Baghdad Basket Case

While liberty and democracy can and should be protected with military force, they generally cannot be spread by force – believing otherwise was among the primary conceptual errors that led the US into the Iraq War. It takes a polity a long time to incubate a culture that respects democratic processes, along with individual and minority rights, and the rule of law; such values cannot be imposed from outside.

However once such a polity is established, it is well worth defending. As the Field Guide has asserted, liberalism is not pacifism. The world grows demonstrably richer and more secure as it grows more liberal and democratic – it is in the long-term interest of people in liberal democracies to defend kindred states.

Thus the case for defending Iraqi Kurdistan is strong. Liberal and democratic, it cannot be allowed to succumb to the disease of theocracy, whether in the form of Islamic State (IS) or otherwise. The case for defending the regime in Baghdad is however much weaker.

As Obama observed during the fight for the dam above Mosul, the wolf is at the door for the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Years of bad politics have alienated Iraq’s Sunni minority; IS insurgents have exploited the rift between them and the ruling Shia to take control of a huge swath of the country. The end of Nouri al-Maliki’s premiership may be too little, too late to unite the two factions. Iraqi Kurdistan is gone already – it is an independent country in all but name.

Since June, IS has been in control of Tikrit, population 200,000, just 85 miles north of Baghdad. Since January, Fallujah, population 300,000 and just 40 miles west of Baghdad, has been controlled by IS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and-or Sunni tribesman antagonistic to the Baghdad regime. IS insurgents are literally an hour’s drive away from Baghdad’s Green Zone.

US military support for the Baghdad regime has come recently in the form of airstrikes against IS. But it is not clear that air power alone will be enough to prevent the IS tide from washing over Baghdad and the Shia population to the southeast. If the US were to use infantry to head off the IS advance, in the absence of an effective Iraqi military, they might have to remain indefinitely. Comparisons with Vietnam are unavoidable, where the US effort to prop up the government of South Vietnam failed in the absence of popular support for that government, much less a competent military to defend it.

US intervention in Iraq will occur not because the regime in Baghdad is worth saving, but because a humanitarian disaster looms. IS has already performed mass executions of fellow Sunnis who were not sufficiently devout or submissive; one might consider their savaging of the Yazidis to be a warm-up act, and expect IS’s penetration into Shia territory to result in a Rwanda-scale civilian massacre. This is something the international community cannot countenance.

The US has no good options. Beefing up the Iraqi military is no longer a viable course, because past transfers of weapons have found their way into the hands of IS, worsening the situation. The US should immediately begin building a coalition, and be ready to launch a ground intervention on short notice, should it become necessary.

Going forward, the original plan for a single federal Iraq should be scrapped, in favor of a three-country solution, for Kurds, Sunni and Shia. Unfortunately, while splitting the country now might shore up the Shia southeast – perhaps to see it become a viable, functioning state – it would leave central Iraq to decide its political future at a time when the region’s dominant force are Sunni Islamists. The timing could not be worse.

For the moment, we should hope that al-Maliki’s successor will have better success at building consensus, while the US makes preparations to head off the humanitarian disaster now threatening to unfold.


Editor’s Note: Having spent most of the past month on international issues, the LFG will next week return its attention to domestic affairs. While liberal principles are vitally important to arrive at optimal foreign policy positions, we recognize that many good liberals approach such matters on a “gotta eat my broccoli” basis. To those of you who digested the Guide’s various musings on Israel, Iraq, Syria and Gaza – we congratulate you on your diligence. To those who gave it a skip – welcome back – the Field Guide loves you anyway.

The Case for Kurdistan

Bush Duh had his share of dumb ideas. To begin our analysis, it’s useful to be reminded why invading Iraq in 2003 was especially idiotic. Iraq contained no WMD and no terrorist organizations. Hussein was a brutal dictator, but he’d been contained for more than a decade, since the end of the Gulf War. He was furthermore a secular leader, whose regime would not have tolerated the rise of Islamists – while the US was containing Hussein, Hussein was doing the US a favor by containing radical Islam.

