Out of options and out of credit

Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack start a lengthy Washington Post piece by observing

The debate is over: By any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war.

and their assessment only gets gloomier from there on in, pointing to the disaster as a source of further regional conflict, a recruiting poster and training ground for terrorists, massive flows of refugees and so on. They have essentially nothing positive to suggest except for the observation (for which General Shinseki got fired before the war) that

Considering Iraq’s much larger population, it probably would require 450,000 troops to quash an all-out civil war there. Such an effort would require a commitment of enormous military and economic resources, far in excess of what the United States has already put forth.

Since the commitment of 450 000 troops is even less likely now than it was in 2003, the conclusion is, in effect, that the situation is hopeless.

We’re well past the point where admissions of error will do any good. Still, I’m stunned that Pollack could write

How Iraq got to this point is now an issue for historians (and perhaps for voters in 2008); what matters today is how to move forward

This was so brazen that I thought I must have got him confused with someone else. But no, it’s the same Kenneth Pollack who wrote The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq

17 thoughts on “Out of options and out of credit

  1. The debate is over: People who prefix their comments with “the debate is over” are pushing a barrow and should be treated with suspicion.

  2. But what does one then do now? Do we have to just let them fight it out or is there some less bloody solution that nobody has put on the table yet?

    It is a pity that there is not a Ctrl-Z in International Relations.

  3. Actually, there is a perfectly meaningful definition of “civil war” under which this is not civil war. It’s relevant when you are looking at the political/military aspects, but it has little to do with whether people are getting hurt as though it were that sort of conflict.

    It can be useful to distinguish between revolutions, wars of independence, and civil wars. From a political/military perspective, a revolution is when the matter is settled in hearts and minds so that no, or only token, armed force is needed. A war of independence is when that situation is achieved in the area in question, possibly after applying force in a civil war, but then an outward facing struggle is needed. And a civil war is when there is an unresolved issue of identity and direction that cannot be resolved by abstract argument since there are differing premises, so people resort to conflict to resolve the matter.

    Many wars were misunderstood at the time and so mislabelled, and there is often a continuum. Nevertheless – and regardless of the actual subject matter of, say, a revolutionary movement – it can be useful to abstract things in this way. (As I said, this abstraction has little to do with endemic and chronic levels of violence and suffering.) For Iraq to be in a civil war under this definition, there would have to be fighting directed at the nature of Iraq. At the earliest that can only happen once the occupation ends, just as the Irish troubles were a civil war that could not begin until after the British left.

  4. Off the top of my head, there’s Yugoslavia during WWII and Angola in the last stages of Portuguese rule. More generally, any situation where the occupier enlists the support of one group to fight against its opponents counts as a kind of civil war.

  5. One explanation of why Gulf War 1 did not attempt to topple Saddam was that this would lead to a change in the balance of power relative to Iran.
    It can be argued that we are now seeing Iran exert its power both in Iraq and in Lebenon.

    This would make the Iraq situation war being fought by proxies.

    The next stage is for Saudi Arabia to enter the action more directly.

    The USA meanwhile is achieving its objectives of changing the gridlocked political stage throughout the arab/persian region.

    It may be some time before stability returns.

  6. “Can anyone list some examples of civil wars that occurred during occupations?”

    1. Judea, 1st century AD

    2. North American Colonies, 1775-1783.

    3. Ireland, 1820s-1920s.

    4. China, 1937-1945.

    5. Yugoslavia, 1940-1945.

    6. Vietnam, 1945-1975.

  7. JQ, Katz, you are using a different (but also internally consistent) definition of civil war. Also, you are overlooking the fact that many of these conflicts I outlined don’t occur in pure form. This is clear from the different assessment JQ applies to what happened in Ireland, and when.

    Katz, some of your information is factually incorrect. The soon to be USA wasn’t occupied during the war period, apart from in a few areas. Similarly for Vietnam (and when the Frnch did occupy it, the civil war side of things hadn’t broken out). Ditto China.

  8. Surely that’s a matter of degree PML.

    By the same token it could be said that Iraq isn’t occupied because there are virtually no foreign troops in the Kurdish regions.

    I think you are setting an unrealistically high bar to qualify for “occupation”.

    The British had Indian Confederates throughout North America during the War for Independence. Indeed Christopher Hibbert argues that the barbarity of the Indians in upper-province New York helped turn many otherwise neutral whites to supporting the rebels.

    The French had Vietnamese cadres before 1954.

  9. Let’s start again.

    What I was mainly driving at was that there is a meaningful definition of civil war according to which Iraq is not having one. It’s a technical definition, valuable for certain discussions. It’s not particularly relevant to most questions about Iraq, but it still undercuts the original assertion.

