We – the Coalition of the United States and Britain - invaded Iraq in 2003 and thereby triggered the progressive deterioration in intercommunal relations in that country. Against the express wishes of the United Nations and most governments in the world – and (especially in Britain!) the express wishes of large parts of our civilian populations, we invaded a sovereign state (an undeniable act of war!) and overthrew its government. The supposed justification for this unprovoked aggression was ‘intelligence’ that Iraq still had hidden stockpiles of ’weapons of mass destruction’ and was not co-operating with the United Nations weapons inspectors. While the actual intent in these respects of the then-Iraqi government is still a matter of contentious debate, the post-war search for these ‘WMD’ failed completely to find anything remotely resembling a capable ’weapon of mass destruction’. There remains much speculation that the American and British governments manipulated the available ‘intelligence’ to make ‘the case for war’.
So, as we have watched the near-daily slaughter escalate over the past four years, I have felt that, because we triggered the mess – ie: at root, it’s our fault! - our troops should stay and try to contain the deteriorating situation while ‘political solutions’ were sought. Unfortunately those who were doing the trying and imposing of ‘solutions’ seemed to have little idea of what might actually work.
Reluctantly, over the past couple of months, as the much-vaunted American ‘surge’ in Baghdad has succeeded only in displacing insurgents to wreak havoc in areas outside the city (as well as deadly effective bombs inside it), I’ve begun to think that maybe it is time to stand the troops down and let the factions get on with their bloodbaths. That, for the time being at least, Iraq is lost.
In April 2007, 12 British soliders died, 104 American troops and approximately 1,500 Iraqi civilians.
The latest Chatham House Middle East briefing paper is ‘Accepting Realities in Iraq’ by Dr Gareth Stansfield. It notes the following:-
# In the South British troops are fighting Shia militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr;
# Also in the South there is much in-fighting amongst Shia groups;
# In Baghdad there is effectively a Sunni-Shia mini-civil war;
# In the centre Sunni tribesmen and insurgents are fighting Sunni forces linked to al-Qaeda;
# In the North and the centre the Americans are fighting a Sunni militia;
# In the North Kurds are fighting non-Kurds (Sunnis, Shias and Americans if they get in the way);
# In and amongst this bands of criminals operate across the county with virtual impunity.
There simply appears to be no end – and no possible end – to the killing in sight.
What are the options?
The United States military is the most awesome force ever conceived this side of a science fiction blockbuster. It does have the technology and the firepower to close and hold down a country even the size of Iraq.
What the US lacks is the willpower. No President wants to preside over bodybags arriving home by the planeload on an hourly basis – and how would he or she stop the media reporting the sheer brutality of the methods used and the hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of Iraqi lives such an endeavour would cost? And how would America square its strategies with both the resultant horror and anger in the Islamic world fuelling new wave after new wave of anti-Western terrorism and the repugnance in much of the rest of the world at such measures?
With no understanding of how to create workable political solutions, American forces could be tied up on such a colossal basis for years, leaving the country vulnerable militarily and drained financially even to the point where it ended up no longer an economic superpower.
The status quo is not an option because there is no status quo. The US and Britain are losing – both politically and in lives – with Iraq sliding almost daily into greater turmoil. The Coalition needs to throw a lot more lives at the problem before they make any kind of positive difference.
Nor is complete withdrawal any answer – no matter how much certain politicians and sections of the media call for it. And no matter how much significant numbers of the general public want it too.
For one thing the Middle East has massive geopolitical importance – not least because of the massive oil deposits along the Gulf of Arabia. Maintaining influence on – if not outright control of – that oil is a key strand in America’s strategies to maintain its economic lead in the world.
Then there is the cause of the United States’ friend, Israel, surrounded by implicitly-hostile countries like Egypt and explicitly-hostile ones such as Syria. No American President can afford to offend the ultra-powerful Jewish lobby in Washington while Israel tends to champion American interests in the Middle East. The prospect of Iran developing an offensive nuclear weapons capability is something neither Washington nor Tel Aviv will countenance. If the Americans don’t take care of it either diplomatically or through a ’surgical’ military strike, then Israel will. Given the Israelis’ past record on these sorts of things, it would be doubtful if their strike would be anything like as ‘surgical’ as an American one.
