The Glide Path of Iraq

One of the key reasons for Bush pushing for an invasion of Iraq was to have a single central government for American businesses, particularly oil businesses, to do deals with. The reason for the central government of what is currently termed “The Republic of Iraq” was to have an entity that could override local control. However, this, in my view, was never going to happen. As with Afghanistan, the was destined to be an intermediate phase of “de facto partition” of Iraq. In Afghanistan de facto partition can be maintained, at some cost, by the United States, because there is no single overwhelming resource which Afghanistan produces, and having a disunified geographical expression, rather than a country or nation, is more or less the status quo for much of Afghanistan’s history. It was Russia’s attempt to impose a central government which cost it so much, had it been willing to merely have a buffer zone on its flank, it could have left Afghanistan much sooner with much lower losses.

Broder in the Post says that it is time to think about de facto partition, and that means we are starting to turn towards the time when it is really time to think about what has always been the most likely endgame in Iraq – a strong man who pumps the oil and demands that we don’t ask too many questions about how much blood is mixed in with it.

The argument for de facto partition is relatively simple: to maintain fiat over all of Iraq requires enough force, and enough incentives, to cajole, force, and bribe the various factions rooted in sectarian identity and geographical interest into coöperating. However, US failure to rebuild Iraq, and the failure of a string of security plans – some drafted and implemented by individuals of suspicious backgrounds and blank page pasts – leaves the viability of this outcome in doubt. It wasn’t impossible, but given the information about the managerial capabilities of Bush, and the people Bush appointed to run the occupation, it was never likely.

In the world of investment, one doesn’t just look at the idea, one looks at the management team, and the management team in this case was never up to the job.

Thus, goes the partition argument, allow the different groups to control their own sections, and force some kind of agreement on the oil revenue, is far preferable to an open ended committment by the United States. The Biden plan is an attempt to get the benefits of partition – namely reduced exposure to security risk, without losing the advantage of the single central government on the oil:

The current constitution gives the 18 provinces of Iraq the right to form regional groups. Biden would retain control of defense, foreign policy and oil resources for the central government now on the way to formation, but he would let the regional governments largely run their own affairs.

This is, he told me, not a call for partition. It is a recognition of what he considers a reality — that the component parts of Iraqi society need “breathing space” to adjust their relations, rather than continue down the present road, where militias loyal to one side or the other are engaged in wanton killing and ethnic cleansing.

This of course, is a fantasy. Biden is not being sensible, he is being absurd. It is control of the oil resources, and their unequal physical distribution, which is driving the current conflict. In essence, the Iraq civil war is a giant futures market for control of the oil. Those areas with large oil reserves are willing to settle for a division based on possession, while those that are not, particularly the Sunnis, want some other distribution. Since the major leaders of the Sunni rebellion remember a time of “winner take all” or at least most – their division will not be acceptable to factions that believe they could do better.

There are two basic sources of revenue in Iraq – oil, and the money from running holy sites. This conflict has revolved around the oil, the mosques, and the metropolitan center of Baghdad, since control of this leaves open the possibility of control of everything. Giving the parts “breathing space” means that all of them will unit against the possibility of a dominant control over the center. We’ve just witnessed this with the fall of the Ibrahim Jaafari after his failure to form a government – the other factions, with enough of the Shiite votes out of he favor of the coalition which backed Jaafari, could agree on little else except that they didn’t want a narrow plurality in control.

Biden’s plan, then, while it calls for the US to stop trying to impose fiat over much of Iraq, is really a gateway to the strong man government – the strong man who controls the capital, the resources we care about, and leaves the rest of the country to meager subsistence. It is a recipe that has been cooked in Africa many times, and while it can often hold power for long stretches, it assures another cycle of upheaval – after some intermittently profitable extraction by Western countries. At some later point the populace grows outraged at the opulence of the expatriots and starts taking matters into their own hands, with unpredictable, but bloody, results.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Areas left to their own devices will pursue comparative advantage. That advantage will be exporting lawlessness and turning their most abundant resource – unemployed, enraged and hopeless military age males – into guerillas and enforcement officers.

