Let Them Have Their Civil War

By Caleb Carr
Sunday, April 9, 2006

As the violence in Iraq has expanded, analysts have been asking: Are we witnessing the beginning of a formal Iraqi civil war? But far more important when we consider what role our troops might play in the extended fighting is the question: Does the United States have any right to forcibly stop such a war, when and if it begins?

Civil war, as defined by many generations of military theorists, shares characteristics with insurgencies and revolutions, but there are distinct differences, too. Although insurgencies are contests of rival groups, insurgents need not control any appreciable territory to be effective. Civil wars, on the other hand, involve two or more armed groups, each controlling part of a country. And although civil wars, like revolutions, can be influenced by outside forces as well as ideological considerations, sometimes they are merely struggles for power. Still others -- like the American Civil War -- are contests over not just politics or power, but some high motivating moral principle as well.

No such principle would seem to be at play in Iraq, for one of the insurgency's glaring deficiencies has always been its lack of a coherent ideological rallying point for all Iraqis. Its aim, by contrast, has been simple: the return to power of the Sunni Muslim minority that held sway under Saddam Hussein, or, failing that, the kind of endless anarchy that will make any other government's rule impossible. The insurgents have succeeded at the latter: Although an Iraqi National Assembly and executive branch have been created and elected, the assembly has met only once and briefly, and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari is widely viewed as ineffectual and corrupt. Americans, meanwhile, are voicing overwhelming condemnation of the war, creating a perhaps unbridgeable gulf between themselves and the Bush administration. This has always been a basic definition of insurgent success, as it tends to severely restrict the counterinsurgents' time frame for operations.

Thus, all the courage that went into organizing and carrying out Iraqi elections would seem to have produced a government unworthy of the sacrifices made to bring it into being. The resulting frustration is clear in the words and increasingly deadly actions of many Iraqis who appear to be giving up on a political solution to their country's problems. This means mainly the once-persecuted Shiites (who are showing dangerous signs of splintering into fighting sub-factions) and Kurds.

The more the Iraqi government and its U.S. advocates talk about "fairness" for the Sunni minority, the more the violence seems to escalate. The insurgents do not want their people seduced into participating in the new Iraq, while the Kurds and Shiites seem reluctant to afford true national power to the very people who not only made Hussein's genocidal rule possible, but are also leading the insurgency.

This may not be textbook civil war, but it is certainly shaping up to be the beginning of one.

If Americans ever had the power to stave off such a conflict, the past three years of misguided military policy have exhausted it. But military ability to stop a civil war is not the key issue. Nor should excessive concern for our own national security cloud our policy decisions: The first casualties of any expanded fighting will almost certainly be both Saddam Hussein (who has been kept alive thanks to U.S. insistence on his trial -- and thanks to U.S. guards) as well as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is now despised more than Hussein by many Iraqis. No, the real issue of importance for Americans with regard to any impending Iraqi civil war is: Are we morally justified in trying to prevent it?

Before answering, Americans should consider a few facts from our own national experience. Our Civil War was viewed as an exercise in horrendously destructive national suicide by most of the nations of Europe -- and an expensive one at that, for it cut off European textile mills from Southern cotton. Britain and one or two of her fellow members in the European balance of power considered intervening -- but intervention was averted, mostly through the careful warnings of President Abraham Lincoln and his diplomatic corps. They stressed that civil war in America was a more morally complex affair than the usual European grab for power. It was, at its heart, a contest to end the institution of slavery.

If the Europeans found its violence deplorable and horrifying, said Lincoln, that was understandable; so did he. But as he explained in his second inaugural address, in words that we revere so deeply that we have carved them into his memorial:

"If God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' "

Iraqis may refer to their Lord by a different name, but the principle in their case is the same. We are not dealing with several groups of roughly equal recent experience; we are dealing with one extreme minority, the Sunnis, many of whom have for years, under the leadership of the worst international tyrant since Pol Pot, persecuted and murdered the other two -- on a genocidal scale.

As Americans, we cannot condone mass murder as a form of vengeance. But every time an American official tries to tell the Shiites and the Kurds (along with the many smaller minorities in Iraq) that they are not entitled to the same judgments and justice as we ourselves received and wrought from 1861 to 1865, they make civil war in that country more -- not less -- likely. Such statements reveal the blatantly paternalistic, even racist, opinion that what was necessary in the American experience is not something for which the Iraqis are ready or qualified.

Indeed, if polls in Iraq are reliable (and they seem to have been, thus far) then the American presence there is only increasing the likelihood that if civil war comes, it will be more vicious. The presence of U.S. troops, noble as their efforts at control may be, only fuels more rage, since they keep Kurdish and Shiite forces at bay while failing to stop the Sunnis from committing daily murder.

And where is the justice for those murders? It does not emanate from either an assembly that has met once in three months or a U.S.-led coalition that continues to display an extraordinary level of concern for the Sunnis. It may well come, in the end, only from allowing the Kurds and Shiites to fight -- yes, to bloodily settle accounts -- with the Sunnis for themselves.

Not only is it impossible for Americans to stand in the way of an internal Iraqi balancing of the scales, it also reeks of hypocrisy. We went to Iraq, according to our president, to make Iraqis free. If that is so, and if their first decision as a free people is to declare war upon one another, just as Americans once did, where do we derive the right to tell them they may not? We cannot, again, condone genocide (we can even cut it short by keeping land and air units in the region); but neither can we any longer delay justice -- even if it is to be forcibly dispensed.

Yet right now, that appears to be the unenviable position into which the Bush administration and Iraqi insurgents have thrust our troops. Those troops have fulfilled their primary mission of bringing down the Hussein regime, and they have done it well, but even they cannot create or enforce a just peace in a foreign country -- a laundry list of failed recent attempts in other nations should tell us that.

If the Iraqis wish to try it on their own, better that we allow them to use a mixture of their own militias and conventional forces -- the kind of combination that fought our Civil War. That way, we at least accord them the respect of equals. They may even remember, one day, that we did. And that memory may, over time, ease the bitterness created by occupation.

Caleb Carr is the author of "The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians" (Random House). He teaches military studies at Bard College.

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