What Withdrawal from Iraq Will Not Look Like

News Abroad

Brendan O'Leary is Lauder Professor of Political Science and Director of the Program in Ethnic Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written or edited fifteen books, including Terror, Insurgency, and the State: Ending Protracted Conflicts and The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq. His latest book, from which this article is excerpted, is: How to Get Out of Iraq with Integrity (University of Pennsylvania Press).

In thinking about America's prospective withdrawal from Iraq, it is helpful to think comparatively about what it will not be like, and what it should not be like. Four comparative paradigms are strongly inappropriate (Vietnam, Germany,Japan, and Korea), but they are instructive. A last paradigm, Bosnia-Herzegovina, has the most parallels, but it also is replete with warnings as to what should not be done. Let me deal with each comparison briefly.

Forty years ago John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a short, influential and impressive pamphlet, How to Get Out of Vietnam. I read it as a teenager in 1975. It came to mind when I selected the title for this book, even though I believe that Vietnam and Iraq are strongly different examples of American interventions. Galbraith's central argument was that America was not fighting Communism in Vietnam, even if it thought it was. It was fighting Vietnamese nationalism-and it could not win that fight, except at unacceptable costs. Last, he claimed correctly, America had no fundamental strategic interests at stake in Vietnam. There would be no significant domino effect in favor of global communism, and he predicted, correctly, that the Chinese and the Vietnamese would not get on after the United States left.

It is easy to see how one might replicate Galbraith's argument today, and people have, knowingly or unknowingly. They maintain that America has not been fighting al-Qaeda but against Iraqi nationalism, in a fight that could not be won, except at unacceptably high costs, in a place where the United States has no fundamental strategic interests at stake. Some also predict that Iran and Iraq will not get on after the United States leaves Iraq. It is not necessary to list advocates of each of these positions because there is no need to personalize what is at stake. But the arguments are not compelling, whatever their origins.

America has not been fighting Iraqi nationalism in any sense that is analogous to Vietnam. America has been fighting Baathist pan-Arab Iraqi nationalists, but these have overwhelmingly been drawn from the Sunni Arab population, a minority of Iraq's population of approximately one-fifth -- and they have never had unanimous support within that minority. America has fought racist and genocidal fascists in Iraq, and irreversibly removed the Baathist variety from power in Baghdad. Iraq's largest community, Shia Arabs, is mostly Iraqi Arab nationalist, but it has been the victim and enemy of Baathist nationalism. The Shia Arabs have nearly all cooperated with the United States in the overthrow of Baathist nationalists. Sadrists have since fought against Americans, but not in significant coordination with the Baathists or with other Sunni Arab insurgents. The most powerful Shia Arabs, in their religious institutions and religious parties, have allied with America and the Kurds to overturn Baath nationalism, which Kurds classify as fascism and Shia Arabs as sectarianism. Kurdish nationalists are not Iraqi nationalists, they are Iraqi federalists, but they have fought for their own nation. Vietnam had no large territorial compact national minority that resembles the Kurds, and had no centuries-long religious and political division among the Vietnamese. Iraq is just not a nation, unlike Vietnam. Iraq is at most a binational entity, but there is a case for arguing that the Iraqi nationalisms of Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs are as opposed to each other as they are to the United States.

In Vietnam, America replaced a French colonial regime, sought to maintain a partitioned country, supported a coup (at least in outcome) in the South, and fought left-wing nationalists and Communists who had widespread public support. In Iraq, the United States encouraged Kurdistan to rejoin the state, to remake it as a federation, rejected partition, and fought right-wing pan-Arab fascists and sectarian theocrats.

America has strategic interests in the Persian Gulf that transcend any that were claimed in Vietnam. America has an interest in preventing anti-American powers from establishing a chokehold or a monopoly over energy supplies and supply routes that remain vitally important to the United States and the world economy. One may argue that the United States has not guarded its strategic interests well or appropriately, but that it has them neither its friends nor its critics deny.

Comparisons between al-Qaeda and Communism require more nuanced rebuttals. Al-Qaeda or Salafi jihadism, whether in the world of Islam or amid the Muslim minorities of the West and Asia, poses nothing like the strategic threat to the United States and its allies that was once posed by Marxist-Leninist regimes or by Communist parties in other regimes. The Sunni Salafists have had only brief moments of ascendancy, mostly in weak states such as Afghanistan and Sudan. They perhaps had a prototype in Libya that is now being repudiated by the man who brought it into being. Were Sunni Salafi to capture state power in oil-rich Iraq or Saudi Arabia, then they could pose a much more profound strategic danger than at present. This is why it is important that al-Qaeda and Salafi jihadism be extinguished-militarily and ideologically, but as yet they neither have significant states nor weapons of mass destruction.

