- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

With our top generals and a Pentagon report saying the possibility of civil war in Iraq has never been higher, we need to be thinking seriously about what kind of political direction should emerge from one. Civil war in Iraq could be inevitable — and if it has to happen, it’s best that it occur while we’re there in force and can influence the outcome. The result will probably not be what we had hoped for Iraq — democracy — but it could be a significant step toward it, and similar to the path taken by Egypt in the last 20 years.

Not to be an “I told you so” on this, but I wrote here three years ago that — after knocking off Saddam — we should “let them dissipate their anger and resources by killing each other in the struggle for power; this is more like a gang war than anything else, and we should both encourage and contain it in certain regions.” The steady escalation and morbidity of militia violence has confirmed this assessment: The “them” in Iraq are still the militant Sunni Muslims — ostensibly Saddam’s old clique — and the militant Shi’ite Muslims openly and aggressively sponsored by Iran. One or the other of these groups, or factions thereof, is responsible for the daily headlines of assassinations, kidnappings and other gratuitous killings.

It is the Middle East, after all, and we need only to look at the latest war there to remind ourselves — once again — that until the inherently dangerous and most radical regime is brought down in Iran, or at least marginalized, nothing will change much.

True, these Sunni-Shi’ite disputes have been going on for thousands of years there, and there are no real incentives on any side to do anything except attack the other for one historical or contrived reason or another. However, these conflicts are no longer about territory or religion nearly as much as they are about geriatric machismo, especially who gets to control the traditional and pervasive corruption in these mostly tribal societies.

Adding to these inherent instabilities in the region, the most dangerous “new” dynamic is Iran’s obsession with getting nuclear weapons; providing a diversion for this in the media and the U.N. was at least one reason behind the latest war between their Hezbollah agents and Israel. And, it could easily serve again as a cover for much deeper Iranian sponsored violence in Iraq.

However, as we saw in this latest war, it was necessary for Israel to respond in an overwhelming manner for the Iranians to realize it was a serious mistake to start an armed conflict resulting in the demolition of most of Southern Lebanon — even the Iranian Hezbollah stooge Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah confirmed this.

And contrary to Iranian and Hezbollah propaganda, this war can hardly be any kind of “victory” for them because strategic pieces of Lebanon will now be international buffers, hence less susceptible to external influence than before. Even the most biased observers in the Middle East will soon figure this out.

But there was also a reminder in this for us in Iraq: That war is often cathartic in the Middle East — necessary before a significant change of direction can be taken. The ‘73 Egypt-Israeli war is probably the best example. So maybe we should let “them” have it out in Iraq, better there than here. And, as I also wrote here three years ago: “If what emerges is again a threat to us, we should again take the leadership down and be prepared to repeat this whenever necessary — in other words, we should have a very low threshold for going back in and removing dangerous successor regimes.”

While not suggesting — necessarily — which side we would want to “win” a civil war in Iraq, the most realistic chance for any kind of lasting peace in the Middle East seems clearly to be: (1) developing rapprochement between moderate Sunni regimes with Israel, such as exists now between Egypt and Israel, and (2) the steady erosion of radical Iranian Shi’ite influence in the region.

In sum, our longstanding policy to avoid or prevent a civil war in Iraq may no longer be effective — or even relevant. While it was the reason we didn’t take out Saddam after he invaded Kuwait, we have persisted with it, assuming all along that civil war in Iraq would be bad for U.S. strategic interests. It may not be any longer. In fact it might even be necessary to set the stage for the emergence of a more moderate Middle East, anchored by Egypt and Iraq.

Civil war in Iraq could also be an opportunity for us to drastically reduce Iranian influence in the region, and we should be ready for it.

Last, we may have no real choice in the matter: Civil war may happen in Iraq no matter what we do or what we want — and we had better be thinking about how it would support our longer-term policy objectives.

Daniel Gallington writes on national security.

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