    But I am not suggesting that we should use it as a tool to discuss today’s issues – doing that would be setting unrealistic standards.

    But getting back to looking at the toolkit itself, we see that Vietnam was not in civil war under the post-war French, only in the pre-positioning stage.

    The North American colonies were not materially occupied by the British from 1775-83 – in fact, those that were so occupied in 1775 remained British afterwards, apart from Florida which went to Spain under the treaty. The British occupied Manhattan and Long Island during hostilities, and briefly other places like Philadelphia and parts of Rhode Island; these were handed to the USA after hostilities. British posts further west were to be handed over when the USA complied with other provisions. This never happened, and eventually another war led to another treaty that sorted that out.

    The colonies did not have a true civil war, only one of the hybrid ones that I mentioned as falling in the continuum. This ended rapidly, probably when the governor of Virginia was defeated. In New England, that phase corresponded far more to a true revolution – Tories there were unable to organise for concerted action. The nearest to civil war later on was a continuation of Scottish clan rivalries with the parties acting from their own motives but lining up with the main struggle.

    By the way, as at 1954 the British-mediated treaty left Vietnam with no civil war but a commitment to resolve matters politically. That got US noses out of joint, dog in the manger style, and they destabilised that – leading to the first outbreaks of civil war proper in South Vietnam. That’s not suggesting that a political solution would necessarily have been better – the USA had a quite realistic fear of a south easet Asian rerun of the sort of “political” settlements that led to the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

  10. “And a civil war is when there is an unresolved issue of identity and direction that cannot be resolved by abstract argument since there are differing premises, so people resort to conflict to resolve the matter.

    “For Iraq to be in a civil war under this definition, there would have to be fighting directed at the nature of Iraq. At the earliest that can only happen once the occupation ends…”

    Why can’t a War for Independence and a Civil War happen simultaneously?

    Carl Becker enunciated a famous formula with regard to the American War for Independence. He said it was as struggle “not only for home rule, but for who would rule at home.” Becker didn’t have any trouble with simultaneousness. How was he incorrect?

    And why would it be incorrect to conclude that in Iraq an insurgency exists to rid the country of the Americans, while at the same time many of these insurgents are locked in a struggle with sectarian enemies over different versions of the Islamic nature of the coming Iraq?

  11. Actually a reasonably close parallel can be found in former Yugoslavia 1941-45, where there were at least 2 civil wars going on at the same time as a liberation struggle against the Germans, with whom one of the civil belligerents (Ustashi-led Croatia) sided. In Iraq we have the Kurds, allied with the Americans, and the Sunni and Shia sects, who want the Americans out and are also warring among themselves and with the Kurds. As in the former Yugoslavia, intermarriage and internal migration have blended populations, so the re-creation of mythic ethnic and sectarian strongholds requires ethnic cleansing. The analogy is strained when it comes to outside support for belligerent groupings, however – eg the Communists received more support than the Chetniks from without on account of their superior ability to inflict damage on the Germans. In the current circumstances the Shia militia appear the less effective force in fighting the Americans, but receive greater external support from the Iranians on account of their religious affiliation. It may be, however, that the Shia forces will turn out to be the more deadly foe for the Americans, particularly if the latter are hubristic enough to initiate hostilities against Iran.

  12. I agree Hal.

    I don’t think that the various Shia militias have really tried yet to make life uncomfortable for the occupying forces.

    Up until now the Americans were unwitting and/or unwilling assistants in the rise of the Shia ascendancy in Iraq.

  13. Saddams removal has meant that Iraq no longer presents a threat to the ME. Iraqis are concentrating on blowing each other up.

    Israels stand against Hezzbollah has called the bluff of the adversary and removed Irans forward flank.

    Lebanese military will now be strengthened by International forces and Lebanon may just start to get their country back from Hezbollah.

    Syria and Iran have just witnessed a first hand demonstration of the destructive power of precision guided weaponry. Despite tunnelling under civilian enclaves Hezbollah was hit hard.

    Syrias temporary alignment with Iran has isolated them from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

    August 22 came and went without any messiah.

    After previously threatening Israel with total destruction and now no longer with any credible allies or occupied territory to attack Israel Ahmadinejad has been forced to climb down by saying that “Iran no threat to Israel”. How humiliating.

    I think everything is doing just fine.

  14. How much of this so-called ‘civil war’ is really a guise to cover the continuing war against occupation?

    “According to a spokesman for the military command in Baghdad, an analysis of the 1,666 bombs that exploded in July shows that 70 per cent were directed against the American-led military force. Twenty per cent targeted Iraqi security forces, up from 9 per cent in 2005. And 10 per cent of the blasts struck civilians, twice the rate from last year.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s