The notion that the US could invade Iraq, overthrow its government, and then oversee the installation of a liberal democracy, was unqualifiedly dumb, and not just in hindsight. The strong likelihood that Iraq – or any nation so constituted – would readily devolve into a melee of competing factions, was among the primary objections to the fiasco that became the Iraq War. Far from advancing the so-called “War on Terror,” the removal of the Hussein regime has been a boon to terrorists, who for more than a decade have been using Iraq as a recruiting tool and a training ground.

Unless you’re a foreign policy wonk, you’ll be surprised to hear that ten years ago, Joe Biden, among others, called for the breakup of Iraq into three entities – a Kurdish north, a Sunni central, and a Shia southeast – either bound together in loose confederation, or fully independent. That breakup has in fact come to pass despite US efforts – and anyone with an open mind who looks closely at the facts on the ground would see that Iraq quite naturally fractures this way. Since its 1932 genesis, the country was only ever held together by brutal strongmen, among whom Saddam Hussein was quite typical. Many analysts were skeptical that the country would hold together in the absence of such a tyrant. We should now consider the concept of a unified, democratic Iraq as having been tried and failed.

For the cause of liberalism and democracy, the US should turn the page and salvage what it can by recognizing Iraqi Kurdistan as a sovereign country, and aiding them in their fight against the Islamist insurgent group IS. The ongoing air attacks are a good first step. But the US and its allies should be willing to commit infantry to help defend an allied liberal democracy on the border of fellow NATO member Turkey.* One can hardly imagine a more appropriate application of US military force, than coming to the aid of an allied liberal state under siege by theocratic fanatics.

For all the bad that’s resulted from the Iraq War, at least one good thing has come out of it: Iraqi Kurdistan is a living, breathing democracy, liberal by the standards of the region, complete with elections, respect for minorities, and an effective military that is today fighting for that nation’s survival. The US should be willing to commit all resources necessary – including US troops – to make sure that the Republic of Kurdistan survives the assault of radical Islam.

How the US should proceed with the nominal “Iraqi Government” based in Baghdad is much less clear, and will be taken up by the Field Guide on Friday, when our analysis continues.



* Turkey is the main reason why the US has not thus far advocated for a fully independent Kurdistan. Turkey has a large and occasionally restive Kurdish population, and has long feared that the establishment of a Kurdistan on their border would stir nationalist sentiments among the Kurds concentrated in eastern and southern Turkey. However Turkey has over the past few years become economically invested in its southern neighbor, and has recently signaled its willingness to accept Kurdistan, particularly as an alternative to a fanatical Sunnistan. Turkey has itself been explicitly targeted by ISIS, whose advance could destabilize the nation of 75 million – more than 95% of whom are Sunni – with the world’s 17th largest economy. Turkey’s hold on secularism has always been tenuous, and is under particular stress today, as Islamist sentiments are gaining ground in Turkish politics.






Liberalism is Not Pacifism

Liberalism is not pacifism. Liberal values must be brought to bear on international affairs, and liberals should support the use of diplomacy and, when necessary, military force, to facilitate the spread of liberalism and democracy; and to defend it when threatened. In 230+ years of American history, many commodities, modalities and technologies have had their time of economic and-or military importance: ships, railroads, whale oil, cotton, petroleum, rocketry, enriched uranium, etc. But the proliferation of liberalism and democracy worldwide has been, and shall always be, of enduring importance to US economic and security interests – and to that of all liberal democracies. Oil may or may not be critical to US interests in 20, 50 or 150 years. But liberalism and democracy at home and abroad surely will be.

Events ongoing in the region where once existed the countries of Iraq and Syria are today reshaping Middle Eastern geopolitics. The cause of liberalism is not indifferent as to what the outcomes will be – the US must intelligently assert itself to see that liberal and democratic values are given the best opportunity to flourish. In this series of posts, the Liberal Field Guide will try to elaborate a coherent US policy toward that end.

