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After Iraq

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on November 16th, 2006
LOOKING FORWARD

As the end game for Iraq approaches, the United States looks set for its second clear-cut military defeat (Vietnam was the first)—and all the consequences that will bring.

Many seem to believe that the relevant parallel is with Vietnam: that the situation after American withdrawal will be a quick victory by those we have opposed, followed by peace and stability, other than for those Iraqis foolish enough to have joined us.

That is completely untrue. If anything, an American exit will make things even worse.

The problem is this: Iraq, as a glance at the map will demonstrate, separates mutually hostile Saudi Arabia from Iran, and both from hostile Turkey. If and when Iraq begins to fall apart, these three states will be drawn too closely together for comfort.

Each will almost certainly seek a buffer zone in the former Iraq. Fighting—perhaps worse than what we have now—is very likely.

We are evidently no longer in a position to prevent such disintegration. Or at least politically unwilling to try. But what will follow our withdrawal will not be peace and quiet as when we abandoned Vietnam in 1975.

Those who remember the shameful abandonment of the Republic of Vietnam and the mad dash for helicopters in Saigon will most likely have seared into their memories the journalistic account that defined the (utterly incorrect) conventional wisdom at the time.

This was a story by Sydney Schanberg (b. 1934) datelined Phnom Penh and published in the New York Times on April 13, 1975.  Its title: “Indochina without the Americans: For Most a Better Life.”

Of course that wasn’t quite right. Three million refugees fled the “better life.” In Laos and Vietnam dissenters were murdered and put in camps. As for Cambodia, there the new rulers murdered roughly one sixth of the population—which is to say, about another million.

But at least things were quiet although the quiet was, as we now know, the silence of the grave. We allowed the communists to win and they took it from there. Indochina may have become hell for Indochinese, but it was no longer a problem for Americans.

The Middle East doesn’t work like that. You may try to walk away from its problems, but they will follow you.

Thus, the “best” outcome for Iraq–assuming that an actual stable democracy is now out of the question--would probably be a tripartite division: an Iranian zone in the south; a Saudi zone including the Sunni areas around Baghdad in the center, and to the north a Kurdish zone poking uncomfortably into the southern frontiers of Turkey.

That would simply reproduce the situation before the British tied up the former Ottoman vilayats of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul into a package, named it Iraq (after “Ur” the ancient city of Mesopotamia) and put on the throne King Feisal I (1883-1933) the Hashemite, descended from the guardians of the holy places. This dynasty, transplanted during World War I from Mecca and Medina, and built up by the British as a means to mobilize the Arabs as a weapon against German-allied Turkey in World War I (That was what T. E. Lawrence [1888-1935] “of Arabia” was up to), lasted until 1958, when Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914-1963) murdered all of Feisal’s descendants in a bloody coup. In 1968 the Ba’ath party came to power.

But one may doubt how long such a tripartite division of Iraq would endure.

The Turks will never tolerate an independent Kurdistan. They would probably invade it.

The Saudis have much to fear, both domestically, and from the Iranians. The House of Saud is a parvenu, ruling a state founded only in 1932, with the blessing of what, without oil money, would perhaps be an obscure eighteenth century branch of Islam, the Wahhabi sect. It is weak and politically brittle. Some Saudi residents (5 percent) are Shi’ite Muslims who look to Iran, and not to the Wahhabis, for spiritual guidance. These Shi’ites are concentrated in the Eastern Province (where 33 percent), around the major oil fields.

Saudi Arabia’s influence today comes from oil wealth, the extent of which may well be over estimated. That at least is the view of Matthew R, Simmons (1943-) one of our greatest experts, found in his very important recent book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy (2005).

Militarily Saudi Arabia is, at present, an American client—though she supports financially the radical Islam that targets the United States and its friends and allies, and imports weapons from China and elsewhere.

