A "Communal Civil War"

| Fri Mar. 10, 2006 4:39 PM EST

The other day, Donald Rumsfeld mentioned that he would prefer to avoid a "civil war" in Iraq—right, obviously—but that if one did "break out" (presumably he means if things got really, really bad), then the United States would stay out of it, letting Iraqi security forces "deal with it." That's not exactly comforting, and ignores the fact that U.S. forces might not be able to stay neutral. Gary Hart recently worried that if "all-out civil war breaks out, we could lose our army. If Sunnis and Shiites take to the streets by the thousands, it could literally be impossible to get [the soldiers] out."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

More recently in Foreign Affairs, Stephen Biddle wrote a piece noting that Rumsfeld's current strategy is exactly the wrong one. Iraq, he argues, is already in the midst of a "communal civil war," and leaning too hard on "Iraqization"—that is, training native Iraqi forces to replace the U.S. military as soon as possible—and "democratization" will only make things worse. (Among other things, rushing the police force, which is filled with militant Shiites, will only further anger the Sunnis—there are signs that the U.S. is recognizing this of late, trying to weed sectarian elements out of the police force, but the problem still exists. And many of the security forces may be too far gone for the U.S. to do anything about it—if the U.S. even intends to "do anything about it.")

The only thing that can save Iraq, Biddle argues, is a "compromise based on a constitutional deal with ironclad power-sharing arrangements protecting all parties." And to get there, he says, the United States will have to remain in the country for awhile, guns blasting and all, rather than pawning security responsibilities as quickly as possible on native Iraqi forces. The way to get various Shiite and Kurdish and Sunni interests to agree to something like the (unstable-but-not-as-unstable-as-Iraq) Taif Accords, in Biddle's view, is to threaten each side:

The only way to break the logjam is to change the parties' relative comfort with the status quo by drastically raising the costs of their failure to negotiate. The U.S. presence now caps the war's intensity, and U.S. aid could give any side an enormous military advantage. Thus Washington should threaten to use its influence to alter the balance of power depending on the parties' behavior. By doing so, it could make stubbornness look worse than cooperation and compel all sides to compromise.

Biddle has some nice things to say about U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's current "interventionist approach" for going down this route already, and wants him to try harder, with more in the way of promises to alter the balance of power.

I can't really say if it will work or not—doing pretty much anything to avoid a larger all-out civil war and thus limit the total amount of catastrophe to come of this invasion seems worth trying—but Biddle's plan sounds dubious. What if the sort of Sunni political leaders who can actually credibly negotiate and enforce a "power-sharing agreement" never show themselves? Or what if they don't even exist? What then? What if the United States' threats to "use its influence to alter the balance of power" end up escalating tensions, or what if the U.S. finds itself trapped into committing to backing one side over the other, unable to withdraw when "Sunnis and Shiites take to the streets by the thousands," as Gary Hart fears.

What Biddle's suggesting seems like a delicate diplomatic operation, the sort of thing this administration isn't very good at, even if it has become a bit less ham-fisted over the past year or so. Certainly Rumsfeld, the guy who's still in charge here, doesn't seem to have any idea of how to handle what Iraq expert Marina Ottaway told Der Spiegel the other day, "[Iraq] has already collapsed. Now the challenge is figuring out a way to deal with this fact." (And read Michael Schwartz in Mother Jones today for more on this.)