"Let Them Have Their Civil War"

From Caleb Carr (military writer and novelist) Sunday 4/09/2006 Washington Post:

Let Them Have Their Civil War

By Caleb Carr
Sunday, April 9, 2006; Page B01

As the violence in Iraq has expanded, analysts have been asking: Are we witnessing the beginning of a formal Iraqi civil war? But far more important when we consider what role our troops might play in the extended fighting is the question: Does the United States have any right to forcibly stop such a war, when and if it begins?

Civil war, as defined by many generations of military theorists, shares characteristics with insurgencies and revolutions, but there are distinct differences, too. Although insurgencies are contests of rival groups, insurgents need not control any appreciable territory to be effective. Civil wars, on the other hand, involve two or more armed groups, each controlling part of a country. And although civil wars, like revolutions, can be influenced by outside forces as well as ideological considerations, sometimes they are merely struggles for power. Still others -- like the American Civil War -- are contests over not just politics or power, but some high motivating moral principle as well.

No such principle would seem to be at play in Iraq, for one of the insurgency's glaring deficiencies has always been its lack of a coherent ideological rallying point for all Iraqis. Its aim, by contrast, has been simple: the return to power of the Sunni Muslim minority that held sway under Saddam Hussein, or, failing that, the kind of endless anarchy that will make any other government's rule impossible. The insurgents have succeeded at the latter: Although an Iraqi National Assembly and executive branch have been created and elected, the assembly has met only once and briefly, and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari is widely viewed as ineffectual and corrupt. Americans, meanwhile, are voicing overwhelming condemnation of the war, creating a perhaps unbridgeable gulf between themselves and the Bush administration. This has always been a basic definition of insurgent success, as it tends to severely restrict the counterinsurgents' time frame for operations.

Thus, all the courage that went into organizing and carrying out Iraqi elections would seem to have produced a government unworthy of the sacrifices made to bring it into being. The resulting frustration is clear in the words and increasingly deadly actions of many Iraqis who appear to be giving up on a political solution to their country's problems. This means mainly the once-persecuted Shiites (who are showing dangerous signs of splintering into fighting sub-factions) and Kurds.

The more the Iraqi government and its U.S. advocates talk about "fairness" for the Sunni minority, the more the violence seems to escalate. The insurgents do not want their people seduced into participating in the new Iraq, while the Kurds and Shiites seem reluctant to afford true national power to the very people who not only made Hussein's genocidal rule possible, but are also leading the insurgency.

This may not be textbook civil war, but it is certainly shaping up to be the beginning of one.

If Americans ever had the power to stave off such a conflict, the past three years of misguided military policy have exhausted it. But military ability to stop a civil war is not the key issue. Nor should excessive concern for our own national security cloud our policy decisions: The first casualties of any expanded fighting will almost certainly be both Saddam Hussein (who has been kept alive thanks to U.S. insistence on his trial -- and thanks to U.S. guards) as well as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is now despised more than Hussein by many Iraqis. No, the real issue of importance for Americans with regard to any impending Iraqi civil war is: Are we morally justified in trying to prevent it?

Before answering, Americans should consider a few facts from our own national experience. Our Civil War was viewed as an exercise in horrendously destructive national suicide by most of the nations of Europe -- and an expensive one at that, for it cut off European textile mills from Southern cotton. Britain and one or two of her fellow members in the European balance of power considered intervening -- but intervention was averted, mostly through the careful warnings of President Abraham Lincoln and his diplomatic corps. They stressed that civil war in America was a more morally complex affair than the usual European grab for power. It was, at its heart, a contest to end the institution of slavery.

If the Europeans found its violence deplorable and horrifying, said Lincoln, that was understandable; so did he. But as he explained in his second inaugural address, in words that we revere so deeply that we have carved them into his memorial:

"If God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' "

Iraqis may refer to their Lord by a different name, but the principle in their case is the same. We are not dealing with several groups of roughly equal recent experience; we are dealing with one extreme minority, the Sunnis, many of whom have for years, under the leadership of the worst international tyrant since Pol Pot, persecuted and murdered the other two -- on a genocidal scale.

As Americans, we cannot condone mass murder as a form of vengeance. But every time an American official tries to tell the Shiites and the Kurds (along with the many smaller minorities in Iraq) that they are not entitled to the same judgments and justice as we ourselves received and wrought from 1861 to 1865, they make civil war in that country more -- not less -- likely. Such statements reveal the blatantly paternalistic, even racist, opinion that what was necessary in the American experience is not something for which the Iraqis are ready or qualified.

Indeed, if polls in Iraq are reliable (and they seem to have been, thus far) then the American presence there is only increasing the likelihood that if civil war comes, it will be more vicious. The presence of U.S. troops, noble as their efforts at control may be, only fuels more rage, since they keep Kurdish and Shiite forces at bay while failing to stop the Sunnis from committing daily murder.