A high proportion of Western liberals and leftists either sympathized with or directly supported the victory of Vietnamese nationalism under a Communist banner. They saw the victory of the Vietnamese as an anticolonial struggle for self-determination. Only a self-hating minority would similarly celebrate the defeat of America in Iraq under the banner of Sunni Salafi jihadism or Sadrist theocracy. A victory for the Baathists, ex- or otherwise, would be a victory for a species of fascism. A victory for either the Sunni jihadists or the Sadrists would be a victory for neofundamentalist Islam with ethnic colors but with strikingly opposed views on the future of Iraq. And in any case, they are not going to win. The United States, on leaving Iraq, will not be negotiating a treaty in Paris with a government with which it has been directly at war, and with other great powers as signatories. The United States will be leaving Iraq at the request of Iraq's elected governments, not at the point of Arab guns or bayonets. There will not be helicopters leaving the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with people hanging on for fear of retribution. In Iraq, the United States has brought a genocidal regime to an end; in Vietnam the United States executed major war crimes that led directly or through collateral damage to mass civilian deaths.

The U.S. occupations of Germany, Japan, and Korea were apparently required reading for neophytes in the Coalition Provisional Authority bent on "nation-building" and "state-building" in Iraq. Whatever guidance these cases may have provided in dealing with war-torn and devastated economies or in occupations organized through the Pentagon, they were inept for guidance on Iraq's past and future. Germany, Japan, and Korea, like Vietnam, were homogeneous nation-states (and more homogeneous at the end of World War II than they had been before). Germany, Korea, and Vietnam experienced partition because of the Cold War, not because of internal ethnic or sectarian divisions. Germany, as it happened, was rebuilt in its west as a model federal democracy, but around a homogeneous people eager to avoid incorporation within the Soviet bloc. Japan was reconstructed with some of its old institutions, including its Emperor, and embarked on a long march to economic success. Germany and Japan had experienced modernization and fascism and had aggressively sought to carve out regional empires. In these respects they resembled Saddam's Iraq, but the latter had never developed a comparable industrial economy. Korea remains partitioned to this day, but much of its postwar history was under military dictatorship-hardly a model for what the United States should seek to pursue in Iraq. Above all, none of these cases warranted reconstruction as multinational or multireligious entities (Catholic-Protestant relations in Germany were nowhere near as venomous as those between Shia and Sunni factions in Iraq). Altogether these comparisons are not fruitful-except in reminding us that Iraq is primarily composed of three peoples, not one.

The United States intervened in the Balkans in the mid-1990s and restored the external boundaries of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had seceded from Yugoslavia only to have its secession militarily contested both by Bosnian Serbs and by Serbia. After extensive ethnic expulsions and genocide, a three-way war was brought to an end through American military and diplomatic power, with some help from a divided European Union. In the Dayton Accords, American diplomats and lawyers forged a constitution for Bosnia-Herzegovina. They had earlier created a federation between the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and the Croats, and they combined this federation with Republika Srspka (the Serbian Republic). Three peoples were united in a confederation of two entities. One entity was a federation, the other a unitary state of Serbs. Power-sharing institutions and quotas for public office were established. Each entity had its own security powers. Implementing the settlement was to be overseen by an international High Representative, backed up by the armed might of NATO.

On the face of it Iraq and Bosnia have some similarities. Both have three major peoples. In each case the U.S. intervention was (eventually) supported by two peoples but enforced on a third (eventually). Genocide and ethnic expulsion (past and present) were used to justifY the two interventions, directly in one case (Bosnia), indirectly in the other (Iraq). Some have also suggested that a confederal division of Iraq might make sense and might even be stable if it were to be produced through negotiations among the major participants and enforced by foreign military power. Bosnia suggests this possibility. And it has been nonviolent since 1995.

But there similarities may end, although not necessarily instructive comparisons. The establishment and maintenance of the Dayton Accords have required a huge NATO troop presence in a small country (whose total population is less than that of the Kurdistan Region). Even if such an agreement could be engineered in Iraq, partition to create a three-unit confederation would not necessarily accomplish what most American advocates of partition want: a substantive withdrawal of American troops. As the conservative writer Max Boot has argued, "a serious partition plan of this kind would require an indefinite, long-term presence by our forces-at least 450,000 soldiers, if we are to have the same troop-to-civilian ratio as in Bosnia. Despite claims to the contrary by Henry Kissinger and others, it is hard to imagine that India or Indonesia would volunteer sizable numbers of their own troops to lessen our burden. They certainly have not done so in the past, notwithstanding considerable American pleading and arm-twisting. Yet without such outside supervision, any de facto partition would result not in less violence but in a great deal more, at least in the short run. We are not likely to see a test of Boot's claim in the last sentence.

The most important instructive lesson from the Balkans is this: Bosnia is still governed as an international protectorate, in which none of the entities enjoy fully meaningful self-government. In fact, Bosnia has all the global and European international organizations of a multilateralist's dreams present within it and directly engaged in its governance. Successive high commissioners have sought to recentralize in order to create what they invariably call a common state. In the process they have stripped each of the entities of their sovereignty and of their autonomy in security affairs. If they were free to reject this process the Bosnian Serbs would, and so might the Bosnian Croats. There are two reasons why the High Representative is obeyed. One is the sheer power of the foreign troop presence after an exhausting civil war (which on a per head basis almost certainly exceeded the scales of violence in postintervention Iraq). The other is the promise of admission to the European Union if Bosnia meets standards of compliance spelled out by the High Representative. Neither the stick nor the carrot to sustain this kind of system is available in Iraq, even if we were to conclude that it would be desirable.

