Thursday, November 23, 2006

Ending the Carnage

Sadr City, the Aftermath

In a recent piece on Iraq in the New Republic, "Bribe the Insurgents," the celebrity historian Niall Ferguson writes that

History strongly suggests that, once such internecine warfare gets underway, it is extremely hard to stop without external intervention. Violence begets more violence. Vendettas poison relations between neighbors. Though low-intensity conflict can continue inconclusively for decades (think of Sri Lanka), it is also possible for the killing to increase exponentially (Bosnia, Rwanda) until large-scale ethnic cleansing has created homogeneous statelets.

Ferguson's title suggest the external intervention that he has in mind. He recommends that America

  1. buy out the militiamen by paying for and then decommissioning their weapons,
  2. bribe the tribal sheiks (old elites) to support peace-building, and
  3. turn to the permanent Security Council members plus Germany and Japan to aid in reconstruction.

Ferguson makes clear his opposition to an early withdrawal as well as to the rumored Baker-Hamilton strategy of engaging Syria and Iran. This three-pronged strategy ("More money, old elites, plus the United Nations"), sounds like a good idea, especially if the aim is to prevent the kind of "ethnic disintegration" about which Ferguson writes in his latest book (The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West) as well as the negative economic and international political consequences of continued instability in Iraq. I fear, however, that it might already be too late for such a solution.

The Sunnis know that the American invasion put an end to their privileged status in Iraq. With their patron gone, they will be the losers in a stable Iraq – at least when they compare their new position to their previous status under Saddam. Thus, Sunni insurgents are doing everything possible to prevent the majority Shi’a from wielding effective state power. However, the tactics of the Sunni insurgents, combined with the memory preserved by Shi’a (as well as Kurds) of Saddam’s cleansing and settlement policies, has convinced many Shi’a that they will only be safe once the Sunni are gone from Shi’a majority towns.

One of the problems with Ferguson’s analysis is that he ignores the decidedly mixed record of external intervention in stopping internecine conflict. In those cases where it has "worked," such as in the former Yugoslavia, the external intervention basically occurred on behalf of one of the warring factions or, more specifically, against the party perceived as the aggressor and threat to peace (by NATO and most of the international community) . It also entailed the de facto recognition of relatively homogeneous nation states or autonomous regions. Croatia for Croats, Bosnia for Muslims, Serbia for Serbs, and Kosovo for Albanians. I do not see how Iraq will somehow prove to be the great exception to the logic of ethnic conflict over the past century.

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