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December 07, 2006


This is a standard collective action problem. There is a type of behavior -- supporting armed factions in Iraq -- that is individually rational for each neighbor, but collectively disastrous for all of them.

This is pretty much the Prisoners' Dilemma. The problem there arises because the prisoners cannot communicate and make binding agreements with each other.

An intermediary who can convince each of the prisoners that the other will stick to the deal, for whatever reason, solves the problem. Sounds like diplomacy to me.

Is there any evidence that foriegn support is signifigant in forming or strengthening these militias?

"Instability in Iraq" is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Yes, but the unthinking partisans sure do think it is. It's a common affliction among the ideologues; properties are binary, as they tend to reify concepts into material entities.

I see one big problem with your thesis : we don't really know WHAT game the Iranians and Syrians are playing and therefore what conditions they are seeking.

Suppose Iran actually wants to :
1. send Iraq into chaos by supporting radicals
2. destabilize the region via the mechanisms you mention
3. spark a regional war involving Israel
4. become the ME big kid on the block in the aftermath

Excellent analysis of the problem.

Saudi Arabia ia a player here, to what extent directly by providing men , materials, and money to Iraqis or indirectly by helping Syria I don't know. Syria is not rich, and I somehow view Syria as kinda neutral in Internal ME conflicts.

Another part of the puzzle here is that I keep hearing reports of clandestine US support for and infiltration of Iranian separatist elements--Kurds in the North-West, Azeris a little further in, the Baluchs in the South-East, let alone our tangled relationship with the MEK. Seymour Hersh has been reporting this sort of thing as a sketchily described given, and intriguing incidents keep popping up here and there.

Leaving to one side how immoral and short-sighted stirring up ethnic divisions is, this sort of interference, if it is in fact occuring on any perceptible scale, would complicate the calculation of Iran's interests. Frankly, it would also make an international diplomatic conference difficult, since the US and the Iraqi Kurds would deny any involvement in internal Iranian affairs. And around and around we go.

Hil: The refugee problem is one of the most pressing, I'd say. According to a just-published report by Refugees International, the crisis is quickly 'spiralling' out of control:

The surging violence in Iraq has created what is becoming the biggest refugee crisis in the world, a humanitarian group said today.


Refugees International said the acceleration in the numbers fleeing Iraq meant it could soon overtake the refugee crisis in Darfur.

"We're not saying it's the largest [refugee crisis], but it's quickly becoming the largest," spokeswoman Kristele Younes said. "The numbers are very, very scary."


The report revealed Iraqi refugees were facing tough restrictions in other Arab countries, preventing them from finding work or gaining access to healthcare and other public services.

Jordan has all but closed the door to Iraqis, and has stopped renewing residency permits for the approximately 500,000 already there.

The kingdom's restrictions have made Syria - which does not require entry visas from Arabs - the leading destination for refugees from Iraq, with around 2,000 entering the country each day, the UN said.

This is a standard collective action problem. There is a type of behavior -- supporting armed factions in Iraq -- that is individually rational for each neighbor, but collectively disastrous for all of them.

I somewhat disagree with this. It's only collectively disastrous if none of the supported factions can break the stalemate and take control; the peril is the collective downward spiral fomented by multiple militias trying to gain the upper hand, each without substantial success, that we're seeing right now.

"Moreover, since it's hard to calibrate the level of instability one will produce (just ask the Bush administration), it's also quite possible that they might have been trying to produce the level of instability they want, but have ended up producing a lot more. In this case, they would have an interest in lessening the amount of instability even though they helped create instability in the first place."

It is possible, but in Iran's case I doubt it. You don't have to accept refugees. You can make them go elsewhere. If Iraq descended into Sudan levels of violence I don't think Iran would really have a problem with that.

Solving collective action problems typically involves more than just identifying a solution which would work if everyone adopted it. It involves giving all participants the confidence that everyone else will adopt it.

That's State Department talk right thar! (Well, less so with Rice.) But even with John Bolton leaving the UN and Bush toning down some of his Cowboy Diplomacy rhetoric, the Bushies are just too entrenched in their power dynamics and pride to adopt such an approach. You allude to the same thing at the end of your post. It really is a sad situation.

Anyway, thanks for a very thought-provoking and articulate post.


Thanks for these clear thoughts expressed superbly, or vice versa.

The horrors devised by this nation and the blood and treasure extracted from the Iraqis by the mad scion of an Amerian family of pharoahs, and abetted by self-interested neighbors, are nothing to be flippant about, and I’m not.

But your image of thousands of Canadians and Canadiens streaming over the border (perhaps on skis?) into the United States doesn’t seem so unwelcome to me, it feels oddly comforting—we’d be no worse off with a few more people from the Up North in my view, and we might benefit from the civilization.

I agree, cubist. Massive Canadian immigration would probably improve the US.

& excellent post, hilzoy. It's ludicrous how rarely a diplomatic perspective is represented in the general discourse about Iraq.

I hadn't thought through what negotiations could produce-- thanks for sharing your notes.

One thing that might be adequate, however, is a commitment on the part of the United States to impose serious costs on anyone who does not keep their side of the bargain.

Er, Hilzoy, there is no bargain. And attempting to craft any bargain with this as a predicate simply won't work.

Given the two extremes of Iraq turning into a new Somalia next door, or the US army coming over the border, Iran and Syria would chose the former any day. And threatening them reinforces this preference.

One thing that might be adequate, however...

Must agree with PiaToR. The problem is not merely that we don't have a leader who would be willing/able to exercise that power, it's that we no longer have that power, period. All of our options have either already been shown to be inadequate (e.g. sanctions, conventional military threats), or constitute an even worse scenario for Iran than the maximum penalty associated with allowing Iraq to become totally chaotic (e.g. first strike nukes).

ISTM Pejman mostly doesn't want the Mullahs to lose any of their bad-guy cred. As long as the Iranian government is exclusively "bad guys" he doesn't have to be sympathetic. As soon as they become responsible for defending the interests of the Iranian people instead of merely oppressing them it creates a dilemma...

Otherwise an excellent post.

I would be shocked if Syria were giving anywhere near as much aid to Sunni insurgents as the Saudis. While Syria is majority Sunni, the ruling family is actually Shiite (Alawites, to be precise - a sect of Shia), which explains the Syrians complex and somewhat friendly relationships with Hezbollah and Iran. Syria is the rare Muslim country where the minority Shiite dominate the majority Sunnis.

Anyway, I think Iran and Syria's positions are a bit more surreal than you describe, Hilzoy. Both would benefit hugely from a Shiite-led Iraq, so they have little interest in strengthening the Sunni insurgency. Yet they also know that the Bush Administration long ago told America's Sunni allies (Saudis, Jordan, Egypt) and Israel something like the following: don't worry about the Shiites taking over Iraq, because we're going to roll through Tehran and Damascus before they can take advantage of it.

What Iran and Syria want is for the US to install a Shiite government in Iraq...and leave. They are actually on Bush's side, so long as Bush doesn't take Step 2, which involves toppling their respective regimes. Here's the question can Bush pull out afer promising our Middle East allies that the US would install a Western-friendly Shiite government in Iraq, then solve the "problem" of Iran and Syria with regime change?

Baker's ISG report may answer this question. It seems to stand for the notion that our old Sunni allies no longer trust the Bush plan. They no longer believe the US can topple Tehran and Damascus, and therefore are VERY uncomfortable with Bush's continued plan to install a Shiite government in Iraq. They would prefer the US to pullout, so they can take matters into their own hands...

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