Let Iraq Collapse

Let Iraq Collapse

Mini Teaser: February 28, 1996 marked the fifth anniversary of the U.

by Author(s): Daniel Byman

The only two realistic alternatives in Iraq are disintegration or
repression. Force alone can hold the victims and perpetrators of mass
killings together in the same state, sharing opposite valences of the
same gruesome fate. The unpleasant truth is that U.S. support for
Iraqi integrity amounts to a de facto endorsement of continued
repression and more than episodic state-sponsored domestic violence.

Four Fears

The United States opposes the break-up of Iraq on account of four
basic fears: First, there is the fear of tilting the broad regional
balance of power toward Iran; second, fear that the solidification of
Kurdish sovereignty in northern Iraq would undermine Turkish
sovereignty, security, and pro-Western orientation; third, fear that
the creation of an Iranian proxy state on the Saudi and Kuwaiti
borders would specifically jeopardize the security of those states as
well as that of Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates;
and fourth and more generally, fear of the regional consequences of
questioning the legitimacy of internationally-recognized borders.

These concerns are not whimsical and should not be blithely
dismissed. But they are all either exaggerated or simply wrong.
Further, while certainly there are risks in the disintegration of the
Iraqi state, there are also costs to its continuation and potential
benefits in its collapse. Sound analysis must weigh all factors; the
analysis underpinning current U.S. policy does not. Let us now
consider each of the four fears in turn, starting with the matter of
the balance of power.

Between the British withdrawal "east of Suez" in 1971 and the
adoption of "dual containment" in 1993, the United States sought to
foster a balance of power in the Persian Gulf--attempts that have met
with limited success at best. In this twenty-two year period the Gulf
experienced two Iraqi-instigated war crises lasting a total of nine
years, and a revolutionary upheaval in Iran spread out over another
two and half years. In other words, for over half the period, the
Gulf was either at war, in turmoil, or just entering or emerging from
one or the other.

Nor has the U.S. diplomatic minuet in such matters been particularly
graceful. In 1971, the Nixon Doctrine tapped the Shah's Iran as a
pillar of regional stability in order to foster a pro-Western climate
in the region and to balance radical, pro-Soviet Iraq. But the
American embrace was suffocating, preventing the Shah from claiming
title to the nationalist credentials he might otherwise have earned
from steering OPEC toward its most lucrative era after the 1973
Arab-Israeli war. That lucre, in turn, and with no little irony,
contributed much to the decay of Pahlavi Iran and the onset of its
terminal crisis.

After the Iranian Revolution, the United States moved to support
Baghdad against the sudden greater evil of Islamic Iran. That
support, however, may have contributed to Iraq's decision to invade
Iran in September 1980.

The Reagan administration inherited the accumulated mess. The
desultory interlude of the Iran-Contra debacle notwithstanding, U.S.
antipathy toward the Iranian mullahs led it generally to help Baghdad
even after the military balance had shifted in favor of Iraq and,
indeed, well after the Iran-Iraq War was brought to an end in June
1988. This, in turn, may have contributed to Iraq's mistaken belief
that it could invade Kuwait with impunity, which it did in August
1990--on the Bush administration's watch.

It would be claiming too much to say that U.S. policy in the Persian
Gulf since 1971, with its maladroit manifestations of bobbing and
weaving, has been responsible for everything that has gone wrong. But
it is certainly reasonable to conclude that U.S. attempts to foster a
stabilizing balance of power fell considerably short of stellar
success. One is justified, therefore, in becoming nervous when
listening today to the veterans of U.S. policy of the past twenty
years holding forth complacently on the wisdom of a unitary Iraq, all
for the sake of the regional balance of power.

