TCS Daily – Give Civil War a Chance

My latest for TCS, “Give Civil War a Chance,” is up. It began as a blog post replying to a thought-provoking piece by VodkaPundit’s Stephen Green and morphed into something a bit longer.

The bottom line:

We owe it to the Iraqi people to do everything we can to help avert a civil war and give their fledgling democracy a chance. Saving them from themselves, however, is both beyond our power and responsibility. If they decide civil war is the only way to settle their longstanding disputes, we must stand aside and let them fight it and then try to salvage a relationship with the eventual victors. While that would be a bitter pill, indeed, after coming so close to achieving the incredibly ambitious vision of the neo-cons, it would nonetheless be preferable to the other alternatives.

One hopes, obviously, that it does not come down to that choice.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, Published Elsewhere, ,
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. Anderson says:

    Et tu, JJ?

    ROTFLOL … after 3 years of defending our miserable prosecution of this occupation, we now see the latest spin: CIVIL WAR … NOT SO BAD!!!

    Here’s a question to ponder, Bush fans, & I don’t expect it to be answered in this thread. I just want you to think about it, for purposes of intellecutal hygiene:

    What would “failure” look like in our Iraqi adventure? What could happen that would indicate that the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq was a “failure”? Would you know it if you saw it?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: The title is a play on a long-ago article by Edward Luttwak.

    An Iraqi civil war along tribal lines would absolutely be a failure of our mission. No two ways about that.

    Yes, we got rid of Saddam, which is a good thing. But we did that nearly three years and 2000 dead American soldiers ago. So, no doubt that it would be abject failure of the Iraqi democracy project.

    My point is only that, if it comes to that, we have to get the hell out. You don’t compound failure with another failure. It’s one thing to pull out when there’s still a chance of victory but quite another when the cause is lost.

  3. McGehee says:

    What would “failure” look like in our Iraqi adventure?

    The return of Saddam Hussein to power would certainly qualify.

  4. LJD says:

    Andersen, although your question is flawed, it points out the difference between the anti-bush crowd and everybody else. Hopefully I am speaking for a majority of Americans, too. The reason you can’t get a good definition of failure is that, as a defining characteristic of our armed forces (and hopefully our people), we don’t intend to fail at all. You can have setbacks. You can learn from past mistakes. You can adapt and change. But you never fail. Period.

    The debate has nothing to do with our policy on Iraq. It has more to do with people that don’t like G.W., who can’t get over losing two elections. Just like they were hoping to be wrong about WMD, hoping that we DON’T catch Bin Laden, they are hoping for civil war. If there were an answer to your question, it would be the first thing the Bush bashers would grab ahold of and declare ‘What a failure!’ Maybe you should look within yourself and figure out why you want us to fail so badly. Or, perhaps to throw your question back at you, explain an outcome that would not be a failure. Because it seems that’s all you are capable of acknowledging.

    I’m sorry that you feel the liberation of Iraq, the successful completion of free elections, the killing of terrorists, to be a failure. It’s a good thing you weren’t in President Lincoln’s place, we would still be a divided nation.

    On civil war in Iraq, we’re not movingthe goal posts. We have always said it will be up to the Iraqis to determine their own future. We have liberated them from the dictator, provided them with the training and means to stand on their own feet. How can we be responsible of they refuse to do so? Who are we to tell them how to live with one another? (How ironic that is exactly what the kooks say about how we set up a ‘puppet governement’)

    There are divisions that reach beyond our country’s history. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be given a chance…

  5. Anderson says:

    An Iraqi civil war along tribal lines would absolutely be a failure of our mission. No two ways about that.

    Thanks, JJ. I’m afraid my response was conditioned by having seen the “civil war, not so bad” argument being made, by people considerably less smart than OTB posters. So I’m sorry if I misdirected my fire there. Hope we can all agree that “civil war” = “failure.”

    LJD’s Anderson-bashing, in addition to its usual value, is also unintentionally (?) amusing: we don’t have criteria for failure because we intend to succeed?

    What kind of trippy flower-child EST graduates do we have running the country, exactly?

  6. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: Understood. I try not to excerpt much here since TCS pays for the pieces. A paragraph earlier in my article sheds some light on this:

    So long as the fight remains one of the Coalition and the forces of Iraqi democracy on one side and jihadist terrorists and the forces of instability on the other, the United States has a stake in the outcome and even a duty to remain engaged. If, however, it devolves into an Iraqi factional conflict over the internal control of the country, the cause is lost and the United States must leave.

  7. lumberjack says:

    What would “failure” look like in our Iraqi adventure?

    The question isn’t so much what the conservative definition of failure is. The real question is, “Does it differ significantly from the liberal definition of victory?”

  8. ken says:

    So long as the fight remains one of the Coalition and the forces of Iraqi democracy on one side and jihadist terrorists and the forces of instability on the other, the United States has a stake in the outcome and even a duty to remain engaged. If, however, it devolves into an Iraqi factional conflict over the internal control of the country, the cause is lost and the United States must leave.

    James, seeing as we have people right here in America who cannot bring themselves to allow votes to be counted if it might result in the defeat of their party leader, I do not see how you could ever be confident that whatever your definition of ‘democracy’ is it would be anything like what an Iraqi might define it as.

  9. biwah says:

    After reading the post, I almost went the Anderson route of reading it as further backpedaling on our goals so as to redefine, rather than have to admit, failure. In fact, your posting’s lack of optimism , in contrast to some similar posts from others around the web, is immunized from any such criticism by its lack of optimism.

