Via Juan Cole, al-Hakim’s son had an interesting take on Iran’s role in the latest clashes:
“Tehran, by using its positive influence on the Iraqi nation, paved the way for the return of peace to Iraq and the new situation is the result of Iran's efforts. . .”
The larger lesson here is that the recent uprising – and Iran’s mediation – pretty much drives a theoretical stake through the heart of the surge, and the military occupation more generally. It’s not just that the occupation isn’t achieving its political goals – it’s that it’s actively undermining those goals as well.
That last point is key. The current domestic debate seems mired in a “screwed if we do/screwed if we don’t” mindset. The nation agrees that the war was a bad idea, but they continue to accept prolonged, indefinite occupation because they don’t perceive our presence as making things worse. Our occupation, however, is making things worse – that’s the key lesson that the past weeks have taught us. And that's the point war critics need to emphasize more loudly.
Marc Lynch made an interesting observation a while back that the American presence is creating one giant “moral hazard,” not unlike the Fed bailout of Bear Stearns. He writes (quotes actually):
Moral hazard arises because an individual or institution does not bear the full consequences of its actions, and therefore has a tendency to act less carefully than it otherwise would, leaving another party to bear some responsibility for the consequences of those actions.
Here, the overriding risk is all-out civil war – whether inter-or-intra ethnic group – or regional war, or both. Our presence mitigates these risks – at least in the short term. Thus, Maliki can take risky actions like raiding Basra or openly turning the army into a wing of Badr, knowing that he and his allies won’t be exposed to the full risk of those actions (civil war) because of the American presence. Similarly, other countries (like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia) feel less urgency to engage diplomatically (which is itself a “risky” omission) because of the American presence.
If, however, America announced that it would leave Iraq in a year, then the parties involved (both inside and outside Iraq) would suddenly bear more of the consequences of their risky behavior. Accordingly, they would be more motivated to bear down and bang out political deals.
I realize I’m not saying anything new – people having been arguing for some time that the threat of withdrawal is the only real leverage we have left for creating a semi-stable situation. But what the Iran mediation shows is that these arguments actually have some empirical merit. When the risk of all-out intra-Shiite civil war erupted, the Iraqi leadership and Iran banged out a political deal. Obviously, it may not last. But it reinforces the argument that politics and diplomacy are the only way that Iraq can be a non-disaster (relatively speaking of course).
This explains why the Kagans’ “Iraq 4-Ever” strategy is actually worse than withdrawal. The Bush/Kagan strategy is simply to keep the maximum number of troops in Iraq as long as possible in the hopes a pony will appear. To maintain political support for the Pony Strategy, they need to peddle worse-case scenarios and paint pictures of genocide and all-out civil war.
I’ll fully concede that such events are possible – anyone who doesn’t is being dishonest. But my point is that our occupation makes them more likely, for the reasons explained above. Specifically, the longer and more indefinitely we stay, the greater the moral hazard we produce. As long as we stay indefinitely, parties will act more recklessly than they otherwise would. These actions, in turn, will have profound, unpredictable, and irreversible consequences.
As last week shows, however, there is actually some decent chance that withdrawal would force the parties to internalize the risks of their actions. When the risks are internalized, it’s more likely that solutions will appear. It’s not a great strategy, but it’s better than the alternatives.