Could We Still Lose Iraq?

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

December 21, 2009

The problem we face in Iraq is that while the country has made tremendous progress in both the security and political realms, all of those gains are fragile and could evaporate quickly if strained. What Iraq experienced was a lot like shattering the bones in your arm: with time, the bones can heal and the arm can become strong again, but if you take off the cast too soon, then any strain on the arm will cause the bones to fracture all over again.

As scholars of civil war have warned, states like Iraq that have undergone a major inter-communal civil war have a terrifying rate of recidivism—especially if the state has valuable natural resources like diamonds, gold or oil. So to some extent, we and the Iraqis are fighting an uphill battle. There is no reason that we can’t succeed, but it isn’t going to be easy and it isn’t going to happen on its own. And since we can’t know for certain when Iraq’s bones have healed, we need to be very careful about how and when we remove the cast.

The mistake we are in danger of making in Iraq is that as our military steps back, our civilians are not always stepping up.

For that reason, the critical danger in Iraq today is not the residual violence, but the Iraqi reaction to that violence. The strings of bombings that seem to shake the capital every month or so are a nightmare for many Iraqis, but alone they are not a threat to Iraq itself. As long as the vast majority of Iraqis react to the bombings by blaming the perpetrators not one another, and see the perpetrators as marginalized elements outside the mainstream of Iraqi society, the problem they present is tragic, but not serious. In some ways they are a useful palliative, because they provide sobering evidence of just how fragile Iraq’s gains remain.

What would be very dangerous is if Iraqis began to react to the bombings the way they reacted in 2004 and early 2005. Then they saw the violence as the work of other members from within their own society. They saw no governmental force able or willing to protect them, and so they felt it necessary to form or join militias for their own protection—even though they knew that the militia warlords would inevitably push the country into civil war. As many Iraqis said to me at the time, “You (the United States) are not giving us a choice.” Countries that slide back into civil war tend to do so when people and leaders evince this pattern, once again seeing acts of violence as harbingers of worse times to come, rather than violent interruptions of the ordinary. It is the difference between Bosnia in 1994 or Lebanon in 1975 and Israel today. Israel, for instance, is battered by regular terrorist attacks, but Israeli society remains cohesive; Israelis blame their grief on their attackers, not on one another; and Israelis don’t see their government as unable to defend them, thereby requiring them to form militias for their own protection.

The critical role that the United States plays today is that we are the peacekeepers, we are the levy holding back violence, we are Iraq’s security blanket, and we are the broker of political deals that makes Iraqis willing to keep sacrificing today because they can hope for a better tomorrow. But another way to think about the American role is that we enforce the rules: we prevent Iraqis from employing large-scale violence in pursuit of political agendas, which reassures all of them that they can take actions that would be risky in the kind of security vacuum that existed (thanks to American negligence and foolishness) in 2004-2006 and that would exist again if we withdrew prematurely. Acts like voting for the candidate you like rather than the candidate with the most thugs.

If Iraqis believe that security blanket is going to be removed prematurely, they will be terrified that the militia warlords will revert back to violence (which they certainly will) and will again rule the country very soon. That would prompt ordinary Iraqis (who would gladly do the right thing if they could) to do the wrong thing, and sign on with the militias to ensure that they are protected when the Americans leave and the civil war re-ignites.

The mistake we are in danger of making in Iraq is that as our military steps back, our civilians are not always stepping up. Over the past six to nine months, our embassy has been inconsistent at best, and has panicked many Iraqis and many Iraqi leaders into believing that the Obama administration does not care about Iraq and is simply running for the exit as fast as they can. This isn’t true, and the President’s lieutenants have said so time and again, as has Vice President Biden, both in private and in public. But by failing to remain actively engaged with the Iraqi political process at all levels, by disdaining any further involvement in guiding Iraq’s domestic politics, and in abandoning aid programs willy-nilly, many embassy personnel have convinced a great many Iraqis of exactly the opposite. And therein lies the seeds of renewed civil war and a disaster for American interests.

The last thing that any American should want is for an NSC staffer to have to walk into the Oval office one day and ask, “Mr. President, would you rather send 150,000 American troops back to Iraq or have it descend into renewed civil war?” That is clearly not a decision this president ever wants to face. The best way to ensure that he never has to do so is to invest the diplomatic capital and bureaucratic elbow grease right now to reassure Iraqis that they can keep taking risks for peace because we are not abandoning them.