Syria and Iraq are gone, and five unstable proto-countries now occupy their place on the map. (1) The Islamic State (IS, also ISIS, ISIL) has cut the two former countries in half, severing (2) the “Iraqi Government,” based in Baghdad, which maintains tenuous control over the southwestern Shia quarter of the former Iraq; from (3) Iraqi Kurdistan, which is now effectively an independent country in the mountainous northeast along the Turkish and Iranian border. IS has also severed the nominal (4) “Syrian Government,” based in Damascus, which controls the southwestern third of what used to be Syria; from (5) Syrian Kurdistan, which is now independent of the Damascus regime, in the mountains bordering Turkey. IS continues to grow at the expense of the other four entities, attempting to push north into the two Kurdistans, while having more success in its attempt to encircle Baghdad. IS has merged central Iraq and northeastern Syria into a single Sunnistan.

The US is faced with the choice of helping to prop up one or both of the Iraqi regimes (one in Baghdad and one in Iraqi Kurdistan) that it’s spent the past decade helping to fashion and form; or abandoning them to fight for their survival without US aid, as the two Syrian regimes (in Damascus and Syrian Kurdistan) have been left to fight for theirs.

For its extraordinary cost, the Vietnam War has proved to be invaluably instructive for US foreign policy. Perhaps the greatest lesson is the folly of intervening in a civil war for a party that’s not interested in fighting for its own cause. This lesson applies to the Baghdad regime, which has been as inept politically as its military has been useless in the field. This lesson does not however apply to Iraqi Kurdistan, a liberal democracy under siege by IS, and well worth defending.

During its short existence, IS has proved to be exceptionally awful, with reports documenting its systematic practice of rape, torture, mass execution, ethnic cleansing, and violation of every human right you can name. IS has buried people alive, crucified others, and collected young women and girls to be sold into slavery. They are so extreme that they’ve been unable to work cooperatively with many other Sunni-oriented organizations, including, remarkably, Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The worst case scenario in the former Iraq is the same as the worst-case in the former Syria: the establishment of a radical Sunni Islamist regime. In light of IS’s quick rise to power, the US must rise beyond archaic antagonisms rooted in the Cold War and US-Israeli relations, and reevaluate the Assad regime in Damascus; as it must also consider the case of Syrian Kurdistan. No matter how bad you think Assad may be, his regime is several upgrades over IS.

The Field Guide will refine these broad strokes this week, as our analysis continues.



Iraq No Longer Exists

Civil wars in Iraq and Syria have merged, with one Islamist group, ISIS, fighting government forces regionwide. ISIS, fundamentally, is not a terrorist organization (like Al Qaeda in Iraq, e.g.), but is rather an old-fashioned insurgency. With perhaps 1000 Chechens in its ranks, ISIS has proved to be more than a match for the Iraqi military, routing federal forces in central Iraq, and now targeting Iraqi Kurdistan, while pushing west and south of Baghdad. They also control one-third of Syria, despite the efforts of the Assad regime and other insurgents.

Iraq no longer exists. Iraqi Kurdistan might as well be called Kurdistan: it’s an independent country in all but name. (Turkey has signaled its willingness to accept a Kurdish state on its southeastern border.) It is also democratic, and reasonably liberal by the (low) standards of the region, enjoying substantial popular support. Quite unlike the government based in Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdistan has a functional military. During ISIS’s Northern Iraq Offensive, Kurdish Peshmerga forces entered and repelled ISIS from Kirkuk, and has held it ever since – while the government based in Baghdad lost Tikrit and Mosul.

More than 8 years since it took power, Iraq’s Baghdad-based, Shia-dominated central government remains weak and corrupt. While Iraqi politicians squabble over who their next prime minister should be, ISIS has taken control of the majority-Sunni central region in and around the cities of Tikrit and Mosul (about one-quarter of Iraq), leaving Iraq’s federal government in control only of the majority-Shia area running southeast from Baghdad. Ominously, the Iraqi military has been almost completely ineffective against ISIS, losing ground to them steadily since June.

