Something Is Rotten in the State of Iraq

Something Is Rotten in the State of Iraq

Mini Teaser: Sunni vs. Shia. Kurd vs. Arab. Nationalist vs. Islamist. Iraq circa 2011 is looking an awful lot like Iraq circa 2004. The country is headed back to the anarchic depths from which it ever-so-briefly emerged.

by Author(s): Kenneth M. Pollack

This same history demonstrates that a slide into civil war typically follows a period of time when old problems come back to haunt a country but everyone sees them as relatively minor and easily solved, and thus they do not take them seriously or exert themselves to nip them in the bud. Then, seemingly small and simple-to-overcome issues snowball quickly—much faster than anticipated—and a resurgence of civil war that people believed was years or even decades away reignites overnight. Unfortunately, the point where civil war became inevitable typically is clear only in the rearview mirror.

A civil war in Iraq would be horrendous for the long-suffering Iraqi people, but it could easily be disastrous for us too. Civil wars have a very bad tendency to spill over into neighboring states through refugees, terrorists and militias who take up roost just across the border and in so doing drag those countries into the fight. As we saw in 2005–2006, and are seeing again today with the civil strife in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, civil wars inflame the passions of ethnic, religious and political groups that span those borders, and often produce severe economic dislocations. Almost inevitably, various neighbors find themselves intervening to “protect their interests” and end the plague of spillover they are suffering—usually covertly at first, but then overtly when their covert efforts fail. That’s how civil wars in one country can lead to civil wars in others (Lebanon to Syria and Rwanda to Congo), and how they metastasize into regional wars. With key allies and oil producers like Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia sitting next to Iraq and the entire region afire from the events of the Arab Spring, a massive conflagration in Baghdad is the last thing that anyone needs.

All of Iraq’s reemerging problems (and numerous others) remain nascent. It is likely that they could be addressed and even reversed relatively easily at this point. But it is not clear they will be: we do not know if the Iraqis have the perspicacity to do so, or if the United States has the desire to push them. In a different context, Baghdad’s recent problems could be written off as minor. But given how closely Iraq has hewed to historical models of intercommunal civil war, these developments need to be taken very, very seriously.

Image: Pullquote: If American forces cannot enforce the rules of the game, they should not be in Iraq, period. Essay Types: Essay