    In the last week, as a response to both Fukuyama’s piece and to the events in Iraq, many people seem to have busied themselves readjusting their sights on the real possibilities in Iraq. Lingering hopes that the insurgency (a) is a definable bloc and (b) will destroy itself with its violent ambitions have been put, for the most part, in their place.

    I enjoyed Stephen Green’s posting, and his capsule history of the Crusades is particularly intriguing. But its optimism concerning the ultimate fruits of civil war (rejection of violence and tyranny) fits along a trend of explanatory backfilling each time the empty promises, false predictions, and manichaean rhetoric of the administration wither away under the weight of poltical realities in Iraq.

    Your piece is more realistic to roughly the same degree that it was less optimistic. You support the statement that in the event of civil war, we have nothing to gain by staying. The intensity of the domestic factions’ involvement will be so high that our efforts will at best be wasted. While this may be especially true if civil war breqks out, it seems that this has been the case from the start. We have always been half-hearted in our commitments, and inexplicably dependent on the notion that the foreign-funded insurgents (versus us) and the major ethnnic groups (versus each other) would be similarly restrained.

    Barbara Conry’s observation that

    Intervening powers are at a disadvantage because their stake in the outcome is usually far smaller than that of the primary combatants

    has been true from the beginning. How is it really changed by Iraq’s crossing the threshold into civil war at some point in the future? We should have heeded this political truism from the start. As a matter of organic political will, we were not invested enough, and overinvested in the appeal of an easy win. We will probably stick around long enough to find out if our hope of Iraq autonomy is indeed unfounded.

    Failing to acknowledge the bleeding (our own, as well as that of the Iraqi populace) has too long prevented us from taking the necessary step to stem it – disengagement.

  10. Alasdair says:

    I have one word for ‘biwah’ …

    BUSHWA !

    Look it up – it applies to the basic premise of the biwah comment ! (And dates back to the first half of the 20th century (or possibly earlier))

    Look here !

  11. Tano says:

    Yes, LJD’s comment is the funniest I have seen in a long time. Failure is simply not a relevant concept here, because we dont wanna fail! Wow. What stunning logic.

    Perhaps he could use that same logic to explain the behavior of democrats, as he describes them in his second paragraph.
    Dems don’t accept “losing” two elections, because, well, y’know, its a defining characteristic of Americans in general that we just dont intend to lose. We can have setbacks. We can learn from past mistakes. We can adapt and change. But we never lose. Period.

  12. Tano says:

    As for the notion of civil war, our acceptance of it, and the search for the silver lining in it.

    The comments here seem to me to send a single clear message. The warriors have played out their hand, and have nothing more of use to offer to the discussion. I imagine that it will be some time before the American people listen again, with such reverential respect, to the advice of militaristic pundits.

  13. G A Phillips says:

    Ken what votes are you talking about and how many votes does a donkey get any how? I can tell you about how Wisconsin has some of the most dirty lowdown burro looking vote 20 times in a row make up names, addresses, tire slashing, voter registration forgers that have ever walked my funny looking little slice of the great blue hell. How come we never get to recount our votes, why dude why, please tell me.

  14. G A Phillips says:

    I will agree with Anderson on this one, civil war will be a failure of the Muslim religion.

  15. LJD says:

    I guess my follow up post didn’t make it. I won’t type it again. The liberal boobs have made my point for me: hung up on failure mentality. You want a definition for failure? How about Americans referring to a war where our boys and girls are dying as so much of a chess game. Our country has failed when its citizens hope for the death of our soldiers to serve their political ideology.

    I am not as willing to accept defeat. If something looks like failure, it’s time to change strategy or re-evaluate the goals. You don’t say ‘better luck next time’ or tuck your tail between your legs and go home (although, the self serving left would love exactly that).

    War isn’t funny or amusing. The fact that my countrymen eagerly sit on the edge of their seats waiting for failure is appalling.

    Again, look in the mirror and ask why you want us to fail so badly. I think there is a fundamental difference in the definition of failure as well. Even with a civil war in Iraq (if it occurs, could not have been prevented) removing Saddam, killing terrorirsts, and forever changing the ME for the positive WAS ALL WORTH IT.

  16. James Joyner says:

    LJD: Nothing of yours in the spam queue, so not sure where the other post went.

    Given that the civil war in Iraq, if it occurs, likely would not have occured had we left Saddam in power, to say that it “could not have been prevented” is a bit glib. Nor is it entirely clear how the ME has been changed for the positve. All that depends on success in Iraq, which we have always defined as a unitary state with secular, democratic government.

  17. Craig says:

    You may or may not have already seen this:

    Spinning the Prosepctive Bloodbath

    Gregory Djerejian responds to your article.

  18. LJD says:

    We could have done somthing more? Like what?
    What about the U.N., international community, arab nations? What have they done to stave off this ‘inevitable’ civil war? I think THEY want it.

    So now we’re supposed to say, ‘it didn’t turn out that well, I guess it was all a mistake’? Hard for me to say, since I don’t feel that way in the slightest.

    On the positives:

    Libya’s WMD, democratic voting in Lebanon, ‘Palestine’, exposing UN corruption, somewhat of a unified stand against Iran, the removal of Saddam, and giving the Iraqi people the choice to stand up for themselves.

  19. G A Phillips says:

    LJD, you have a great mind For understanding the truth, thank you, and keep up the good type.