Politics & Policy

Walking Away From The Brink

The much-anticipated full-blown Iraqi civil war is not upon us, at least not yet. The sectarian pot is still simmering in the wake of the savage Golden Mosque bombing, but all of Iraq’s political leaders–including the thuggish Moqtada al Sadr–have called for calm and an end to the violence. It seemed last week that the extraordinary forbearance of Iraq’s Shiites in the face of three years of provocation might finally have reached its end, as the mosque bombing prompted Shiite reprisals and revenge killings. But, in the end, civil war is in no one’s interest except al Qaeda’s. It hopes to ruin the American project in Iraq, by destroying the country around us, and perhaps take power–at least in some Iraqi rump state–in the ensuing chaos.

By any rational calculus, civil war serves the interest of no other faction in Iraq: Shiites shouldn’t want it (except for the extremists), because in the end they will dominate the government, assuming there is one; the Sunnis shouldn’t want it, since they will presumably bear the brunt of the carnage; the Kurds shouldn’t want it, because all they need is the space to go about the business of creating their autonomous region. All the major players realize this, so they all worked to talk the country back from the brink, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who, as usual, played an admirably responsible role.

None of this is to suggest that the situation in Iraq is anything less than deadly serious. An effective counterinsurgency depends as much on fostering strong, clean, fair government as on military force. Good governance is the only way to win over the population and, to borrow Mao’s formulation, drain the sea in which insurgents swim. The Golden Mosque attack and its aftermath could make that more difficult. A strong government must have a monopoly on force, and as long as there are private militias the Iraqi government won’t have one. The mosque attack might have increased the prestige of the militias as defenders of the Shia, and even Sistani seemed to make a (slight and vague) bow to them in his post-attack statement. With every day that passes, the prospect of putting the militias out of business seems more remote.

As bad as the existence of the militias is, their infiltration into government security forces is worse. The interior ministry, which runs the police, has become a hiring program for the Badr Brigade, the paramilitary wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) party. The ministry is a rat’s nest of death squads and torture cells. U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been pushing to clean it up. His reward last week was a ridiculous attack by the head of SCIRI, Abdul-aziz al-Hakim, who blamed him for the Golden Mosque attack. What is Arabic for “chutzpah”? SCIRI controls the interior ministry–so why doesn’t it take responsibility for whether the country’s holiest sites are secure?

“Arriving at the precipice of civil war

might just scare the Iraqi factions

into the compromises necessary

to create better governance

and further isolate the


Khalilzad got it from the other side too. Sunnis blamed the U.S. for not doing more to protect them from reprisals. But the insurgency is living within Sunni communities. Sunnis have it within their power to help save their country, and to serve their own interests, by ratting out the fighters in their midst. The U.S. is a convenient pin cushion for blame, but the fate of Iraq ultimately rests on the shoulders of Iraqis, and depends on whether they make the compromises necessary to seize the better future that is still open to them.

To that end, Khalilzad’s goal of hammering out a unity government that includes Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds is still centrally important. Some analysts rushed to pronounce this project dead last week, when Sunnis announced they were leaving the negotiations. The political talks lay in “ruins,” according to a sub-headline in the New York Times. That state of play lasted all of about 72 hours, with the Sunnis quickly returning to the talks. As anyone who has loosely followed events in Iraq over the last three years should know, “leaving the negotiations” is a favorite Iraqi negotiating tactic. Khalilzad is also pushing for technocrats to run the “power ministries” of interior, defense, and oil, a play to put them above the sectarianism and patronage concerns of the Shia parties. There is a chance that Khalilzad’s priorities will, paradoxically, be advanced by the Golden Mosque fallout. Arriving at the precipice of civil war might just scare the Iraqi factions into the compromises necessary to create better governance and further isolate the insurgency.

The mosque attack came at a time when the U.S. had begun to make important progress. There is now a consensus that the American military has developed a more sophisticated counterinsurgency strategy, one that can succeed–if Iraqi society is not already too fractured, and American political support for the war too thin, to permit it to do so. Even the media are beginning to admit this. Recent articles in The New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post have noted the wisdom of the softer-touch approach, which specifically targets insurgents while attempting to win over other Iraqis. The training of Iraqi military units is also widely acknowledged to have made considerable advances. It is the Iraqi police that have been neglected and need the kind of focus that has been devoted to the military. Even more important, as Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute points out, Tehran is clearly bolstering the Shia militias to undermine us, and the U.S. needs a strategy to counter its influence.

If Iraq ever descends into a real civil war, we won’t have to debate whether it has happened. It will be clear for all to see. The military will dissolve into ethnic factions, and the government will collapse. That hasn’t happened, and so declarations of defeat in Iraq–of the sort our founder and editor-at-large William F. Buckley Jr. made last week–are pre-mature. That view could ultimately be proven right, but there is no way to know with certainty at this point. Throughout the Iraq war, NR has tried to temper the rival fatalisms of the Iraq optimists and pessimists. Victory in Iraq has never been inevitable or impossible. The outcome depends, as is always the case, on the choices made by the players, including ourselves. Even if our influence in Iraq is waning, our commitment–and the specific forms it takes–still matters very much. Defeatism will be self-fulfilling.


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