September 15, 2004 [LINK]

Will chaos lead to partition?

But indeed, what about the mounting chaos in Iraq? For many Americans with a thin grasp of history, the latest terrorist offensive in Iraq brings new grounds for pessimism, but it should serve to remind us what a determined, vicious, and well-funded enemy we face. The timing of the attacks is obviously aimed at influencing the U.S. elections. Wiser, non-triumphalist leaders and commentators have emphasized that this conflict will almost certainly be long, bloody, and perilous, with many nasty surprises yet to come.* It is important to understand that the recent brutal attacks in the Sunni heartland of Fallujah and Baghdad, and even in the nearby Shi'ite bastion of Najaf, have been mainly of a secular nationalist origin. It doesn't mean that religious motivations are absent, just that the political direction of the terrorist campaign comes mainly from Ba'ath Party remnants and infiltrators from Iran, Jordan, etc. As far as we can tell, the rebel "cleric" (actually just a vicious warlord) Muqtada al-Sadr has been isolated, and the Ayatollah Sistani wields much greater authority and respect. Some fear that the elections scheduled for January may not be possible, but many parts of Iraq remain relatively peaceful and great strides are being made toward physical and sociopolitical reconstruction.

* (Note to war skeptics: The banner "Mission Accomplished" aboard the the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln where Bush landed in April 2003 referred merely to one campaign in a long, arduous series. Anyone who imagined the liberation of Iraq was a Hollywood happy ending has only himself or herself to blame.)

The fundamental lesson to learn from this distressing turn of events is that United States cannot impose a solution on Iraq, we can only exert influence on how the new political system Iraq evolves. The likely divergence in developmental trajectories in the three major regions of Iraq leads to only one logical conclusion: If elections can be carried out in the northern and southern regions of Iraq, but not in the center, we must prepare for the possible emergence of autonomous governments in the Shi'ite and Kurdish areas, and even the eventual establishment of separate sovereign states. It's basically up to the Sunni people themselves whether to take a stand in defense of the fledgling regime in Baghdad, thereby preserving Iraq as a unified whole, or else succumb to fear of (Iran-backed) terrorists and (anti-U.S.) xenophobia. It's not unlike the choice faced by the peoples of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. I would bet most Serbs, and possibly even many Croatians and Bosnians, would have chosen differently and made the necessary compromises to keep Yugoslavia united if they had to do it all over again. In any event, as long as the U.S. government keeps its political objectives in Iraq modest, refraining from undue interference in non-security-related matters, there is no reason to fear a "quagmire."

NOTE: This is a "post facto" blog post, taken from the pre-November 2004 archives.