Then there is the problem of ‘Kurdistan’. If the Americans abanoned Iraq, that would effectively give the Kurds in the North the green light to break away from Iraq and seek to entice the Kurds in the South-East of Turkey to join them in creating Kurdistan. Such moves would almost certainly bring military intervention from Turkey and could lead to destabilisation of that country, a member of NATO.
If the Coalition withdraw completely, there is every likelihood Iran would intervene actively to support the Shias in Iraq – possibly even to the point of seeing Iranian tanks on Iraqi soil. There is little chace Saudi Arabia would stand by while Iraqi Sunnis were massacred in large numbers by Iranians or the country became a satellite of Tehran. Of course, the Saudis don’t have much in the way of military capability (relatively speaking) but their money and their oil have made them powerful friends, most notably the United States. And here’s where the Americans are caught on the horns of yet another dilemma: if they don’t play the Saudis’ game, that will almost certainly result in the dreaded al-Qaeda increasing their influence in the country.
So, no win for the Americans there. Withdrawing completely is not a feasible option.
That probably leaves the best short-term option as standing by and letting them get on with it – ‘holding the ring’ as it were by keeping the Iranians and other interested parties out while the Iraqis resolve their internal disputes in blood. The Americans have the technology to monitor Iraq’s borders and the resources to mount interventions from carriers in the Gulf and air bases in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Turkey to prevent outside interference. It might be possible to wind Colation troop levels inside Iraq down to near-nominal level while strengthening a sort of ‘ring of steel’ around the country to minimise outside intervention.
Effectively the option I’m (somewhat reluctantly) advocating here is to throw the various Iraqi factions into a secured bear pit and say, “Fight!”
Horrible! Hundreds of thousands – possibly millions! - will die. Many more will be injured and maimed; and most likely tens of millions of people will be displaced. The country would be devastated for the best part of a decade.
But Western military casualties should be relatively light; and it should be possible, for the most part, to keep the Iranians, the Syrians, the Saudis and al-Qaeda out.
In face of such an apolyptic prospect, many Iraqis may blink and step back from the abyss, withdrawing their support for the extremists and isolating them. Hopefully many of them would do that sooner, rather than later.
It may be that media reporting of the unrestrained bloodletting shames many governments in the rest of the world into providing sufficient support to the Americans in troops and logistics that a truly comprehensive and sustainable occupation of Iraq could be implemented.
It could be that, after several years of largescale carnage, enough Iraqis to make a difference tire of the killing and start demanding peace. (Conflict after conflict, from the American withdrawal from Vietnam to the collapse of terrorism in Northern Ireland, has shown so often that when the bulk of the general population grow weary of the bloodshed and withdraw their support from extremist positions, then is the best chance to work for peace.)
How ever Iraq comes to the point where enough of the population want peace for it to be feasible, rather than a fantasy, then those who started this and have enough firepower to enforce a peace at least in the very short term – ie the Americans - must be ready to step in with political and social mechanisms that the Iraqis understand, want and can use.
To find your way around, it helps to have a map
It is now generally acknowledged that, when the Coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, the military planners knew how to win the war – which they did in fairly spectacular style – but few people in the Washington decision-making loops seemed to have much idea how to win the peace.
Beyond expecting Iraqis to greet the incoming troops as ‘liberating’ them from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime – which initially many Iraqis did – little thought seems to have been given to how to rebuild the country with a form of politics the majority of people could subscribe to.
There has been much speculation as to how such sophisticated and advanced thinkers as the analysts and strategists working for the White House, the Pentagon, the Defense Department, the State Department and 10 Downing Street could have got it so badly wrong. Clearly there was a lack of 2nd Tier thinking. But the more limited 1st Tier approaches were reinforced by the phenomenon Irving Janis (1972) named ‘Groupthink’. Key decisions were taken by George W Bush, Donald Rumpsfeld, Tony Blair and small self-contained groups who rerely referenced outside their own immediate circles but instead played back to each other their ever more fantastical conceptions of what is and what should be. It is common knowledge that Blair (who himself was kept out of some of Bush’s decision-making loops) ignored the majority of his Cabinet’s reservations about going to war with Saddam and tended to discuss it almost only with those who reinforced his views.