And where is the justice for those murders? It does not emanate from either an assembly that has met once in three months or a U.S.-led coalition that continues to display an extraordinary level of concern for the Sunnis. It may well come, in the end, only from allowing the Kurds and Shiites to fight -- yes, to bloodily settle accounts -- with the Sunnis for themselves.

Not only is it impossible for Americans to stand in the way of an internal Iraqi balancing of the scales, it also reeks of hypocrisy. We went to Iraq, according to our president, to make Iraqis free. If that is so, and if their first decision as a free people is to declare war upon one another, just as Americans once did, where do we derive the right to tell them they may not? We cannot, again, condone genocide (we can even cut it short by keeping land and air units in the region); but neither can we any longer delay justice -- even if it is to be forcibly dispensed.

Yet right now, that appears to be the unenviable position into which the Bush administration and Iraqi insurgents have thrust our troops. Those troops have fulfilled their primary mission of bringing down the Hussein regime, and they have done it well, but even they cannot create or enforce a just peace in a foreign country -- a laundry list of failed recent attempts in other nations should tell us that.

If the Iraqis wish to try it on their own, better that we allow them to use a mixture of their own militias and conventional forces -- the kind of combination that fought our Civil War. That way, we at least accord them the respect of equals. They may even remember, one day, that we did. And that memory may, over time, ease the bitterness created by occupation.

Caleb Carr is the author of "The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians" (Random House). He teaches military studies at Bard College.

Tom Clancy is a "military writer". Caleb Carr is an actual military historian. I like his thinking here, because it points out that given the current situation, what we are left with is something that will never be solved by outsiders. So he's taking that thought to it's logical end.

Right you are, Robear; I was unfair to Mr. Carr....but I was afraid I'd automatically insert a tangent about his qualifications into the thread.

His "The Devil Soldier" about Frederick Townsend Ward and "The Ever-Victorious Army" was a real eye-opener for me; well-written and well-researched.

This man ought to work on his redundant expressions.

. . . but there are distinct differences, too.

This may not be textbook civil war, but it is certainly shaping up to be the beginning of one.

Etc.

Lobo wrote:
This man ought to work on his redundant expressions.

. . . but there are distinct differences, too.

This may not be textbook civil war, but it is certainly shaping up to be the beginning of one.

Etc.

I don't think "distinct differences" is redundant. Differences can be subtle. School me so that I may learn.

I've not read his books on the topic, but I have read a number of his professional essays, and I like his novels as well. I actually thought the magazine put that description in, didn't mean to tweak you with it.

Lobo - I find he adopts an artificial style, probably due to his focus on the 19th century. He's constantly doing this - "...one of the most ultimately self-defeating tactics..." coming from his piece on terrorism (if it's the most self-defeating, then it's ultimately self-defeating too), and I'm sure you can find many more. His books are similarly florid, but very interesting. After a bit of a while, you will surely find that in familiarity you will become used to it.

It's even alliterative. What's not to like?

USA felt very strongly compelled to intervene in a civil war between North and South Korea... A division which would also not exist if it wasn't for USA. I hope this can be used as a lesson.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:
Lobo wrote:
This man ought to work on his redundant expressions.

. . . but there are distinct differences, too.

This may not be textbook civil war, but it is certainly shaping up to be the beginning of one.

Etc.

I don't think "distinct differences" is redundant. Differences can be subtle. School me so that I may learn.

That's true, good point. I was thinking of "distinct" as meaning clearly defined or separated. But taken as a synonym for "obvious," it reads better. I guess "obvious" itself would avoid any confusion.

Robear wrote:
After a bit of a while, you will surely find that in familiarity you will become used to it.

Didn't we take the same approach in Rwanda?

We did, Funken. But the choice here is, do we stay and hope that we can prevent it, or leave and try to look for the silver lining? We have to hope that the goal of a civil war in Iraq is control of the country, not genocide.

Why are we limited to only two alternatives?

Funkenpants wrote:
Why are we limited to only two alternatives?

We're not! We could also:

-Stay in Iraq and not try to prevent the civil war.
-Leave and...er...not try to look for the silver lining.


Why are we limited to only two alternatives?

I thought that's what we were discussing - allow a civil war, or not. Did you have another direction you want to go? That's cool, just out with it.

I think they should have an uncivil war. The Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Christians should all feel free to be completely rude.... but they must preface every horrific action by saying "this may not be the most 'politically correct' thing to do, but...". That way blowing up schoolbuses full of kids and raping their remains would be acceptable.

Paleocon wrote:
I think they should have an uncivil war. The Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Christians should all feel free to be completely rude.... but they must preface every horrific action by saying "this may not be the most 'politically correct' thing to do, but...". That way blowing up schoolbuses full of kids and raping their remains would be acceptable.

