Monday, June 27, 2005

Stopping the avalanche in Iraq

A friend who is an economist and Middle East specialist writes to Juan Cole, of Informed Comment:

Dear Juan,

I have been reading the debate in your wonderful Blog on What next? in Iraq (unilateral withdrawal? UN forces? Staying the course?) with great interest. There is a way, however, in which I am troubled by what I perceive as a tacit assumption--a very American assumption,--underlying most of the discussion. It seems to me that even pessimists are actually optimists: they assume that there exists in Iraq and the Gulf some solution, some course of action which can actually lead to an outcome other than widespread, prolonged violence, with devastating economic, political, and social consequences.

I regret to say that I think this is wrong. There is no solution to this mess; it is sometimes not possible to fix things which have been broken. I can see no course of action which will prevent widespread violence, regional social upheaval, and economic hammering administered by oil price shocks. This is why so many of us opposed the invasion of Iraq so strenuously in the first place! We thought that it would unleash irreversible adverse consequences for (conventionally defined) US interests in the region. I am very sorry to say that I still think we were right.

Let me get specific:

1) As you have often pointed out, our continued presence de-legitimizes the current Iraqi government, which is, in any case, largely a Shiite Islamist and Kurdish tactical alliance. As Patrick Coburn has pointed out (LRB), the Kurds destabilized Iraq for half a century, and the Sunnis can certainly do the same. No Sunnis, no deal, no way-as you have repeatedly stressed. And the polls, which you courageously cite, which show some 40% of the population backing the insurgents, at least in principle, demonstrates-as you have repeatedly argued-that a large number of Iraqis want us to get out. This means, as you say almost every day,
that our current policy (unilateral presence, if I may call it that) is unsustainable. The insurgents, and many Iraqis, want us out, by any means. Our continued presence cannot succeed.

2) Your scenario for a regional Lebanese or Thirty Years War style conflict in the wake of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal seems very plausible. Indeed, since I think that the U.S. cannot stay, and since I (regrettably) think that the U.N. option is also not viable (for some of the reasons your correspondents have stated), such a scenario may be the most prescient prediction. But the U.S., as a polity and culture, will simply not sustain this war, not without huge damage to other interests, to the military itself, and to American democracy. Our continued presence only postpones the evil day, and the U.N. is not, I think, likely to step in.

3) Salafi jihadis and Iran are the big winners in all this-and they hate each other. I can see NO possible way for outsiders to defuse this: not with the U.S. in Iraq, not with the U.N., not with a power vacuum. People from outside the region (U.S., E.U., U.N., India, China, whoever) can do very, very little about this. It seems to me that, as usual, only Muslims can ameliorate the problems of Muslim governance.

4) Finally, there is a tacit assumption in the discussion so far that low oil prices, including current levels, are viable. I dont think this is true, for at least two reasons. A) The terrifying truth is that how we consume energy now both in the U.S. and elsewhere is entirely unsustainable for environmental reasons. Denial is the national past-time on this; and it is deeply destructive. Global warming is a reality, it will get worse, and the consequences will be extremely serious. I now work surrounded by biologists and environmental scientists, many of whom would cheer (even as they paid a heavy price in lost jobs and income) if the price of oil hit $100 a barrel, because they are in a panic about the consequences of our current profligate behavior. B) The jury is still out on the Hubberts Peak hypothesis, but the viewpoint is hardly silly. If it should prove to be correct, oil prices will rise, steeply-until we get serious about fostering the kind of changes in consumption and technology which are necessary, in any case (see A). To repeat: assuming that low oil prices are viable is very dubious at best, and at worst, constitutes a species of denial.

5) Who will pay the price for high oil prices? As you rightly say, poor people, especially in the Global South. Will they know this? Certainly. Will they thank rich countries like us? Hardly. Might this lead to other violent social movements, particularly given all the other problems in the Global South? I cant see why not. Of course, there are ways in principle of dealing with this problem which could minimize the pain. Every competent economist knows the litany of price changes, technology subsidies, and quantitative mandates which we should have implemented, decades ago. We should still do this now, even at this late date. Of course, every indication suggests that the necessary steps will not be taken, thanks, in large part, to American culture and politics. After all, no one, from either party, in the political arena is saying anything even remotely commensurate with the threat which most scientists see to the future of the planet. No one with any power is talking sensibly about energy use, global poverty, and their interrelationships. No one at all.

6) My last pessimistic point: my reading of history is that the only way large changes occur is as responses to large crises. I dont like this, but it seems true to me. And, I hasten to add, change in a crisis is hardly guaranteed to be humane, decent, or to have any claim on our ethical allegiance. We might get a new Roosevelt, but we also might get a new Hitler.

Please dont misunderstand me: I am not advocating regional-crisis-cum-oil-price-spike. I simply think that it is probably unavoidable. If we leave, there will be violence, mayhem, slaughter, and instability, and if we stay there will be violence, mayhem, slaughter, and instability. If there is (as I tend to think) a large crisis looming on the horizon, it will certainly be ugly, even hideous. And then-something else will happen. The one thing I dont think is possible is to avoid it.

So let me close where I began: I think it is delusional to imagine that there exists a solution to the mess in Iraq. From this perspective, the folly of Bush, Cheney and Company in invading Iraq is even worse than most informed observers of the region already think. Starting an avalanche is certainly criminal. It does not follow, however, that such a phenomenon can be stopped once it has begun.


Anonymous said...

That's nice and uplifting. While I agree with much of your friend's grim assessment of the situation, I would ask him -- and maybe he'd follow up -- with what our policy prescriptions vis-a-vis Iraq ought to be if we think this is the likely outcome. Other than radically reducing our use of oil, it's not obvious what follows from this. And this is one problem people on the anti-war side face. If it sounds like "we told you so," and there's nothing else to say, then even if you're right people hate you.

Ma Tiny said...

It doesn't seem like this writer thought about future action the United States can take at all. I agree with him or her that our troops are making the region less stable, not more. But what happens when we yank 'em out of there, leaving a fledgling government defenseless against the remnants of Saddam's army mixed with disenfranchised Sunnis mixed with a dash of Al Qaeda, with all the weapons we didn't bother to secure when we went in?

It would be unconscionable to break their country and leave without setting up at least minimal conditions for the new government to succeed.

It seems like the people advocating a sudden withdrawal really haven't considered that they're essentially advocating civil war and genocide in the name of hippie notions of instant peace.