Give Civil War a Chance, Part II

Gregory Djerejian takes exception to my TCS Daily piece “Give Civil War a Chance,” which he argues is “an abdication of responsibility.”

He cites Steven Weisman’s NYT piece “What a Civil War Could Look Like.”

What if, as Abraham Lincoln famously said of America’s greatest ordeal: “All dreaded it, all sought to avert it … And the war came.”

The greatest fear of leaders throughout the Middle East is that an unrestrained civil war, if it ever comes to that, would not only give birth to warring Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish enclaves inside Iraq, but that the violence could also spread unpredictably through the region.

Some experts have advocated a negotiated breakup of Iraq into three main sectors for the main ethnic and religious groupings. But a violent crackup could not easily be kept stable.

It might well incite sectarian conflicts in neighboring countries and, even worse, draw these countries into taking sides in Iraq itself. Iran would side with the Shiites. It is already allied with the biggest Shiite militias, some of whose members seemed to be involved in the retaliatory attacks on Sunnis after the Shiite shrine bombing last week.

And Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait would feel a need to defend Sunnis or perhaps to create buffer states for themselves along Iraq’s borders. Turkey might also feel compelled to move in, to protect Iraq’s Turkoman minority against a Kurdish state in the north.

If Iraq were to sink deeper into that kind of conflict, Baghdad and other cities could become caldrons of ethnic cleansing, bringing revenge violence from one region to another. Shiite populations in Lebanon, Kuwait and especially Saudi Arabia, where Shiites happen to live in the oil-rich eastern sector, could easily revolt. Such a regional conflict could take years to exhaust itself, and could force the redrawing of boundaries that themselves are less than 100 years old.

Djerejian concludes,

A full blown civil war in Iraq would be a grevious blow to the region, to the U.S. national interest, to America’s prestige on the global stage. I find it just incredible that people are beginning to say it ain’t all that. Remember: you break it, you own it. Are we supposed to sit back and take in the killing fields because, alas, we didn’t quite achieve (so close!) the “incredibly ambitious vision of the neo-cons”. Yes, it’s a regretful business, to be sure, but we tried! What claptrap. I’m sure James Joyner is a nice guy, and his piece is nuanced in parts and stresses that civil war would be a tragedy–but still, how can one seriously in good faith write a piece entitled “Give Civil War a Chance”? But perhaps I’m just a naif….

Honestly, I do not see how one could read the piece and conclude that I think an Iraqi civil war “ain’t all that.”

The title was a play on Luttwak’s “Give War a Chance” article referenced in the piece and a response to the “A civil war is the nastiest way to get a good result” argument advanced by Stephen Green that prompted me to write. I agree with Luttwak and Green that, yes, civil wars sometimes solve major problems but they come at a terrible cost and often engender enmity that continues for generations.

My premise is the same as Weisman’s: If all our efforts to avert civil war fail, what do we do about it? Weisman never answers that question beyond wishful thinking:

Another possible alternative to a huge intervention from the outside could come in the form of an organized regional effort, backed by the United Nations or the Europeans, to broker a political solution. Or Sunni Arab states, through an organization like the Arab League, might try to send in an international force to stabilize the country.

That’s not going to happen. Peacekeepers can be a godsend if there’s a peace to keep but they merely become targets of opportunity otherwise. See the 1990s for a dozen or so examples.

And my TCS piece explains why military intervention by the United States or a coalition of outside forces would likely not achieve good results.

So, what then?

My argument is NOT that civil war would be a good thing but that, if every effort to stop it fails, we must get out. It would be an abysmal failure but it would be better than compounding the failure by taking part in somebody else’s civil war. Weisman’s strikes me as incredibly overblown–essentially, a warmed over version of the Domino Theory that was used to justify war in Vietnam and trotted out again during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s–but we would be in a far greater position to prevent an Iraqi civil war from spreading if we are not bogged down in the middle of it.

(via tip from reader Greg Stuntz)

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    James, I Didn’t comment on this earlier. But P.J. O’Rourke is the originator of the “Give War a Chance” line. That was the title of his 1996 book which talked about Desert Storm. Luttwak’s article was in ’99, as I think you said in your piece.

  2. James Joyner says:

    DCL: Good point. O’Rourke’s book actually came out in 1992. I bought it in grad school about a year after getting back from Desert Storm.

    Photo: Give War a Chance: Eyewitness Accounts of Mankind's Struggle Against Tyranny, Injustice and Alcohol-Free Beer

    I’m not sure if Luttwak stole the title from him or whether it is just a rather obvious play on the simplistic lefty “Give Peace a Chance” line.

  3. Anderson says:

    Unfortunately, not every clever idea is a good idea. Different title, & I think GD might not’ve written his post.

    I mean, you could title a TCS essay “Dirty Stinking Arabs” & then explain how it was an allusion to a line in Finnegans Wake, but that wouldn’t save the title.

  4. just me says:

    I actually agree that if civil war breaks out, the best bet is to back out, rather than trying to stop it.

    I sometimes think the whole Israel/Palestinian conflict would be much better, if we weren’t so busy trying to stop war, and we just let the Israelis and Palestinians fight it out until one side of the other was defeated.

  5. LJD says:

    Yeah! Let those dirty stinkin arabs kill eachother without our intervention. After all we got social programs to pay for….

  6. G A Phillips says:

    Civil war will happen because of Islam, nothing more nothing less, and it’s not give civil war a chance, it’s take a chance and place your bets on when it’s going to commence.

  7. Jonk says:

    It’s those blasted colonial boundries! Redraw them, maybe they won’t notice…


    …well, it was worth a shot.

  8. Randall says:

    It is simply NOT obvious that a civil war in Iraq is, at this point, the worst possible outcome.

    Here’s a worse outcome than a civila war now (or soon):

    American troops spend ten more years failing to bring democracy to Iraq, loose 5,000 more good men and women than have already been lost, and THEN there is a civil war.

    The argument that we “owe” Iraq democracy is predicated on the idea that democracy is a possibility for a part of the world that managed to avoid it for this long.

    If this idea is false, it’s time to go.

    N. O. W.