Realistic Optimism & Constructive Pessimism Converge

Optimists are now hoping for/ expecting a stable, independent Iraq that will someday become a functioning democracy, and in the short term will cease to be a terrorist haven.

Constructive pessimists (see today’s NYT David Brooks’ piece, generously excerpted below) are now hoping for/ expecting a stable Iraq in which domestic peace is achieved via the “soft partition” of the warring groups.

Let’s consider how Iraq looked to nearly all perceptive outsiders between Gulf War I and Gulf War II. The country was ruled by an ethnic Sunni thugocracy that ruled over the majority population of ethnic Shi’a and the ever oppressed Kurds, employing history’s proven totalitarian methods (mass murder and selective torture).

Background: Reliable numbers are unavailable. But this is about right. Iraq has a population of about 27m. This crudely sorts 2 to 1 Shi’a to Sunni with a 20% or so remainder, most of whom are Kurds.

A dictatorship like Saddam’s was like a pressure cooker. All of the latent ethnic, family and other issues and disputes were held in check by the use of brutal force.

When the pressure was removed, an eruption of significant violence was inevitable.

Now look at a snapshot of Iraq today, as a proto-democracy on life support:

The former dictator and his clan are dead or otherwise out of the picture.
The liberation of the Kurds is accomplished.  Their continued inclusion (read willingness to be included) in a reformed Iraq is a matter of shared oil revenue.
The ongoing Shi’a – Sunni warfare, a classic tribal struggle, is tending toward genocide.  If it goes that far towards the abyss, the former oppressors, the Sunnis, will lose badly, their cities and population centers emptied by murder and panicked emigration.
Two major mischief makers operate on the sidelines and in-country: the principal state mischief-maker is Iran and the main non-state trouble maker is al Qaeda.
The elected government is still functioning in Baghdad but under great duress.
The government has failed to secure its own capital and the rebel Sunni cities.
The government has so far neglected to allocate oil revenues.

Is this picture so bleak and hopeless that it defies any remedy except the blood tsunami that will inevitably follow an American pullout?

Of course not. This is why:

The Shi’a, once liberated will never go back into the Sunni bottle.
The oil revenues will keep the country afloat.
Given our demonstrated capacity for destruction, no new regime there can openly oppose our interests and take hold of power unless we permit it.

A Thought Experiment: Suppose we had known at the outset, that our resumption of the interrupted war (the Gulf War was never fully resolved by a peace treaty) would result in the following outcomes:

(1) A rapid dismantlement of the old regime;

(2) The formation of a new government (within three years) dominated by the formerly oppressed Shi’a and Kurds;

(3) Oil production restored to better than pre-war levels;

(4) The strong reduction of the prospect of Iraq remaining an oil funded exporter of terror in the region;

(5) An ongoing internal bloody struggle driven largely by elements of the formerly oppressed Shi’a who are attempting to inflict brutal revenge on their former oppressors, the Sunni.

The worst case scenario was not chaos. The real worst case scenario was the effective takeover of Iraq by neighboring Iran because of the supposed Shi’a – Sh’ia affinity (ignoring Iraqi nationalism, the residuum of the brutal Iran-Iraq War, and the fact the Iranian Shi’as are Persian, not Arab).

The fruits of our military presence in Iraq are both bitter and sweet, but on balance they are far better (from our self-interested perspective) than the scenario that would undoubtedly have unfolded had we sat by, allowing Saddam to remain in place while the sanctions deteriorated further.

In the January 25, 2007 New York Times David Brooks makes the case for constructive pessimism. In doing that, he paints a chilling picture of the social pathology that has emerged in the last three years of conflict. I tend to accept that this is undoubtedly true locally – especially in Baghdad – but not in Iraq generally – at least not yet…

“Iran already has the warlord structures that caused mass murder in Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Violent, stupid men who would be the dregs of society under normal conditions rise amid the trauma, chaos and stress and become revered leaders.’

“…Iraq already has the psychological conditions that have undergirded the great bloodbaths of recent years. Iraqi minds, according to the most sensitive reporting, have already been rewired by the experiences of trauma and extreme stress.

“Amid the turmoil, the complexity of life falls away, and things are reduced to stark polarities: Sunni-Shiite or Shiite-Sunni, human-subhuman. Once this mental descent has begun, it is possible to kill without compunction.

“… there are no impartial institutions in Iraq, ready to foster reconciliation. ….”

“… But it’s not too late to steer the situation in a less bad direction. Increased American forces can do good — they are still, as David Ignatius says, the biggest militia on the block — provided they are directed toward realistic goals.

“There is one option that does approach Iraqi reality from the bottom up. That option recognizes that Iraq is broken and that its people are fleeing their homes to survive. It calls for a “soft partition” of Iraq in order to bring political institutions into accord with the social facts — a central government to handle oil revenues and manage the currency, etc., but a country divided into separate sectarian areas to reduce contact and conflict….”

Excerpts Copyright 2007 by David Brooks and The New York Times

This view is very close to mine, one of realistic optimism.

In my December post following Saddam’s execution, I suggested a simple “…measure whether the tide has turned in favor of the elected government: When the main disputes of concern (even if they sometimes generate violence) revolve around how the new government will allocate resources (especially oil revenues), then the tide will have turned against the insurgents. Why? Because every major player will have a stake in getting a piece of the pie and the collapse of the government will take the pie with it. Optimism is justified so long as the US is sufficiently engaged and tough to keep Iran from playing in this sandbox.”

From my armchair, there are four keys to the Iraq puzzle:

State mischief makers can be deterred provided we are willing to get sufficiently tough behind the scenes. Non-state terror actors need to be “taken out”.  Few in Iraq support al Qaeda.
Thugs can always be controlled via a combination of intimidation and bribery.
Greed is the mother’s milk of political compromise. [Even thieves work together.]
Control the oil revenue in Iraq and you ultimately control the situation on the ground and in the streets, provided two things are secure: the oil stream and the political mechanism for its allocation. These should be our top priorities.

If we play those keys correctly the convergence between the realistic optimists and the constructive pessimists will be a reality.


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