Iran, by contrast, is an ancient and sophisticated civilization, the modern incarnation of which is three times the size of France, having a well-educated and worldly population, albeit now under tight religious control. Over history, Iran has extended far beyond her present borders, including, on and off, Afghanistan (until 1747 when Ahmad Shah Durrani  [1723-1773]  created an empire that is the immediate forerunner of the present state). Before that, until the beginning of the sixteenth century, Persia as it was then known, extended across the Oxus river into Central Asia. That brings us to the area north and west of nuclear armed and unstable Pakistan, as well as to the potentially even more unstable states of former Soviet Central Asia.

Iran today is increasingly well armed conventionally, thanks to her close ties with Russia and China, and stands on the nuclear threshold. She already has nuclear capable missiles that can reach Rome and Paris, but lacks the bomb itself.

Quite likely a green tide of Islamicism could sweep from a disordered area centered on Iraq far into the East, South, and even North, leading to a reshaping of global power balances comparable to that of the seventh century, when Islam was born and displaced Christian, Jewish and Buddhist peoples in a vast swath of North Africa, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean littoral.

At a minimum, it is likely that without the buffer of Iraq, friction between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey may generate sparks and fire.

One worrying development as Iraq breaks up will be the emergence, for the first time in many years, of a de facto geographical connection between Iran and the Mediterranean. Previously Iran has been kept landlocked on the West by Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Now as Shi’ite control is consolidated across southern Iraq, Iran will be have a passage to the Syrian border. In theory Syria could block weapons smuggling and other activity in her territory, but she seems unlikely to do so, not least because of the threat that will be posed to her by the new, Shi’ite Lebanon that is gradually emerging from the state the French carved out as a haven for Christians and Druze. 

This Western expansion of Iranian influence may well be matched in the East. Equally worrying is the possibility that radical Islam, energized by its Iraq victory over the United States, will spread east through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan into Central Asia, where the weak, neo-Soviet dictatorships will be hard pressed to resist a green tide. Rather abruptly, Russia will have a major Islamic threat to its south while China will have one to its West.

Saudi Arabia looks unlikely to emerge unchanged from such developments. Just as Qasim exterminated the line of Feisal in Iraq, so some would be reformer, nationalist, or Islamicist, may exterminate the Saudi royal family (the only problem is that the family is so numerous, having more than five thousand relatively important members).

Egypt is another potential powder keg: over populated, impoverished, with its president Hosni Mubarak (1928-) in poor health and every day affairs reportedly in the hands of his capable and well educated half-Welsh wife, Suzanne (b. 1941).

Turkey is a strong and proud and modern state, endlessly rejected by the European Union, She is moving steadily away from the doctrinaire secularism of Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) and turning to a more political Islam. When Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the Turks, who have been their enemies at least since the sixteenth century, will almost certainly follow suit.

Syria, Jordan, and many others are also on the list.

What would conflict look like among any of these states? There would be no lightning victories such as the United States dreamed of (and accomplished militarily) in Iraq in 2003. Instead, all parties would have learned the lessons of Hezbollah’s dramatic success in Lebanon, Fighting would be slow, attritional, bloody and indecisive. Almost certainly the powers involved and the UN would call for immediate American intervention.

Such American intervention would most certainly be unpopular where it counts most, in the United States itself.

Summing up, then, the American exit from Iraq looks unlikely to bring peace and quiet as those who advocate it seem to expect. Not that a continued American presence would maintain peace and quiet either.

Rather, like the relatively small confrontation between Serbia and Austria in 1914, which ignited a much larger conflict, the US exit may hasten the break down of the already shaky post World War II order in the Middle East, with radical Islam providing another powerful push.

How to deal with the aftermath of US failure in Iraq may thus become the defining problem for Washington for decades to come. Ironies abound here, for all the talk in Washington now is how to rid ourselves of the Iraq mission. But not for the first time, the over zealous pursuit of peace at any price may lead to war costing, by comparison and in absolute terms, unimaginable sums in blood and treasure.

The fighting in Iraq has been only one battle in a much larger war. If anything, that war will grow more intense and bloody even as Washington seeks to walk away from it.

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