Thus, the American planners made little attempt to understand the complexities of the very different Iraqi society – societies? - and instead assumed a minimalist force of occupation could set up Western style democratic institutions.
If the planners had used the Spiral Dynamics map of emergent motivational systems to understand Iraqi culture(s), attitudes and behaviours as part of their pre-invasion planning, they would have seen that a quite different politcal set-up was required to the Western democracy model.
John Berry (1969), the acclaimed psychologist specialising in cross-cultural studies, would consider the attempt to impose Western democracy an imposed etic. In other words, we have assumed the values, practices, traditions and other characteristics of our culture are the universal norm and, as such, are applicable to all cultures.
The alternative – at least politically - is the concept of Stratified Democracy put forward by Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck (2002). This proposes that different cultures and sub-cultures will be at differing stages of social development and, therefore, need different forms of representative (ie: democratic) governance, economic distribution, etc. Achieving the most appropriate form of Stratified Democracy for a culture or sub-culture will, in Beck’s view, be an output of a MeshWORK mapping process.
Let’s apply a brief and basic hypthetical MeshWORK analysis approach to Iraq…
Basic foodstuffs and clean drinking water are in short supply in some areas while electric power is often intermittent at best.
Conditions in the hospitals are primitive by Western standards, with anaesthetics and many medicines in short supply. Emergency wards are frequently overwhelmed in the aftermath of a bombing.
In many parts of the country there is no or little work, making it difficult to get the means to stay alive. As a result many men are driven by economic necssity to join the police. Hence the attraction of lengthy and slow-moving police recruiting lines for bombers.
Personal security is frequently at risk in many parts of the country. Indiscriminate bombings, sectarian killings (often prededed by torturing the victims) and both political and criminal kidnappings are the main hazards.
The Coalition and the Shia-dominated governments they have propped up have been fairly slow and largely ineffectual in establishing the basic necessities of ‘civilised’ life in Iraq. So it’s hardly suprising that life in the worst-hit parts of Iraq is pretty ‘uncivilised’. (The Americans and the British made similar mistakes in the southern part of Aghanistan and are paying for them with a resurgence of the Taliban.) Talk of ‘democracy’, ‘the political process’ and ‘the vote’ tends to be pretty irrelevant to people who are preoccupied with surviving and being safe unless such politics is going to have a fairly immediate impact upon having such vital needs met.
This vMEME is big in Iraqi culture. Its focus on group identity and its territorial nature mean it defends its turf against outsiders – and the more pressure it is under the more aggressive it becomes. Thus the ever-increasing segregation in Baghdad. Wherever the American and British go, they are resisted as they are always outsiders on someone else’s turf. The ‘liberators’ were very quickly seen as ‘occupiers’ on land that didn’t belong to them.
Tribal culture is still dominant in much of Iraq. What the tribal elder says is relevant and to be honoured; what some American or some ‘Government spokesman’ says on the television is just an ugly noise to be ignored or despised. So, if the tribespeople vote, they vote according to tribal affiliations and how the elders tell them to vote.
‘One man, one vote, think for yourself’ politics is way removed from the daily reality of most of these people. Trying to impose it is a futile and dangerous exercise – not least because it challenges the traditions of the tribe and portrays them as somehow deficient.
# PURPLE / BLUE Harmonic
The BLUE vMEME has brought religious affiliation to PURPLE to create the super-tribal and very dangerous identities of Sunni and Shia. Now, the other lot are not only ‘of a different tribe’ but they are heretics defiling the one true religion. Thus, they are dehumanised and criminalised further, making their death and destruction that much easier.
With the Kurds BLUE has played the nationalism card so that all real Kurds now should aspire to bring the great goal of Kurdistan into existence.
# RED / BLUE Harmonic
As has been seen in the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia and now Iraq, when BLUE structure and order break down, RED’s ‘power pecking order’ tends to come in to replace it.
