Most of the discussions or arguments I've gotten into on the question of Iraq fall into one of two categories: the wisdom of intervening there in the first place, or the success of American counterinsurgency/reconstruction efforts thus far, including how we're doing on the crucial subject of "winning Iraqi hearts and minds." But even accounting for the probably inevitable ethnocentrism of focusing on these things, I'm starting to think we're all really missing the point: what are the long-term prospects for a stable, unified, peaceful and pluralistic Iraq?
The answer, according to this devastating New York Review of Books piece: Not good. The two most likely options might be all-out civil war, or an Iranian puppet state.
Peter Galbraith's article starts off by essentially dismissing the Sunni-led insurgency, the problem Americans most commonly worry about. His conclusion is that just by demographics, the insurgents can't win--there simply aren't enough of them. But neither can they be defeated militarily: facing a somewhat similar resistance from Iraq's Shi'ites, Saddam Hussein couldn't crush them despite a much larger military and a willingness to resort to far more brutal tactics than those we are using.
The core problem (and this should hardly come as a revelation) might be that there's simply no Iraqi national identity. Imagine if we had insisted on Yugoslavia staying together after the fall of Tito. Iraq is Yugoslavia with oil and religious fanatics. They can't even sustain an army.
Building national security institutions is a challenge in a country that does not have a shared national identity. Saddam's army consisted of Sunni Arab officers (with a few exceptions) and Shiite and (until 1991) Kurdish conscripts. Today, the Iraqi military and security services are a mixture of Kurdish peshmerga, rehabilitated Sunni Arab officers from Saddam's army, and Shiite and Sunni Arab recruits. What is little known is that virtually all of the effective fighting units in the new Iraqi military are in fact former Kurdish peshmerga. These units owe no loyalty to Iraq, and, if recalled by the Kurdistan government, they will all go north to fight for Kurdistan.
The Shiites, naturally, want a Shiite military that will be loyal to the new Shiite-dominated government. They have encouraged the Shiite militias— and notably the Badr Brigade—to take over security in the Shiite south, and to integrate themselves into the national military. Neither the Shiites nor the Kurds want the Sunni Arabs to have a significant part in the new Iraqi military or security services. They suspect— with good reason in many cases—that the Sunni Arabs in the military are in fact cooperating with the insurgency. No Kurdish minister in the national government uses Iraqi forces for his personal security, nor will any of them inform the Iraqi authorities of their movements. Instead, they entrust their lives to specially trained peshmerga brought to Baghdad. Many Shiite ministers use the Shiite militias in the same way.
A few months after the Iraqi elections, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad to warn the new Shiite-led government not to purge Sunni Arabs from the police and military. He got a promise, but the government has no intention of keeping on people associated with Saddam's regime. Too many of them have the blood of Shiites or Kurds on their hands, and neither group is in a forgiving mood.
National identity can't be willed into existence. Galbraith's article is replete with anecdotes of Kurds and Shi'ites casually dismissing American-written pledges of fealty to the larger nation-state in favor of more narrowly drawn loyalties.
Then there is the factor of Iranian influence, which has both a geostrategic and religious component. The two dominant Shi'ite political parties are Islamist and enjoy significant support from Iran. In return, they've formally apologized for Iraq's initiation of the 1980-88 war between the two countries and have proposed paying billions in reparations, as well as construction of an oil pipeline between Basra and an Iranian city. The defense ministers of the two nations have also signed an agreement for Iran to train the Iraqi military.
This is presumably driving the Bush administration crazy, but the explanation should be transparent to a bunch of Christians consumed with "sins of the father":
[S]hould the President want to understand why the Shiites have shown so little receptivity to his version of democracy, he need only go back to his father's presidency. On February 15, 1991, the first President Bush called on the Iraqi people and military to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Shiites made the mistake of believing he meant it. Three days after the first Gulf War ended, on March 2, 1991, a Shiite rebellion began in Basra and quickly spread to the southern reaches of Baghdad. Then Saddam counterattacked with great ferocity. Three hundred thousand Shiites ultimately died. Not only did the elder President Bush not help, his administration refused even to hear the pleas of the more and more desperate Shiites. While the elder Bush's behavior may have many explanations, no Shiite I know of sees it as anything other than a calculated plan to have them slaughtered. By contrast, Iran, which backed [the political parties] SCIRI and Dawa and equipped the Badr Brigade, has long been seen as a reliable friend.
Galbraith finishes his dismal assessment by considering the fraught process of writing an Iraqi constitution. Again, the sectarian and ethnic differences play a huge role: austere Shi'ites and tolerant Kurds are not likely to accept each other's worldviews, and the way Americans set the process in motion, each holds effective veto power. While recent news coverage in the U.S. has emphasized the efforts made to engage Sunni Iraqis in the process, the enormous differences between the two parties already at the table suggest that the August 15 deadline for coming up with a draft is highly unrealistic.
In the coming constitutional battle, Kurdistan leaders—and many secular Arab Iraqis—will be drawing the line on three principles: secularism, the rights of women, and federalism. They fear that President Bush will be more interested in meeting the August 15 deadline for a constitution than in its content, and that they will be under pressure to make concessions to the Shiite majority. It may be the ultimate irony that the United States, which, among other reasons, invaded Iraq to help bring liberal democracy to the Middle East, will play a decisive role in establishing its second Shiite Islamic state.
When we went into Iraq, I couldn't totally condemn the thinking: Saddam was a brutal tyrant, one whom America had helped take and hold power in the cynical belief that trading the lives and freedoms of countless Iraqis for stability and Cold War positioning was a smart move for the U.S. Removing him from power, and helping the Iraqis toward peace, self-rule, tolerance and prosperity, would help right the historical balance. My problems were, one, the hypocrisy of an approach that targeted Iraq but not so many other repressive former or current U.S. clients; and two, the sharp fear that the Bush administration would screw up the implementation of the policy as they had most everything else, failing to accomplish the mission while imposing terrible human and economic costs on both countries.
This fear has largely been realized, and the result is starting to look like a disaster of historical significance. Perhaps the best option now is to break up Iraq, allying with Kurdistan while hoping to neutralize Shi'ite Iraq and pacify the Sunni Triangle. Will that have been worth 2,000 dead Americans, who knows how many dead Iraqis, and a cost in the hundreds of billions?