Friday, December 22, 2006

Welcome Aboard

A View of Iraq

There is a phenomenon that has been repeated several times in recent world history: countries that were assembled by force and made up of regions with populations that differ in religion, ethnicity, language group, race, etc. The former Soviet Union was one such, Yugoslavia was yet another. These nations were held together by quite ruthless leaders who tolerated no sectarian violence, no fighting between ethnic groups. Their efficient secret police would arrest or kill those who caused trouble. Iraq under Saddam was such a country.

When these nations lost their autocratic systems, long-suppressed ethnic tensions broke out quickly. The inertia of decades of nationhood was insufficient to hold together their quarreling parts. The Soviet Union simply fell apart, as did Yugoslavia. We see Iraq doing the same today.

Saddam’s secret police and military would tolerate no private militias or fighting between groups. Their attacks on the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south were enough to maintain the Baathist Sunni dominance. They killed tens of thousands of their own citizens in pursuit of this end. They did, however, maintain civil peace.

Now the United States and Britain, with some help from allies, are trying to recreate the conditions for civil peace in Iraq. They are unlikely to succeed because they are unwilling to terrorize the various populations into submission, as Saddam did.

Iraq presents conditions almost ideally suited for our failure. It is argued, by Joe Biden and others, that since Iraq apparently cannot function as a nation, it should be divided into three parts. There are, however, two major reasons why this cannot work. First, virtually all of the oil is produced in the non-Sunni parts of the country. If Iraq split up, the Sunnis would be without income. Second, the Turks reject an independent Kurdish entity on their border.

The Kurds of northern Iraq are Sunnis but not Arabs. They constitute a part of the Kurdish region that overlaps eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and northern Iran. They would like to form Kurdistan, a nation of Kurds. This is something that Turkey cannot tolerate. An independent Kurdish state on Turkey’s border would provide support and arms to Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Iran would not be pleased with Kurdish unrest in their northern regions either.

The Sunnis of central Iraq, Bagdad and Anbar Province, are the former rulers of Iraq and do not relish minority status. Across most of the Arab world, Sunnis apparently view the Shia the way U.S. Episcopalians view snake-handling fundamentalist Christians. That is, as sort of primitive, half-crazy low-lifes whose existence can be tolerated in menial positions but whose dominance in public life would be unthinkable.

Needless to say, the Shia majority in Iraq doesn’t share this view of their station in life. Encouraged by Iran next door, the Iraqi Shia want to run Iraq. If one-man-one-vote means anything, they probably will do so eventually.

Under these conditions, it isn’t clear that a democratic Iraq can function successfully. A betting person would bet against that outcome.