Iraq is an artificial country, the combination of three former Ottoman provinces with a quite different Muslim group dominant in each province. Few people have significant loyalty to any government of the combination of these provinces, and Iraq can probably be held together only by a strong man who commands the support of the military. After Tito’s death, for example, the former Yugoslavia broke up into six independent governments, and the separation of Serbia and Kosovo is still likely.
My judgment is that the only plausible political equilibria in Iraq are the emergence of a strong man or the fragmentation into three independent governments dominated by the Sunnis, Shia, and the Kurds. A civil war, I suggest, may be the necessary next step toward either of these outcomes. Current U.S. government policy, of course, is to try to achieve an accomodation among these groups without continued violence or an indefinite U.S. military role, an outcome that is desirable but increasingly implausible.
The U.S. government may not have the capability to prevent a civil war in Iraq, and in any case, we may not have a dog in that fight.
Our government, ironically enough, may prefer the emergence of a Sunni strong man to maintain a unified Iraq, someone like Saddam Hussein who is not subservient to Iran; and of course, Hussein was “our” man in the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq war. Fragmentation into three governments would be the preferred outcome only if it did not precipitate a larger regional war. The problem is that the Turks may oppose an independent Kurdistan on their border, and the Saudis may oppose a Shia state subservient to Iran on their border.
The increasing sectarian violence in Iraq may yet be controlled by the military and police forces of the current government without indefinite U.S. military support. Fine, but the Iraqi government should be aware that popular support for an indefinite U.S. military role in Iraq is falling rapidly. In the event of a more open civil war, the U.S. government should avoid taking any side in the conflict and should pursue a loss-minimizing strategy during a rapid phase-out of U.S. troops. In anticipation of a possible fragmentation of Iraq, the U.S. government may still have enough leverage on other governments to reduce the prospect of a larger regional war.
There is no plausibly rewarding outcome to the U.S. role in Iraq. Sometimes, the wisest course, if also the most difficult, is to choose the least bad of a set of bad outcomes.