracy a chance. Saving them from themselves, however, is both beyond our power and responsibility. If they decide civil war is the only way to settle their longstanding disputes, we must stand aside and let them fight it and then try to salvage a relationship with the eventual victors. While that would be a bitter pill, indeed, after coming so close to achieving the incredibly ambitious vision of the neo-cons, it would nonetheless be preferable to the other alternatives.

Original article