A reader writes:
I've been following you on Iraq this week, and allow me a dissent. I think your frame is wrong. The fighting in Iraq was not between Sunnis and Shiites per se, as much as between parties that sought a confessional war (al Qaeda, the Iranian special groups, elements of Moqtada al Sadr's Jaish e Mahdi) and those parties that sought to prevent one (the Iraqi government, the US Marines, the Anbar Awakening). The anti-competitive-genocide alliance won. The forces that sought civil war are either destroyed (al Qaeda) or reconciled to the new order of things (most of JAM).
It's always possible that the forces of chaos can reconstitute themselves. Iran has an interest in doing just that. But they will do so without a crucial advantage, support from the local population, who fought side by side with Americans against the agents of chaos for the last 2 years. I think those battles will have a lasting impact and we will see that impact when Iraqis begin to write the history of this period. Also your thesis has to a degree been tested. The Marines have largely left Anbar and the expected reprisals against the Shiite pockets in western Iraq have not occurred.
This rubric, to be perfectly honest, is the first time I've heard how a frame for success could actually work long term. At least the first time I've heard it laid out so crisply and clearly.
I have two worries.
First is that tiny Shiite pockets in Anbar are not the same as Mosul, Kirkuk, Diyala and Baghdad. Second, I suspect that the sectarian divides of the ancient and recent past are deeper forces than recent unifying experiences. But the truth is that neither my reader nor I can know what will happen when US forces start withdrawing. I suspect the worst. I should say this, though: I truly hope he's right. And if this frame really does exist, and if in a couple of years, we see the theoretical possibility of an actual future on these lines, and if keeping residual US forces in the country could help sustain that, and if all Iraqi parties asked us to stay in something more than a symbolic form on those grounds, then one might imagine staying past 2011.
But those are several huge ifs. My Tory pessimism suggests they won't pan out. My American optimism hopes they do. I guess the point is as it long has been: constant vigilance to changing events and a willingness to rethink upon new information. That's what I've tried to do on Iraq these past few years. I hope to keep doing so in the next few as well. If there's still a path to success, we should try to find it.