A Worst Best Case Scenario in Iraq

Robert Kaplan, who supported the war in Iraq, now thinks the best we can hope for is to avoid a Sunni genocide by dividing the country into “Iranian and Syrian zones of influence.”

What we should all fear is a political situation in Washington where a new Congress forces President George W. Bush to redeploy, and Bush, doing so under duress, makes only the most half-hearted of gestures to engage Iraq’s neighbors in the process. That could lead to hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq, rather than the tens of thousands we have seen. An Iran that continues to enrich uranium is less of a threat to us than genocide in Iraq. A belligerent, nuclear Iran is something we will, as a last resort, be able to defend against militarily. And it probably won’t come to that. But if we disengage from Iraq without publicly involving its neighbors, Sunni Arabs—who will bear the brunt of the mass murder—will hate us for years to come from Morocco to Pakistan. Our single greatest priority at the moment is preventing Iraq from sliding off the abyss.

A tottering Iraq, informally divided into Iranian and Syrian zones of influence, even as Iran continues to enrich uranium, is an awful prospect. But it is not without possibilities: states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to balance against the new Shiite hegemony, will implicitly move closer to us and to Israel, perhaps providing useful assistance in a settlement of the Palestinian issue. Meanwhile, Teheran and Damascus will become further enmeshed in Iraq’s problems. Future violence in Mesopotamia will become their fault; not ours. The weak border between Syria and the fundamentalist Sunni region of Iraq could well undermine the Alawite regime. We will manage.

What we will not be able to manage is a genocide, mainly of the Sunnis, that we alone will be seen as responsible for. Any withdrawal—with all of its military, diplomatic, economic aid, and emergency relief aid aspects—has to be as meticulously planned-out as our occupation wasn’t. Staying the course may be a dead end. But don’t think for a moment that “redeploying” is any less risky than invading.

If the alternatives are “stay the course” and this, the former is looking mighty good.

I’m a big fan of Kaplan’s work at the Atlantic and his book Imperial Grunts is in the stack I plan to read this week. But, while I agree that a haphazard American withdrawal could precipitate mass slaughter to make the current levels look like ordinary street crime, it’s hard for me to fathom that a tacit agreement to partition the country as client states would have a different effect.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tano says:

    The talk of dividing the country strikes me as one more manifestation of this strange notion that the United States of America has any sort of a legitimate role in deciding the political structure for the nation of Iraq. And doing so by force. Whatever happened to the notion that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed”, rather than from the preferences of foreign powers?

    To the extent that we put our weight behind such a scheme, we would then incur the responsibility to enforce it. Given the problems with supporting the singular government of Iraq, what are the prospects of supporting three regional governments, and managing the interactions between them – for long enough so that some semblance of domestic tranquility can take hold?

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s precious little support on the ground in Iraq for that plan. As best as I can tell, only the Kurds favor it.

    It strongly looks to me as though opinion in the United States, especially among the elites regardless of party, has decided that the U. S. will withdraw from Iraq. I’ve seen little in the way of explanation of how this furthers U. S. interests.

    As I noted this morning (commenting on this article and a column by George Will), it’s hard for me to see how removing our troops from Iraq will improve our ability to influence events there. That’s what Kaplan is referring to as “a bet”.

  3. tylerh says:

    Um, Dave, I don’t thnk many people think removing our troops from Iraq will improve our ability to influence events there. Rather, the “Bring ’em Home” school of throught is more of a muddled confluence of

    1. “things probably won’t get too much worse”,
    2. “we’ll improve our ability to influence events other places”, and
    3. “Fewer Americans will die”