Op-Ed

Challenge Bigger than Iraq

Shibley Telhami

As the prospects of civil war in Iraq increase, explanations have focused on the particularities of Iraq’s society or the poor U.S. planning. That these are important factors one can hardly deny. But they mask a more troubling reality: Even with the best American planning and Iraqi intentions, preventing civil conflict in Iraq would have been an uphill battle.

Consider the stunning magnitude of the failure. Iraq has been the top priority for the world’s only superpower for the past three years, and a central one for many regional and international powers. The United States, intent on keeping Iraq together, has spent more resources in that country than any state ever has spent on another in the history of the world.

All of Iraq’s neighbors, for their own reasons, sought to avoid a divided Iraq. All of the major factions in Iraq have an interest in preventing civil war – the Shiites, preferring to have the majority voice in a unified Iraq; the Sunnis, fearing being left with a resource-poor region; and the Kurds, who didn’t want to risk Turkish intervention.

Arab states feared the breakup of Iraq, and Arab public opinion identified division as the biggest concern. All major international organizations, from the United Nations to the Arab League, sought the preservation of a unified Iraq.

Yet the prospect of civil war and a divided Iraq are now greater than they had been at any time. So perplexing is the outcome that it is now the stuff of conspiracy theories among Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Iranians, that U.S. policy sought division from the outset. There is little faith in what the United States says.

Polls show that most Iraqis, including majorities of Shiites, want U.S. troops to fully withdraw, but most believe that the United States won’t pull out even if asked by their government. Majorities of Arabs see the United States through the painful prism of Iraq and identify it as one of the two biggest threats to them. The other is Israel.

The American discourse about the war has been limited by the fact that majorities of politicians and analysts had accepted the decision to wage the war. Many critics of the Bush administration blame poor implementation as the reason for the failure of the war.

That is obviously true, on a bewildering scale, but no such large-scale operation will ever take place without significant flaws and surprises, even if these can be limited by better planning. Even if the Iraqi army had not been dismantled, for example, it is not clear how effective it would have been after its devastating defeat in the invasion or how the Shiites would have related to it. Nor is it yet clear if the insurgency was not planned by elements of the army all along. Even with the best U.S. preparation, the odds against keeping Iraq together would have been great.

The problem is more fundamental.

Once the institutions of sovereignty are destroyed in any state, especially one with a heterogeneous society, the odds are against any effort to build a stable alternative in the same generation. In the absence of effective central authority, all it takes is a small, determined minority to prevent unity.

In the Middle East, nearly all of the projects of change in the 20th century, including bloody military coups, maintained the institutions of government, especially the army, and thus preserved the state. In the one major civil war, in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, that led to the collapse of state institutions, the state remains so weak and fragile 16 years later that it is unable to defend itself or to disarm militias on its territory.

The tragedy of civil war lies not only in what it means for Iraq’s people but also in what the consequences would be for international security. The danger of drawing other states in, the spillover potential involving neighboring countries, the erosion of the balance of power in the region in favor of Iran and the creation of a hospitable environment for international terrorism. In the end, it is mostly these international consequences that propel international interventions that justify intrusion into the sovereignty of states.

But despite the prevalence of troubled and troubling governments, states remain the most effective entities for enforcing security. Confronting them is sometimes necessary, but dismantling them is altogether different. In the security arena, both locally and across borders, states remain the best enforcers of order. Many states need to be improved or enhanced; others challenged, sometimes fought. But dismantling states remains one of the greatest dangers in our international system.

As we consider options toward other states not to U.S. liking, such as Iran, the removal of some governments may seem desirable from many vantage points, but not any cost.

The next user of weapons of mass destruction is more likely to be a terror group, such as al-Qaida, than any state. In its history, the United States has deterred the most ruthless and powerful states, including the Soviet Union. Groups such as al-Qaida are constrained only by the limits of their capability. Where there is absence of central authority, they expand. Al-Qaida didn’t exist in Iraq before the war but now thrives there despite the presence of the most powerful military in the world.

In this perspective, one central measure of success of the intervention in Iraq is this: Three years later, have the prospects of regional and global security increased or decreased? The answer should propel a debate that’s bigger than Iraq.

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