IF THE INSURGENTS ARE BAATHISTS

What if we have over-estimated the extent of Jihadist influence in the Iraq insurgency? The bad news is: we’re still fighting Saddam. The good news: the insurgents are mainly rational actors trying to rule Iraq again, not crazy Wahabbists intent on Armageddon throughout the Middle East. This is why Zalmay Khalilzad has had some success at brokering some small deals with the Sunni elites. If this is the scenario, even Juan Cole might be hopeful. From a blogger’s account of a recent Cole college talk:

From this theory, though, Juan Cole draws an improbably optimistic conclusion — optimistic at least in a relative sense. Both the insurgency and the government are signaling that their objectives are political, not existential. They each want to rule Iraq, not exterminate the other side — although both sides have their eliminationist wings.

This creates the hope that in Iraq, as in Clausewitz’s doctrine, civil war is the continuation of politics by other means, not the opening salvo of the war of the all against the all. And this at least holds out the possibility (hope would be too strong a word) that the various sides will eventually realize they have to compromise — just as the warring factions in Lebanon brokered a workable peace once the leaders of the major factions decided it was no longer in their interests to keep fighting.

If this is the case in Iraq — if the war is essentially political — then America might not face the Hobson’s choice I’ve feared: Withdraw quickly, leaving behind a genocidal civil war, or stay, and get sucked into a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that itself could turn genocidal. U.S. forces could, in theory, be drawn down gradually, while disengaging from direct combat operations and playing more of a balancing role — preventing the Ba’athists from shooting their way back into power, while trying to stop the Kurds and the Shi’a from overreaching in ways that could break up Iraq entirely and trigger a regional war.

That’s exactly the scenario I lay out in a column tomorrow in the Sunday Times. We should by all means subject our own government to scrutiny. But we are still at war. And it would be insane to give up now, when all sorts of opportunities lie ahead.

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