TCS Daily

The Great Balancing Act: Will Iraq Become an Endless Battleground?

By Robert Haddick - August 9, 2007 12:00 AM

Why are General David Petraeus, America's top officer in Iraq, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shouting at each other? It seems as if tempers fray and blood boils whenever the two men meet to save Iraq's future.

The proximate cause of these shouting matches is General Petraeus's policy of arming and supporting some Sunni militias. Many Sunni militias have now joined the U.S. military's fight against al Qaeda terror cells inside Iraq. General Petraeus is happy to have the Sunni insurgents directing their wrath against al Qaeda instead of against his fellow American soldiers, as they did until just recently.

Prime Minister al-Maliki sees things differently. He sees the Sunnis whom General Petraeus is now arming as mortal enemies. To Mr. al-Maliki these Sunnis are Baathist cadres, Saddam's henchmen, and former officers in the dreaded Mukhabarat secret police, men Mr. al-Maliki and other Shi'ite political leaders have been fighting for over twenty-five years. Mr. al-Maliki is quite sure that his war will have to go on after the Americans leave Iraq. That is why he is so upset with General Petraeus and the Americans.

For General Petraeus, arming the Sunni militias is simply a practical decision. But left unsaid is a larger impulse behind this tactic: the U.S. is pursuing a balance of power strategy in the Persian Gulf region. If it was not, it would simply allow Iraq's Shi'ites, perhaps with Iran's support, to ruthlessly hunt down the al Qaeda cells in Iraq, crushing the Sunni population in the process. But the U.S. is not allowing this to happen. Instinctively or not, it is U.S. policy to prevent any one player from achieving too much power in the Persian Gulf region.

The bitter shouting between General Petraeus and Prime Minister al-Maliki is just an extension of a U.S. policy for the region that extends back to the 1950s. The United States is playing the role in the Persian Gulf that Britain played with respect to Continental Europe for centuries, namely supporting one side and then the other to ensure that neither achieves permanent domination over the whole. Future American presidents are destined to continue this policy as long as the Persian Gulf retains strategic importance.

America's history as the balancer

In the 1950s, the U.S. took over responsibility for security in the Persian Gulf from Great Britain. At that time, U.S. policymakers viewed foreign policy through the context of the Cold War. The U.S. heavily assisted Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's Iran as an anti-Soviet bastion, a way to dissuade the Soviet leadership from contemplating any Persian Gulf adventures.

By the mid-1970s, Iran's regional military power had grown to a worrisome level in the eyes of many American officials. The Iranian military machine that deterred Soviet adventurism in the region also became a threat to the much more feeble Sunni countries around the Persian Gulf. Had not the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79 disintegrated Iran's armed forces, the U.S. would have needed to chart a new course in the region to balance Iran's military power.

But even though the revolution in Iran laid low Iran's ability to project power, in the 1980s the U.S. still saw Khomeini's Iran as the principle power that needed containing. Continuing its role as power balancer in the region, the U.S. supported Saddam's Iraq in its war against Khomeini's Iran. Several times in the 1980s, the U.S. fleet in the Gulf blasted away at Iran's navy. The U.S. also greatly expanded its military assistance to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other Sunni states in the region.

The end of the Iran-Iraq war left Iran exhausted and Saddam Hussein ambitious. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the U.S. balancing role shifted its focus against Iraq, where it stayed until the summer of 2003.

Today, the balance of power attention has shifted back to Iran. U.S. presidents will come and go, but the U.S. policy of never allowing any one power to dominate the Persian Gulf will go on.

Can the Persian Gulf get its Cold War?

Two questions result from this. First, can the U.S. contain Iran with some stable arrangement that creates a non-violent stand-off? Can the U.S. create a Persian Gulf Cold War?

If the answer is "no," then is Iraq's territory fated to become a bloody battleground? Will the region's combatants clash in Iraq as they each search for security?

In his scholarly examination of the 20th century and its major wars (The War of the World), Harvard historian Niall Ferguson noted that for much of the blood-soaked century, two particular regions of the world, Central and Eastern Europe and northeast Asia, were doomed to receive the most suffering. Ethnic fault lines, economic interests, and clashing empires conspired in those two regions to bring on decade upon decade of suffering and death.

Is Iraq destined to receive the same fate? Southern and central Iraq has all of the factors in Professor Ferguson's nasty formula: an ethnic boundary, economic interests, and clashing "empires."

Historians will note that Iraq has always been a battleground for clashing empires. True enough. What remains to be seen is whether today's combatants can arrange a stable balance of power and a peaceful stand-off.

When General Petraeus hands out rifles to the Sunni militias is he pouring fuel on a fire? Or is he focusing the minds of Shi'ite-Arabs and Iranian leaders, the first step towards deterrence and a balance of power?

In the years ahead, we will know the answer. In the meantime, we can be sure that America's next presidents will still be involved, and very likely passing out rifles to one side or the other.


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