What Biden is proposing then, requires a strong man, because only a strong man will be able to strike outwards at any gathering storms, with sufficient savagery and brutality, to impose the kind of “single point of contact” cleanliness which Biden, Bush and the bouncing baby billionaires to be in the Iraqi oil business want.

This piece gives an insight into why Bush is continuing to wield power so freely, according to elites he is doing basically the right things: keeping taxes on elites low, invading Iraq and maintaining a high profitable recovery – it is merely his ideological rigidness and unwillingness to share some of the profits which is causing less than optimal implementations of those projects. Americans aren’t going to get to vote on the Iraq War this 2006 election, nor in the 2008 election, because settled elite opinion is that it was a good idea that was badly run.

In short, they believe we can’t be on the wrong track, because there is only one track to be on.

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Stirling Newberry


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  • I think it might have been Richard Meyers – we didn’t go into Iraq for oil, but we will probably have to stay there because of oil.

    It’s the same argument you are making about elite thinking; there is only one track to be on, we just need to find the right management talent to make the effort a success. And so we get opinion pieces like those of Shelby Steele in the WSJ, arguing that we need to shed white-man’s guilt and use all of the military power at our disposal to subjugate the Iraqis. This presumably will allow for the peaceable extraction of oil for years to come, and maybe as an added bonus the implantation of liberal democracy in Iraq.

    The trouble with the Shelby Steele argument, aside from its moral destitution, is that we have already tried Shock and Awe, Abu Graib torture tactics, wholesale devasation of cities like Fallujah, and endless night patrols bashing down doors and rounding up suspected terrorists. What other violence, short of even more destruction of urban centers, can be inflicted that will be productive and bring about subjugation?

    There are two ways to impose order on a society fractured by civil war and the collapse of social order: take the Vietnamese and Syrian route (with Cambodia and Lebanon, respectively), and move in your troops after the country is exhausted with war and willing to accept an imposed order; or turn into Saddam Hussein and create a police state.

    With the Iraq civil war just underway, the time is not ripe for imposing order; in fact our troops today are struggling not to impose order, but to avoid taking sides overtly in the current situation. As to creating a police state, we don’t speak the language and we don’t live there. In the long and short run, that is the great weakness of American pacification and subjugation efforts. This is one thing where Bush and Rumsfeld were originally correct: our military is not designed for nation-building. Bush has changed his mind about this (though Rumsfeld never has), but even Bush may be forced to flip-flop and concede we cannot create a Saddam lite regime.

    That means the civil war has to play out until a local strong man emerges (out of the many war lords that will contend for power).

    One other thing Iraq has shown the world is that war in a country rich with oil is devastating to that country’s oil industry. It is so easy to sabotage the pipelines, production wells, refineries and shipping ports. This new type of warfare has to be taken into account when discussing long term solutions for Iraq, or the potential for the conflict to spread to Iran or Saudi Arabia. It is essential in oil producing countries to have a working civil order and a strong governmental ability to protect the oil industry.

    This is another reason why the strong man solution, while perhaps the only answer for those seeking a unified Iraq, will take a long time to play out. Just grabbing on to a few oil wells does not guarantee that someone else won’t extract from that same field, or that the oil can be brought to market. The strong man has to provide security over a vast area and many different nodes of oil production require protection. To the extent no one person can pacify and control the whole country, each war-lord dominated sector with oil will have to construct an entire vertical industry of oil production, refining, and distribution within their own territory. This is much less efficient that what Iraq had under Saddam, and implies a built-in cost to any oil coming out of Iraq in the future.

  • That means the civil war has to play out until a local strong man emerges (out of the many war lords that will contend for power).

    It is the fault of the United States policy Iraq is now headed into civil war. You can’t possibly stand back and let thousands of innocent lives be sacrificed until a strong man emerges? Seems to me there is strong American protest over the genocide in Dafur …

  • It’s very simple.

    I am Saddam. Saddam I am.

    I do not like green eggs and ham.

    Would you whack me with a stick

    then give my boots another lick?

    No, Saddam! No!

    Saddam is a bad dictator.

    Bad dictator! Bad!

    Saddam must scram.

    Scram, Saddam, scram!

    A good dictator we will cram.

    Good dictator, good!

    Cram, dictator, cram!

