Monday, May 21, 2007

Thoughts on Intervening in Civil Wars

Listening to the radio while driving, I heard a clip of Newt Gingrich, who I find one of the more interesting modern politicians. He was responding to someone else's point that Iraq was a civil war and we should therefor get out. Gingrich stopped short of actually agreeing that it was a civil war, but he did accept the claim at least for the purposes of argument--and pointed out that civil wars do get won, as demonstrated by the U.S. Civil War.

It occurred to me that one might carry the argument a step further. If you are going to invade a country, the fact that it is engaged in a civil war seems like a point in your favor. The two sides are spending resources fighting each other that might otherwise be used to fight you; with luck, you might even succeed in allying with one side against the other. That, after all, is how the U.S. managed its quick and easy initial victory in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance supplied the boots on the ground, the U.S. provided them with unlimited air power, and that was enough to reverse the outcome of the civil war and drive the Taliban from power.

What are the arguments on the other side? Why might the existence of a civil war make conquest harder rather than easier?

One possible answer is that it makes it harder if the invader is unwilling to pick a side. It is then in the difficult position of trying to keep members of each side from killing members of the other while getting along with both. Since the invader's troops probably don't speak the language or know much about the society they are largely dependent on local allies, none of whom can be trusted not to take the opportunity to use their position to support their side of the ongoing civil war.

In the case of Iraq, the U.S. allied with the Kurds--gave them enough of what they wanted so that they were willing, on the whole, to refrain from shooting at us and support us against other people who were doing so. But the U.S. was not willing to support either the Shia or the Sunni in their desire to rule the country to the exclusion of the other.

A second answer to the question of why a civil war might make conquest harder rather than easier is that it raises the stakes. No reasonable person thinks that the U.S. wants to drive the Iraqis out of the country and replace them with Americans. It's unlikely that the U.S. wants to rule Iraq for any extended period of time. But a reasonable Sunni might well worry about ethnic cleansing by Shia, or a Shia about ethnic cleansing by Sunni. And each group has good reason to worry that the other would like to establish itself permanently in power, reducing its rivals to at best second class citizens.

The higher the stakes, the more desperately people are willing to fight. One of the problems with an interventionist foreign policy that it gets the country following it into conflicts where the other parties have much more at stake, and so are willing to put up with much larger costs.

Consider the Vietnam War. People in the U.S. complained that the South Vietnamese were not sufficiently willing to fight. But in fact the Vietnamese, North, South, and Viet Cong, kept fighting after suffering casualty rates, relative to their population, enormously higher than the rates that drove the U.S. out of the war. The reason is obvious: What happened to Vietnam mattered a lot more to the Vietnamese than to us.


Mike Huben said...

I don't understand.

Our conquest of Iraq took place before the civil war.

The civil war has arisen during our subsequent occupation.

So I really don't see what your post has to do with Iraq.

I also see a presumption that conquest is the actual goal of our invasion. I don't think anybody would agree with that. My own cynical viewpoint is that the deterioration in Iraq is precisely what is wanted by the Bushites. Notice that gasoline is once again at a record high due to Iraqi production being essentially offline: an enormous transfer of wealth to oil. Notice the enormous corrupt no-bid contracts. Notice that the factions will be likely to sell everything they have to win, including their oil resources. I agree with Krugman that the Bushies are a bunch of astonishingly audacious kleptocrats, and that we need too return to better government.

Mike Hammock said...

Mr. Huben, I think you misread the argument. Someone suggested to Gingrich that we should get out because Iraq is now in a civil war. Gingrich responded that civil wars get won. David Friedman argues that under certain circumstances, a civil war would be advantageous to the U.S., but that these circumstances do not seem to hold here. I do not think that Friedman is arguing that civil war in Iraq was a reason to invade in the first place. (I suppose one could argue that the Kurds were basically autonomous prior to the invasion, but I'm not sure that counts as civil war.)

Friedman is not arguing that civil war made the invasion a good idea. Rather, I think he is arguing that the current civil war makes it more difficult for the U.S. to accomplish anything (unless it is willing to commit to one side or the other). That seems to me to be a reason to get out.