Though Syria is a battlefield, with ISIS controlling one-third of the country, Assad’s forces have held together through more than 3 years of fighting. Unlike Iraq’s military, Syria’s has proved effective in the field, albeit that they have no qualms about sacrificing civilians to gain ground. The government of Syria likely has the personnel, hardware and will to remain in the fight through at least the medium term.

Demographics tell much of the story. Though it was dominated for decades by (secular) Sunnis under Saddam Hussein, Iraq has a Shia majority, concentrated from Baghdad southeast to the Gulf; a large Sunni minority (35%) in the center, running to the Syrian border; and a significant Kurdish minority (15%) along the Turkish and Iranian borders in the mountainous northeast. Inversely, Syria has a Sunni majority – though it’s been dominated for decades by the (secular) Shia-Alawite Assad family. Syria also has a Kurdish minority (9%) along the Turkish border.

Not surprisingly, ISIS, a fanatical Sunni organization, has quickly gained ground in central Iraq and northeastern Syria, amidst a majority-Sunni population. ISIS is now moving against the Yazidis, a Kurdish group stuck in no man’s land, in an area somewhat outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. Though they are under the nominal authority of Iraq’s federal government, the Baghdad-based regime is unable to come to their aid. Indeed, Baghdad is itself at risk of being encircled, as ISIS captures Sunni towns on its western and southern flanks.

The facts are grim – on Monday the Field Guide moves on to its analysis, to formulate a coherent US foreign policy in the post-Iraq era.







Liberalism v. Democracy, Round 3

The US invaded Iraq ostensibly to bring democracy to the Middle East. But the Middle East was more in need of liberalism than democracy – then and now. Lying at different points along roughly the same developmental track, Jordan and Tunisia together illustrate a better course for political evolution. Jordan is today an autocracy, under the liberal rule of King Abdullah II. Tunisia had for many years also been a relatively liberal autocracy, until the Arab Spring brought democracy. For decades, both countries have had excellent economic growth – but they are at different stages of development: Tunisian per capita GDP is 50% greater. (Egypt and Libya, which also became democracies in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, are also substantially wealthier than Jordan.) History gives us every reason to hope that Jordan will also, eventually, become a liberal democracy, as its citizens grow wealthier, and demand a larger voice in their own governance.

We might be less hopeful that Egypt will blossom into a liberal democracy, because liberalism did not do especially well under Mubarek. Though the economy grew, extreme wealth inequality kept the middle class relatively small, and corruption was ubiquitous. As for Libya, the present state of affairs is as complicated as was Gaddafi’s leadership. Americans only know Gaddafi for his role in international terrorism, and his regime’s extraordinary repression. Few are aware of his economic reforms – good and bad – which lifted Libyan living standards and life expectancy to among the highest in the region.

Unfortunately, the so-called “rise of the bourgeoisie” that brought democracy to the United States, France and England – and as well to Singapore, Taiwan and Chile – does not occur in countries whose economies are based on mineral wealth, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Brunei and Bahrain. Wealth tends to remain in the hands of the few. Oil gives the state a source of cash, which allows them to keep taxes low and their oligarchs content.

Kuwait – the most liberal and democratic country in the Middle East (including Israel) – is no exception to the rule. Unlike many of its neighbors, Kuwait was a commercial center long before oil was discovered. As in the West, liberalism was born and nurtured in Kuwait among merchants, which yielded a culture that respects rules of trade and property rights. Kuwaitis now enjoy the full gamut of civil and political liberties. Importantly, the example of Kuwait allows us to dispose of the absurd, racist theory that Arabs are somehow ill-suited to democracy.

