Chaos Hawks Revisited

by Reihan

Last year Kevin Drum wrote a smart post about "Chaos Hawks." I found the post particularly interested because I suppose I've become a "Chaos Hawk."

As long as the Chaos Hawks are able to panic the public into believing that withdrawal will result in a Middle East in flames and ten dollar gasoline at home, no Congress will have the backbone to defund the war and force a pullout. This means that it's time for more sensible regional professionals to screw up their courage and tell the truth: pulling out won't be pretty, but if it's done prudently neither will it be Armageddon. The sooner we figure this out, the sooner we can leave Iraq.

Why was Drum so confident that there would be no regional conflagration?

Israel has fought war after war in the Middle East. Result: no regional conflagration. Iran and Iraq fought one of the bloodiest wars of the second half the 20th century. Result: no regional conflagration. The Soviets fought in Afghanistan and then withdrew. No regional conflagration. The U.S. fought the Gulf War and then left. No regional conflagration. Algeria fought an internal civil war for a decade. No regional conflagration.

All this seems to depend on how one defines "regional conflagration," of course. Jordan and Pakistan and Turkey might quibble with Drum's characterization, and of course the anti-democratic turn in Algeria may have indirectly increased the reach and lethality of Islamist terrorists. Then, of course, there is the question of scale, and prospect of regional rallying effects and proxy fighting and the fact that Iraq is one of the big swing producers of oil. This doesn't seem like a totally trivial fact. I realize that this immediately makes American motivations suspect, but consider how our allies in the region and around the world will really react, not rhetorically react, to an American decision to "cut our losses." Of course, we shouldn't let allies dictate our foreign policy. John Bolton agrees with you there. But it's worth thinking through the practical implications.

This overfamiliar debate came to mind as I read Tom Engelhardt on the surge strategy.

As a start, the surge-followed-by-pause solution the Bush administration whipped up is a highly unstable, distinctly impermanent strategy. It was never meant to do much more than give Iraq enough of the look of quiescence that the President's war could be declared a modest "success" and passed on to the next president. It relies on a tenuous balancing of unstable, largely hostile forces in Iraq -- of Sunni former insurgents and the Shiite followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, among others. It is unlikely to last even until the November presidential election.

And it's true that this is a vexing balancing act. Juan Cole observes that new tensions are arising between Sadrists and the Badr Brigade.

But what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean a new round of violence, or that both factions will be forced to look to the U.S. as a guarantor of a tenuous peace? John Robb, a staunch critic of the war, recently observed that thanks to the Anbar Awakening, there is a strange sense in which

the US is now leading both the insurgency and the counter-insurgency in Iraq.

Which suggests that though the situation is certainly not great, it is not great in a way that requires a different framework. The anti-imperialists are right: we find ourselves in the role of an imperial umpire. If you have a strong ideological objection to, say, our "our garrisoning of the southern part of the Korean peninsula for well over half a century with no end yet in sight," as Englehardt does (and as I do, for different reasons), well, indulging your strong ideological preference will have a very high cost. As long as casualties glide downward, there is good reason to believe that the United States will be in Iraq for decades, and that key Iraqi actors and other regional and global allies and, yes, powerful domestic commercial interests (i.e., the 299 million Americans who depend on auto-mobility) will want us there.