I'm not sure how to respond to your second point. Are you trying to say that the purpose of the invasion was to raise the price of oil, and that this is why gasoline prices are currently high? There are easier ways to raise gasoline prices than an invasion, and in any case, reduced Iraqi oil production can't be the reason for current high oil prices. Iraqi oil production has been low for years now, yet oil prices only recently peaked again. Other factors (summer demand, more costly summer blends of gasoline, etc.) must be responsible.

I'm particularly puzzled by "Notice that the factions will be likely to sell everything they have to win, including their oil resources." Has there been some discussion of factions within Iraq selling off oil rights? How would that work, with the Iraqi government currently in charge of the oil?

Mike Hammock said...

Sorry, a correction: I should have said high gasoline prices, not high oil prices. Oil prices are not at a record high, but gasoline is (although I'm not sure if it is an inflation-adjusted high--this chart suggests not: ).

Anonymous said...

It's nice to read something about Iraq that is not ridiculously idiotic. Naturally, the first comment is immediately idiotic -- somehow Iraq is enormously emotional. I do not see what anything in David's post has to do with conquest -- it is about U.S. *interests*, which are decidedly not to hang around trying to control Iraq.

Anyway, I like David's take of trying to side with incumbent powers. I would not be so negative, though. In particular, Anbar is a part of Iraq where U.S. seems pivotal. Anbar is trying to rally against Al Qaeda, and is willing to side with the federalists to do so. They appear unable to hold out, though, without the additional support that the U.S. is providing. If the U.S. pulls out now, Anbar looks like it will quickly fall to Al Qaeda.

- Daublin

Anonymous said...

Trying that link again:


Anonymous said...

The following is probably logically independent of the post, but it is related. It seems to me that the most important question about a civil war is if there are sides.

There were clear sides in Afghanistan, the US, and Vietnam. There might have been two sides in Spain, but history seems to record a lot more nuance among the losers than the winners. Perhaps winning forced the winners to iron out their differences, but perhaps vice versa. I don't think there are clear sides in Iraq. At least there was a period of years in which it was not clear that those sides would be called Sunni and Shia.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why Newt is "interesting", given that he's in lockstep with the reigning neoconservative orthodoxy.

The real reason for the Iraq war, the main one, is hardly ever mentioned. It's not oil, or Israel. It's the belief that it would be easy, and thus people who opposed it would look a little silly, just as people who opposed the Gulf War looked a little silly when it worked better than most people expected.

If the Bush 41 admin had been less competent, we wouldn't be in this mess today.

Peter Bessman said...

My own cynical viewpoint is that the deterioration in Iraq is precisely what is wanted by the Bushites. Notice that gasoline is once again at a record high due to Iraqi production being essentially offline:

If gas is cheap, it's because of the war for oil. Except for when it's expensive, in which case it's because of the war for oil.

Sounds kinda like... global warming.


blog owner said...

All this presupposes that conquest is the goal so this doesn't apply to Iraq, not if Bush were honest as to what the goals were. This was to stop "terrorism" and give freedom to Iraq. So they said. They didn't use a civil war to achieve these goals but created a civil war instead of these goals. Civil wars do get won, as Gingrich noted, but not always by the "good guys".

Anonymous said...

Mike Huben, you might be interested in some of Michael Neumann's writings on Iraq in CounterPunch. I found them much more sensible than most of the blatherings I hear from left or right on the subject.

By the way, I hope you comment again at Unqualified Reservations. There is too little dissent in the comment sections.

Anonymous said...

I can see one other twist to this. If you conquer a functioning state, you can just worry about replacing the people at the top, at least at first. You appoint a new governor, make it clear that his expected lifespan is strongly correlated with your happiness with his rule, and back him up as needed to keep order. You don't have to figure out how to run the police, courts, sewage treatment plants, markets, etc., in the country, because there are already mechanisms for doing that. You can tweak the really nasty parts without trying to do everything at once.

If you conquer or come to possess a failed state, you don't have those options. You have to establish a working state again, or help the locals do that. You end up doing crap like providing security for your puppet leader, trying to fight an insurgency with troops that don't speak the local language, trying to hold together a shifting coalition of forces that might help keep your occupation government functioning.

Anonymous said...

Friedman's fallen for the 'lump of civil war' fallacy. The resources deployed on a war are highly dynamic; a civil war would, for example, lead of a breakdown of law and order, which would fuel extra fighting and make the U.S.'s task more difficult.