One cannot fail to mention Hugo Chavez – democratically elected and reelected, and fairly liberal – who in the US was often regarded as illegitimate, or mischaracterized as a dictator. His many policies were a mixed bag and cannot be thoughtfully summed up in the space we have here. But even if you reject them, regimes such as his should be tolerated as hiccups that naturally occur within the framework of the democratic process. (Europeans surely did their best to endure Bush Duh’s two terms with the same sentiment.) The US should not have hesitated to condemn the coup that temporarily removed Chavez from power – because in the long term, Americans are safest and most prosperous in a world of liberal democracies. Once a government evolves to that stage, its perpetuation must be a major US policy goal, overriding the short-term advantages that regime-change might offer.

When time and space permit, the Field Guide will compare and contrast the US response to Chavez’s short-lived coup with its response to the 2014 Ukraine Revolution. And while we’ll revisit the tension between liberalism and democracy in the near future, this coming Friday has been reserved to offer liberals guidance in choosing the best course in the mounting crisis in Iraq.










Liberalism v. Democracy, Round 2

On Friday, the Field Guide delved into the distinct – and often divergent – traditions of liberalism and democracy. Today we bring them to bear on current events.

The struggle today in the Middle East is eerily familiar. After World War II, with the collapse of colonialism, many countries gained independence, and people across the world got the right to vote for the first time. Going with the political fashion of the day, many voted for socialists. This was extremely troubling for the US and for US business interests: socialist governments were more likely to align themselves with the USSR; and property rights were less secure under socialist democracies than they were under liberal dictators. Largely over the concern of US businesses, the US instigated at least 3 revolutions that overthrew democratically elected governments (Iran 1953; Guatemala 1954; Chile 1973), all of which led to the installation of brutal dictators. Right into the 1980s, Reagan was funding a terrorist organization in its effort to overthrow democratically elected socialists in Nicaragua; while propping up dictatorships from El Salvador to Egypt – including Guatemala and Chile. (Iran deposed its American-sponsored dictator in 1979.)

Analogously, as some in the Middle East vote for the first time, many are going with the most popular political movement in the region today: Islamism. That’s how the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, and how Hamas came to power in Gaza – by democratic processes. Elections held today in Iraq or Syria might produce a similar result. And so, once again, the US is finding itself at odds with democracy because of the results it’s producing – while the US is reminded again and again of the usefulness, and-or the lesser evil, of authoritarians.

From a policy standpoint, when judging illiberal democracies and liberal authoritarians, each case must be taken on its own merits. A good rule of thumb for US foreign policy would be that a democracy is good to the extent that it respects minority rights. Given an open and unfettered debate in the marketplace of ideas, one has every reason to believe that such a democracy will naturally find its way to liberalism, simply because it offers the greatest good for every facet of life: economic, health, happiness, and of course, freedom.

What this means is that the US should be tolerant of Islamist-led democratic governments if they allow opposing parties to organize, operate and compete for votes. One must note, however, that parties based on religion, and not reason, tend to be especially intolerant of competing viewpoints, because they often believe that their “truths” are handed down from on high, and thus are not open to debate, much less compromise. The ineptitude of the Tea Party in the US legislature is a fine illustration of this problem. Democracy simply cannot function in the absence of rationality – dogma is anathema to democratic processes.

One might further posit that liberal dictatorships are acceptable, because history has shown that, with time, liberalism begets wealth, and a wealthy populace comes naturally to demand a political voice commensurate with its material well-being. This is the dynamic that brought democracy to much of Europe, and to countries all along the Pacific Rim – and, of course, to the US as well. One hopes the same will happen in China, where an increasingly wealthy class of industrialists should – if history teaches us – also come to demand a role in their own governance. To make a bolder point: within a given polity, it seems constructive for liberalism to precede democracy – for a population to first learn respect for procedural fairness, before taking on self-governance.* That’s how it happened in most of the developed world, perhaps not coincidentally.