  • The top 10 failed states


    Chaos in western region of Darfur has undermined the peace dividend from the end of the north/south civil war

    Democratic Republic of Congo

    Millions have been displaced by a bloody internal conflict that has lasted for decades

    Ivory Coast

    Protracted civil war has shattered country and government has only now met after two-year hiatus


    In political deadlock and on the verge of civil war after US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein


    Facing starvation and in economic freefall under the regime of Robert Mugabe


    Destabilised by Darfur fighting


    Still in near anarchy under warlords. Government has only recently returned from Kenya


    Massive human rights abuse and popular unrest followed a US-backed regime change


    Tensions between secular government and popular Islamist pressure


    Taliban insurgency on rise again and government hemmed in at Kabul

    List compiled by the US magazine Foreign Policy

    Full article :

  • At this stage the United States is quite limited in its ability to influence the situation in Iraq, even though, as you say, it is the fault of the U.S. that Iraq is headed into civil war. There is simply no evidence that at the present troop strength, and with all the air power that is now being applied, the U.S. is able to impose civil order in Iraq. It has been completely unable to prevent car bombings and suicide bombings, and is obviously unable to stop the daily episodes of killings and sectarian intimidation which lead to the forced exile of thousands who wind up in refugee camps.

    It will take hundreds of thousands of more troops to even begin to hope that the U.S. can improve the security situation in Iraq. Accordingly, what I have recommended in an earlier diary is a reinstatement of the draft in the U.S., with no exemptions allowed for the wealthy or for college (and I’ve got a child in college at the moment). This is in part because the U.S. general population has no stake in the war in Iraq or a potential war in Iran, other than coping with the high price of oil. If the U.S. is to halt its slide into a rogue nation waging indiscriminate, preemptive war, the average person has to have a personal interest in the destruction that results from war. Only then will there be some serious questioning of what Bush is up to or intends to do next.

    Even then, I am not sure throwing double the number of troops into the situation will really help, if there aren’t enough interpreters willing to work with U.S. forces. We would still be stumbling around blind in an alien landscape, getting only occasional glimpses of reality.

    If after all this the U.S. still fails to restore order, Iraq and its neighbors will be left to their own devices: the result would be a stalemate among warlords, or intervention by Iran or Syria or Turkey to restore order in areas adjacent to their border, or the emergence of a strong warlord to unite the country under what would likely be a despotic regime.

    I wish I had some better ideas to prevent the deaths of thousands more Iraqis, but I don’t, and if such a tragedy occurs, the critical question to ask is why the Bush administration and the American people didn’t foresee all this happening in March 2003.

  • But the warlords who will rise to power in Iraq may well be nasty characters. In the southern, Shia areas we are already seeing an Iranian style fundamentalism being imposed, complete with Sharia courts and summary trials and prison sentences. The Kurds are following their own path and there is now evidence they are perpetrating ethnic cleansing of Arabs and Turkmen in the Kurdish north. Whoever will rise to unite the Sunnis will mostly likely have learned the arts of governance at Saddam’s court.

    Now if one of these warlords wants to wage war on the others and establish dominance over all of Iraq, is is going to be the person least like Mohatma Gandhi.

  • If your President follows his present plan for Iran, he’ll soon have Iraqis ‘and’ Iranians after American throats, followed closely by the entire Middle east who’ll be after your heads.

    The genie is out of the bottle and it isn’t about to be stuffed back in.

    Democracy doesn’t work in countries that haven’t had any, especially ones that are attracted to theocracies. Someone should have told the neocons that.

    If you don’t wish to lose more troops, get them out now. Defeat won’t wear well in America, but the loss of the troops will be a complete disaster. It really is coming down to taking your lumps now or later.

    That hopelessness of it gives me no pleasure. More than 2,000 American troops have already given their lives in this mad pursuit.

    The alternative, of course, is to accept that Iraq and Iran have elected a theocratic governments and work with them slowly to bring changes. I’d start with the women–educate them because they have an influence on the children in the home. Through education, attitudes will change, but it will take at least a generation before you see any differences in attitudes. Mostly Iraqis need jobs. Put them to work building schools instead of dropping bombs on them. Fulfill your promises to bring services to them.

