Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War

January 25, 2007


“The first part of our study simply was a historical survey of recent civil wars. We looked at about a dozen different recent civil wars, from Afghanistan to Lebanon, from the wars in the former Yugoslavia to Congo, Somalia and a variety of others. And we simply looked at how civil wars can affect neighboring states. And unfortunately what we found is not terribly encouraging.

“We use the results of our historical research to then fashion a policy for the United States designed to try to contain civil war in Iraq, recognizing that the President’s plan is almost certainly our last shot at stabilizing that country and preventing the descent to all-out civil war, but then asking if it does fail, what do we do then? Can we contain the violence? Can we prevent civil war in Iraq from becoming civil war in neighboring countries; prevent civil war from becoming regional war?

“Civil wars have a very bad habit of spreading. Of one civil war causing a civil war in neighboring states the way that the civil war in Rwanda caused civil war in Congo. But also of civil wars growing into larger regional wars, so that the Lebanese civil war grew into a larger civil war pitting Syria against Israel. The Congo civil war turned into an African world war, as some people have called it. And unfortunately we’re already in Iraq seeing the manifestations of that. There are already domestic disturbances in many of the neighboring states around Iraq. And what’s more, all of Iraq’s neighbors are deeply involved, supporting different proxy groups inside of Iraq, which is the typical first step before large-scale intervention, before turning a civil war into a regional war.

“The history of these kind of all-out civil wars is typically so awful that there’s going to be a very strong impetus on the part of many Americans to simply get out of Iraq as quickly as we can and forget about it. And I certainly share that impetus. The problem is that when you start looking at the history and you start to recognize the importance of Iraq in the world and its role in the Persian Gulf, which is economically vital to the entire world because of its oil production, simply withdrawing from Iraq really doesn’t look like a great option. There are a lot of problems associated with it and in particular the great threat is that if the United States simply abandons Iraq, we will see not only Iraq implode, but take down the rest of the Persian Gulf with it, or key elements of the Persian Gulf with it, which could be absolutely catastrophic to American interests. And that’s what drove us to say well, if withdrawal isn’t a great option and if civil war has made staying impossible, is there a middle ground? Is there a third way? Can we find a way to contain the violence in Iraq to perhaps not prevent it from engulfing Iraq, but at least prevent it from taking down the rest of the Persian Gulf region with it.”