Today, both Iran and Iraq are eager to rebuild their militaries, and
so we are back to calculations of local balances. If Iraq were weaker
(and a fragmented Iraq would be), the argument goes, Iran would have
free play in the region and would be able to manipulate the price of
oil or use military means to advance its interests. Although there is
nothing wrong, and much right, in principle with balance of power
arguments, this particular one is misguided. Its key assumption is
that an intact Iraq fosters regional stability and enhances the
security of the oil-rich Gulf sheikdoms. But clearly, a strong and
united Iraq has promoted neither peace nor security in the region in
the past. Indeed, Iraq under Saddam Hussein has invaded Iran and
Kuwait, maintained a long-standing cold war with Syria, and supported
warring factions in Lebanon. Baghdad also tried to lead the
anti-Israel and anti-peace coalition and has aided and abetted
terrorism of several shapes and sizes for use against Israel, Turkey,
Iran, Kuwait, and possibly Saudi Arabia as well.

It is essential to grasp that this aggressive behavior is not due
solely to the special depravities of the Ba'athi regime or to Saddam
Hussein personally. Iraq threatened the territorial integrity of
Kuwait and fought against Israel well before the Ba'ath took power.
The problem is that an Iraq strong enough to balance Iran is also
strong enough to dominate the rich but underpopulated Arabian
peninsula, unless the United States is there to protect it. There is
no way to square this circle: It is simply impossible to have an Iraq
that is strong enough to balance Iran but too weak to threaten the
oil-rich Gulf states.

Moreover, even a united Iraq can do little to prevent the greatest
threat to the regional balance of power: Iran's strategic
unconventional weapons programs. Indeed, if anything, the existence
of a united Iraq is a goad--one of many, admittedly--to Iran's
ambitions. If the United States were to allow Iraq to build its own
weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems, Iraq could, at
least theoretically, play a role in deterring Iran, but Washington is
committed to preventing this development. Moreover, an Iraqi
capability of that sort would only stimulate and accelerate Iranian
efforts to match it.

Beyond that, it should be obvious that a united Iraq cannot "balance"
Iranian weapons of mass destruction designed for use against Saudi
Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states, Israel, or other countries.
Once the notion of balance is raised to the level of weapons of mass
destruction, the operative concept is that of the strategic umbrella,
or extended deterrence. But it is senseless to think in these terms
about a hypothetical Iraqi strategic force in circumstances where
Iraq is roughly as hostile to many of the potential targets of
Iranian aggression as is Iran itself.

The whole notion of a need to balance Iran with a bordering state is
flawed and outdated. Just as the United States offset Soviet nuclear
threats to Western Europe mainly with strategic forces based at sea
and in the United States, Washington could itself "balance" a nuclear
Iran with forces far from the Persian Gulf. Certainly, a united Iraq
is no more help against Iranian weapons of mass destruction than a
divided Iraq would be.

The second argument advanced on behalf of a united Iraq is that its
break-up would alarm leaders in neighboring states with large Kurdish
populations. Iran, Turkey, and Syria all have such populations.
Leaders in these three countries regularly meet to discuss ways to
prevent the emergence of a Kurdish entity in the region.

Iran and Syria strongly oppose the creation of a Kurdish state in
northern Iraq. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) has bases
in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has prompted Iranian pressure on Iraq and
attacks by pro-Iranian proxies. After the Second World War, Iraqi
Kurds worked with Iranian Kurds against the central government of
Iran. Damascus does not face a Kurdish insurgency, but Hafez al-Assad
is not the sort of man to risk one. Acknowledging all of this, if
Syria and Iran are discomfited by the idea of a Kurdish state, it
does not follow that Washington should sympathize with their distress
or feel obliged to take steps to alleviate it. Syria is hardly a
Western ally. Tehran has delighted in fostering instability
throughout the Middle East and beyond; the possibility of its tasting
some of its own poisons might even frighten it into more responsible

Clearly, from the American point of view, the real problem with
Kurdish irredentism does not involve Iran or Syria but Turkey, a key
American ally. And there is no gainsaying that the Kurds pose a
problem for Turkey. Many Turkish Kurds have refused to be
assimilated, while Ankara has only recently and hesitatingly
recognized their distinct status. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK),
long a thorn in Ankara's side, has often operated out of Iraq (even
though its leader, Abdallah Ã-calan, resides in Damascus). As recently
as July 1995, Turkey invaded northern Iraq to weaken the PKK's
position there.

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