    Try to help them with their ban on militias. You won’t be successful with the Kurds, but they’re relatively secular.

    Iran’s biggest beef is you won’t let them have nuclear power to generate electricity is because they are ‘Islams’. America in their hypocrisy rewards Pakistan, India, and Israel and leaves them out in the cold. You could work with them too and bring about change, but it will be gradual. There are many persians who would like a more secular government, but they are deeply suspicious of American motives.

  • That’s an excellent metaphor that some politician should use. It explains well the Democratic party dilemma, when they are constantly being asked “what’s your solution”? Either the Americans spend even more lives and treasure trying to bottle the genie, or else allow it to exhaust itself at the cost of terrible suffering for the Iraqis. There’s no good answer to this.

  • answer me this.

    How is it possible to build a gigantic new embassy with all the comforts of home? Power and water to spare while Iraqi’s don’t have consistent power and water. Surely you realize they notice it?

    Nothing is ever completely hopeless.

    You have to bring consistency to your foreign policies in the Middle east and have respect for the people who live there. If they choose to elect theocracies, you can’t change them overnight to electing secular governments.

    Great changes were done in Japan and Germany in one generation, but enormous resources were poured in. And Japanese and Germans aren’t Islamics.

    Much is unknown to western civilizations, but Islam is proving to be highly resistant to secularization.

    May I suggest a first step would be to develop a policy in Israel that doesn’t always fail to see that Palestinians are victims too. If Islamic countries saw movement toward equality, they would be less resentful.


    You might not be able to get the Genie back into the bottle, but you could decrease its presence in size.

    Sure as hell, you aren’t going to win hearts and minds in Iraq by carving their country into three pieces as Biden suggests. The militias will still be there and they will grow and attack each piece when they have enough strength. And Biden’s plan is totally unworkable in Baghdad…how does he plan to slice that city up?

  • Especially what you say about Israel. It would improve things a lot in the Middle East if the U.S. were even-handed with Israel and recognized exactly what you said: Palestinians are victims of unjust and illegal land grabs by Israel. A U.S. president who said that the borders of Israel are those set by the UN in 1947 would cause an uproar and do a lot to redress the bias in U.S. policy against Palestinians.

    Instead what we see is no reaction yesterday in the U.S. to Olmert’s statement that Israel hasn’t decided yet where its new borders will be. In fact I didn’t see any reaction anywhere to what is really an outrageous statement by a world leader asserting that his country alone can decide sovereign borders. At least in the U.S., few people question Israeli statements or policies, many ignore what is going on there, and Congress is terrified of offending AIPAC and other extreme elements of the Israel lobby. The controversy over AIPAC’s role as described in the Harvard/UofC report published in London has been relegated to academic circles or in Juan Cole’s Informed Comment. The average American knows nothing about the Israel lobby or its influence.

    One of the odd developments in the Bush administration has been watching him try to find this balance towards Israel with this four power talks, only to see him reined in each time by Sharon. And here we are with Olmert taking on the same role, lecturing the U.S. that something needs to be done about Iran’s nuclear program now. The only public cracks in this wall of silence about Israel have been an occasional column by Thomas Friedman, and one recent one by Molly Ivins.

    So at the moment I have to despair of any change to a sensible and balanced policy towards Israel. Quite the contrary: the Bush administration may well be planning to address Olmert’s complaints about Iran, and thereby widen the whole Iraqi mess into a Middle East mess.

    It must be horrible in Canada watching this all unfold and being powerless to affect the outcome, but increasingly this is what many of us here feel as well.

  • what is happening south of our borders, but believe we’ll deteriorate at the same rate if Harper gets a majority. So if misery loves company, we’ll probably be joining you shortly.

    We have great friends in North Carolina and their lives appear unaffected by partisan politics. I do believe they voted twice for the republican party and now regret it. Whether their dissatisfaction will translate into voting for the democrats, I don’t know and it’s not my business to enquire unless they volunteer this information. The topic of politics very seldom comes up when we come to the States. We do have to turn off the AM channel to escape the non-stop blather of talk radio.

    It’s only on boards like this, that I speak my mind freely. Politics aren’t even discussed in our household. My family and I aren’t exceptional in that regard.

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