The Iraq of Saddam Hussein was more of a RED Mediaeval kingdom (with Saddam’s generals in the role of the King’s scheming ‘noble lords’) but there was a degree of BLUE social infrastructure. Saddam used this BLUE infrastructure (in tandem with PURPLE tribal loyalties) to control his people in ways not altogether dissimilar – eg: police state apparatus – to those of the Soviet oligarchs. However, the dominant vMEME in Iraq was RED, exemplified in the cult of personality Saddam revelled in and his government promoted.
Just as in Mediaeval kingdoms, the death of the King often created a power vaccuum, so has Saddam’s deposition (and death). Hence, the struggle for power, supported by competing tribal loyalties (PURPLE) and religious denunciations of others (BLUE).
Again, ‘One man, one vote, think for yourself’ democracy is pretty much irrelevant in situations where who has the power is what matters.
BLUE (and beyond)
It would seem nodal BLUE, outside of the universities, industry and religion is in short supply. For example, the police – stalwart BLUE in most Western countries - are notoriously corrupt and riddled with PURPLE/RED partisan loyalties.
There’s not much evidence of ORANGE other than the Western businesspeople out to control Iraq’s oil. And quite possibly GREEN’s only representatives are the brave/foolish aid workers still in the country.
Reconstructing Iraq for the Iraqis
If the option of ‘holding the ring’ while the factions slaughter each other – how ever horrific and unpalatable – appears to be the only viable one in the short/mid-term, then the Americans and the British need to prepare quickly for negotiations to create a new social and political Iraq. It needs to be done quickly as one can only hope a critical mass of Iraqis wanting peace builds rapidly, rather than takes years and years of carnage.
As soon as there is anything like a significant ‘window of opportunity’, the Coalition need to be ready with strategies that will work.
To do this, the Americans and the British need to work with where much of Iraq is at – ie: PURPLE and RED – not where they themselves are at – ie: BLUE, ORANGE and some GREEN. In other words, they need to use Stratified Democracy.
This may mean working with tribal elders and Islamic clerics and accepting that they will tell their unthinking followers what to do. In their context, that is what is more likely to be right for them than exhorting everyone to cast a considered but anonymous vote in a polling booth.
It may be that government in Iraq needs to be restructured in line with tribal identities and territories. It may be that the country needs splitting into 3 or more federated states. It may be that Iraq actually needs to be broken up, with 3 or more autonomous states emerging from the wreckage. It may be that a new supraordinate ‘Iraqi identity’ can be created that all Iraqis can buy into.
How ever it works out, the solution(s) must fit with the values of the vast mass of the Iraqi people and be something that Iraq’s neighbours will respect.
In this sense, as well as working with their client groups on the ground, the Coalition will almost certainly need some form of dialogue with Syria and Iran (as the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report of December 2006 recommended). These are the two major Arab military and political players in the area; both have anti-Western agendas but have reasons to co-operate with the West. (Syria wants help getting the Golan Heights back from Israel; Iran needs to find a non-military resolution to the impasse over its nuclear ambitions.) Both understand the PURPLE-BLUE Islamic loyalties, rivalries and tensions intuitively in a way few Western diplomats could even dream of.
Getting the cooperation of Syria and Iran in presenting new realistic opportunities for Iraq could also be tied in with intiatives to resolve other linked-in problems in the region – not least the status of the Palestinian territories, the ‘Kurdistan issue’ and the role of regional superpower Iran in a realigned Middle East.
So, opportunity is not lost in the longer term. Indeed, there seems every opportunity and everything to play for. But in the short term only death, destruction, injury and misery for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis.
It is abhorrent, not at all a pleasant prospect. But it seems there may be no other real option. Only when the bulk of the Iraqi nation no longer support the extremists and stand up against them will there be a real chance for peace.
Of course, while holding the ring, the United States and Britain must be developing new, realistic initiatives based on real Iraqi values and looking for and recruiting influential Iraqis to their cause. Then, when war weariness starts to set in, they are ready with the right men and the right intiatives to start building a momentum for a genuine and sustainable peace.