Liberal dictatorships, simply put, are not so bad because they tend to be self-eliminating – and liberals should be tolerant of such states as necessary stepping stones toward liberal democracy. Illiberal democracies, by comparison, can be much more persistent, to the considerable expense of their persecuted minorities. The West Bank is a modern example: its Arab population has had no civil or political rights, nor has it known procedural fairness, during nearly a half-century of domination by “democratic” Israel. The Jim Crow South endured for well over 100 years – vestiges are still apparent today, 150 years since the Civil War.

The Field Guide continues Wednesday on the themes of liberalism and democracy, with a look at individual regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere.



* CT thanks Fareed Zakariah for making this and many other acute observations in his excellent book, The Future of Freedom. While the work of many pundits is dated a month after publication, this 2003 work is as compelling and relevant today as ever.


Liberalism v. Democracy, Round 1

Sure, everyone wants both. But throughout most of human history, you’d have been fortunate to have one or the other. And forced to choose, many prefer the security of liberalism to the dignity of democracy.

Not to be accused of splitting hairs, we can agree that, for certain purposes, democracy is an indispensable part of modern-day liberalism. But each tradition – liberalism and democracy – has its own independent history. For the purposes of this essay, when we use the term “liberalism”, we mean procedural fairness: that cops and courts are neutral in their application of the laws, and specifically that property rights are sacrosanct. This form of liberalism does not encompass the right to vote, which of course is the sine qua non of democracy. One must however recognize that rights of speech, assembly and petitioning the government are not guaranteed by democracy, but by liberalism! Majorities, after all, like nothing more than to illegalize the speech, gathering and petitioning of minorities, as occurred in the US during the McCarthy era, e.g., and in every other democracy at some or another time.

The fact is, an illiberal democracy isnt a very fun place to be. Saying the wrong thing in Classical Athens, Revolutionary France, or modern-day Egypt could get you killed. 4 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank can tell you first hand what it means to be a disenfranchised minority in a democracy whose majority has enshrined into law imperialism, colonialism and apartheid. More than 100,000 Japanese-Americans could have pointed out the shortcomings of democracy from their WWII internment camps – as could millions of slaves in the antebellum American South.

Meanwhile, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Colonial America and England were, for many years, liberal dictatorships, and pleasant places to live and work. Talk to a few Syrians about life under Assad, before the civil war, and they’ll tell you that as long as you didnt spout off on politics, life was peaceful and predictable. You went off to work, you came home to family; the streets were safe; the crazies with bad hair and weird beards were few and far between.

It’s not that the right to vote isnt precious – but rather that the right to live your life and be left alone is no less precious. We tend to make a fuss over democracy wherever it flowers – to be too often reminded that it doesnt always smell sweet. Liberalism, distinct from democracy, also deserves its due. A liberal government, democratic or not, guarantees procedural fairness – what Americans call “due process” and the Brits have called “the law of the land” since 1215. You may not get to vote, and printing op-eds can put you in the clink – but if you have a contractual dispute, you can rely on the courts for a fair adjudication. If you pay your taxes, you dont have to worry about the state taking your home away. Many countries have grown rich and prosperous in the absence of democratic processes, because they were fortunate to have a liberal leadership that understood the economic importance of respecting and upholding property rights.

By contrast, democracies can be excruciatingly illiberal. Today across the American south, majorities, if they had their way, would pack minority children into separate, inferior schools, if only to teach them how 6000 years ago, Jesus and His Angels buried faux dinosaur bones to confuse archaeologists. They’d deny rights to gays and women, while stripping away numerous rights of the accused. One American political party, whose sole objective was the perpetuation of segregation, revealingly called itself “The States’ Rights Party.” Their protest, in the end, was that of a majority, frustrated by Constitutional limitations on what majorities are allowed to do. Liberalism, after all, is what protects us from democracy run amok.

The Field Guide resumes this line on Monday, exploring the sometimes competing traditions of liberalism and democracy, and how tension between the two informs US foreign policy today.