WHEN I think of Iraq, I think of fire. First there is the obvious. With summer, the country becomes an inferno. The heat muscles its way past doors and windows, scoffs at fans, overpowers air conditioners and beats everyone senseless.
Then there is the fire inside. Most Iraqis seem sleepy on first impression. They amble around sluggishly, leaden from the heat. But just mention politics, and suddenly they come to life. For Iraqis, politics is a blood sport played in a white-hot furnace. There are no half-held opinions. Every opponent is a lethal conspirator. Every conspiracy, a lethal threat. Every threat must be met with total force.
The civil war that engulfed Iraq in 2005–2006 was born mostly from a set of horrific circumstances created by an almost inconceivable parade of American mistakes. But Iraqi passions fueled the bloodletting. Indeed, part of the American success in quelling that conflict two years later came from reining in those passions.
Today, the fire of civil war has been rekindled. It is a small flame so far, just nibbling at the edges of the fabric of Iraq. It could be put out, probably quite easily. But the United States is withdrawing, and Iraq’s leaders sit in the middle of the rug, plotting, arguing, fixated on finding a way to knife one another in the back. No one is making a move to douse the flame. Instead, they blame one another and refuse to lift a finger to stop its slow, steady spread—even though all of them will be consumed if no one stops it.
TO KNOW where Iraq may be headed, it’s important to understand how the country got where it is. Again, let’s start with the obvious. In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq, toppled the totalitarian dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and put nothing in its place. In so doing, Washington created a failed state and a security vacuum. This quickly spawned widespread organized and unorganized crime, terrorism and an insurgency among the Sunni tribes of western Iraq who felt threatened by the ham-fisted American efforts to create a Shia-Kurd-dominated government.
Indeed, the creation of a power vacuum in Iraq did what it often does and has done in places like the former Yugoslavia, Congo, Lebanon and Afghanistan: it enabled various criminals, sociopaths and opportunists to lash out at their rivals and use preexisting (even long-dormant) differences to mobilize support and employ violence. This in turn prompted other groups to take up arms to defend themselves, setting off a fear-based spiral of attacks and reprisals that pushed the country into all-out civil war.
In 2006–2007, just in the nick of time, the United States recognized its principal mistake and sought to remedy it. Washington deployed thirty thousand additional troops to Iraq and, of far greater importance, adopted a counterinsurgency strategy—or more properly, a low-intensity conflict strategy, since the problems of Iraq were much more those of an intercommunal civil war than of a pure insurgency. This shift focused American and Iraqi forces on protecting the populace, disarming the militias and enforcing cease-fires among the various warring groups. Troops scaled back their attempts to kill bad guys and ramped up their efforts to protect good guys. As part and parcel of that strategy, the United States reached out to Sunni tribal sheikhs who had themselves grown disenchanted with al-Qaeda’s fanatical rule, and together the two sides drove the terrorist groups from their havens in western Iraq.
In effect, this approach, often referred to by the shorthand nickname of the “surge,” filled Iraq’s security vacuum, reversing all of the pernicious trends that had pushed the country into civil war in the first place. And that altered the incentive structure of Iraq’s political leaders, eliminating their ability to rely on violence to achieve their goals. It also reversed their relationship with the Iraqi people. While the security vacuum prevailed, average Iraqis were dependent on the warlords, insurgent leaders, organized-crime bosses and militia commanders who dominated politics because only they could provide security and access to basic necessities like food, water, electricity and medical supplies. As a result, the people needed the warlords who in turn could do as they pleased, confident that the masses would be forced to vote for them in the sham elections—and generally do their bidding. Once the United States changed its strategy, the power of the militias and the insurgents was sundered. They could no longer control the people, and the people did not have to rely on them for protection. Instead, they could turn to the Americans and to Iraq’s own rebuilt security forces.
The impact was both dramatic and profound. It produced the rapid suppression of Iraq’s civil war and the equally sudden emergence of real democratic politics. As I wrote in the pages of this journal in the fall of 2009, once the people of Iraq were not dependent on the warlords, they were able to vote based on their hopes, not their fears. It was amazing to watch how quickly this took hold.Image: Pullquote: If American forces cannot enforce the rules of the game, they should not be in Iraq, period. Essay Types: Essay