There is another instructive lesson to be extracted from this comparison. In Bosnia an external partition was prevented, but its internal partitions were broadly respected. The Bosniaks and the Croats had wanted to secede from Yugoslavia, whereas the Serbs did not. So Bosnia obtained its independence through a contested secession and descended into a deep war because the losers from its secession sought to secede themselves-and used expulsions and genocide to clear their path. No directly comparable process has yet occurred in contemporary Iraq. Far from seceding, the Kurdistan Region has relinked with Iraq after Saddam, and neither Sunni nor Shia Arabs have sought to secede from Iraq. Iraq is being fought and struggled over, but so far no entity has sought to secede. Kurdistan reserves the right to secede in extremis. It will not do if its constitutional rights are implemented and respected. That is another reason the United States in its withdrawal should seek to protect Iraq's Constitution-and Kurdistan's rights. In so doing it will be heading off the dangers that might otherwise occur from a contested secession.

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Andrew D. Todd - 6/12/2009

The Middle East is mostly empty. Oil and population do not coincide, except to a very limited extent. A practical American plan will involve occupying the portions which have oil, and not occupying the portions which have population. In the case of Iraq, draw a line on the map running about twenty to fifty miles west of the Euphrates, or, roughly speaking, the contour of five hundred feet above sea level. This represents approximately the limits to which irrigation water can be brought, and consequently, the limits of population. The line is placed in such a way as to run east of the southern oilfields, but west of Basra. To the north, the line runs west of Karbala, Ramadi, and Haditha, and then crosses the Euphrates, and runs more or less straight to a point north of Mosul, where it crosses the Tigris and ends on the approximate western border of Kurdistan. Practically every Iraqi town you ever heard of is east of the line, but the zone west of the line provides a communications corridor to Kurdistan and the Sunni triangle, and a buffer zone between metropolitan Iraq and the countries to the west, viz. Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The population of the western zone is minimal, too small to support a significant insurgency. An American plan would involve building new military roads, pipelines, etc. in the western zone-- a comparatively simple problem. Essentially all of Iraq's oil is either in the western zone, or else in Kurdistan. Essentially all of the United States' interests in Iraq could be met by controlling the western zone, and leaving the populated eastern zone to its own devices. It would probably be feasible to give Kurdistan that portion of the western zone which is beyond the Euphrates river, or rather, beyond a line some miles west of the Euphrates, all the way to the Syrian border. The Kurds would be the principal beneficiaries of this comparatively heavily populated section, and it is reasonable to expect them to do the work of maintaining it. The remaining American zone would have essentially no water resources, and consequently, no population. It could be made nominally part of Kuwait, meaning that Americans do not have to get involved in what little civil administration it requires, merely to defend its frontiers.

Maybe Iraq is viable as a nation, maybe it isn't. That is not our affair. We are not the world's policeman. In practice, I don't see how Iran can be stopped from absorbing Mesopotamia, at least as far up as Baghdad and Karbala.

I developed something similar to this general idea in a series of HNN comments back in early 2004.


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Of course, no measures along these lines were taken. The Bush administration had an extraordinary talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/6/2009

Too bad that this concept is as old (and beaten) as the American empire's ideological, economic and military attempts to dominate and control the entire world.
To begin with, such analysts and political advisers as Mr. O'Leary, should begin their search for resolution of US occupation of Iraq with the real legal characterization
of the Iraq war according to all presently acting international laws and agreements - US agression.
Then it immediately follows that the US and its diminished "coalition of the willing" have to immediately withdraw their troops and dismantle military bases built there without any
preconditions and transparently false excuses.
Secondly, the US political and military leadership responsible for the unprovoked aggression (under trump-up pretense) killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and practically total destruction of the country's infrastructure and economy, and inciting (through means of vilification propaganda and formation of Shiite death squads) civil war between Sunnis and Shiites has to be prosecuted as war criminals.
But of course, who's going to do that?
Obama is just a demagogue who's not going to touch even the double-standard ideological premises of the foundation of the US imperialist foreign and corporate domestic policies, not mentioning practical implementation of the changes.

Per Fagereng - 6/1/2009

The US was once allied with Saddam Hussein. In fact, the CIA started Saddam on his evil path when it hired him to assassinate a previous ruler of Iraq. That attempt failed, but the Baathists eventually came to power and the US supported Iraq in its war with Iran.

Maybe the differences between Iraq and Vietnam are not that deep. One could argue that an expansionist America is seeking to run the world, and to do that it needs to control the Asian heartland.

Seen in that light, the Vietnam war, the Balkan wars and Iraq reveal different tactics but the same goal.