I'll have to remember that if I ever hear those words from you, to run as fast as I can!

Honestly, I think we should just get out. Let them have their civil war. If the new regime is a threat to us, take it out. We've already done it once

Until Iraq is united, nothing we do over there is going to mean much. Sometimes it takes conflict to bring a country together, and they won't be able to move forward as long as there are several factions all fighting for power.

Robear wrote:

Why are we limited to only two alternatives?

I thought that's what we were discussing - allow a civil war, or not. Did you have another direction you want to go? That's cool, just out with it.

IMAGE(http://www.ryanwanger.com/ag3.jpg)

Duh.

Edwin wrote:
I thought that's what we were discussing - allow a civil war, or not. Did you have another direction you want to go? That's cool, just out with it.

A formal partition is one additional option, but there are probably many others. There's a huge danger with formulating all possible future courses of action as an either/or decision, particularly when you have situations like this when the consequences of every alternative are impossible to assess. The range of alternatives should be much wider than my own imagination can come up with.

Basically, Carr never accounts for the possibility that a civil war could result in the deaths of a million or more people in coming years, as well as millions of refugees. And his use of the American civil war as an example, instead of say, the more recent Yugoslavian experience- is deeply flawed.

True, Funken...but I also view essays like this as "thought-pieces", designed to open debate and the thought process.

PurEvil wrote:

I'll have to remember that if I ever hear those words from you, to run as fast as I can!

I run a 7 minute mile. You can run, but you'll only die tired. >:)

cewargamer wrote:

From Caleb Carr (military writer and novelist) Sunday 4/09/2006 Washington Post:

Let Them Have Their Civil War

By Caleb Carr
Sunday, April 9, 2006; Page B01

...We went to Iraq, according to our president, to make Iraqis free...

I'm not much for conspiracy theories, I tend to believe the simplest explanation is usually the right one (too much ST:TNG as a kid I guess). Anyhoo, I think that basing any argument that the war in Iraq was about freeing Iraqis is flawed from the get go, it just doesn't make sense and the results toward this end have been pretty bad thusfar...
If we are talking about when is likely to happen, I would approach this from the realist angle:
- how can the US best protect the interests that it spent so hard to aquire in this war (oil, strategic location, regime change, threats against Isreal etc...)?
- how can the GOP position the conflict to show the best light by the next presedential election?
- how can the US military adjust to reduce the manpower/expenses related to staying in Iraq to allow for other adventures should they present themselves?

Given the above considerations, I would guess that the US is doing everything it can to prevent civil war at least until after the election, then fall back to protect their investments while the real fighting starts.

Intellectuals have their place of course, but I somehow doubt it is in the White House at this time....

TuYungTuDy wrote:

- how can the US best protect the interests that it spent so hard to aquire in this war (oil, strategic location, regime change, threats against Isreal etc...)?

The interests were never well served by this action of going to war. Any gains one might perceive that were made by this action are illusory. We have reached George Herbert Walker Bush's "ultimately barren outcome" that he predicted before the war.

- how can the GOP position the conflict to show the best light by the next presedential election?

This will be tricky, but it will amount to presenting the current situation as a fait accompli. Stating that the situation is, admittedly bad and largely the making of bad "intelligence", but that the "strong leaders" of the GOP are better equipped to get us out of this mess than the "limp wristed apologists" that populate the Democratic Party. There will be lots of gay-baiting, bible thumping, and flag waving in there to be sure as well. The question is whether or not the American people are stupid enough to buy this the second time around.

One can argue that the American people get a pass for being stupid enough the first time around because they were grief-struck and angered by the images of 9-11. It is hardly a contraversial statement that without 9-11 Bush would have been more than a forgettable president with a paralyzed agenda.

- how can the US military adjust to reduce the manpower/expenses related to staying in Iraq to allow for other adventures should they present themselves?

The answer here is that any rebuilding of American military capabilities will have to begin with a drawdown and disengagement from Iraq. The resource suck it presents has resulted in the growing of regional brushfires we will have to deal with elsewhere for decades to come. Socialists in Latin America are pressing increasingly anti-American agendas, North Korea is emboldened by the lack of credible power projection, and Iran is a de facto regional hegemon now. Until we disengage from Iraq and undergo the long path to rebuilding the military and the diplomatic mechanisms that make its application meaningful, we're going to be fighting infernos with garden hoses.

Given the above considerations, I would guess that the US is doing everything it can to prevent civil war at least until after the election, then fall back to protect their investments while the real fighting starts

Though I agree that the Admin is doing all it can to prevent civil war, I would argue it is doing so largely for regime survival rather than any sincere concern for American interest. More importantly, there is a very limited amount of influence it has in that regard.