The recent past, revisited
With the war in Iraq now being referred to as a "civil war" instead of an insurgency, it's interesting to note this story from the New York Times. Entitled Even as U.S. Invaded, Hussein Saw Iraqi Unrest as Top Threat, the NYT article begins:
As American warplanes streaked overhead two weeks after the invasion began, Lt. Gen. Raad Majid al-Hamdani drove to Baghdad for a crucial meeting with Iraqi leaders. He pleaded for reinforcements to stiffen the capital's defenses and permission to blow up the Euphrates River bridge south of the city to block the American advance. But Saddam Hussein and his small circle of aides had their own ideas of how to fight the war. Convinced that the main danger to his government came from within, Mr. Hussein had sought to keep Iraq's bridges intact so he could rush troops south if the Shiites got out of line.
The rest of it goes on to describe how Saddam's military apparatus was primarily designed as an instrument to keep internal order, and that insofar as it looked outward, it gazed fearfully at its giant neighbor to the East -- Iran.
Mr. Hussein was also worried about his neighbor to the east. Like the Bush administration, Mr. Hussein suspected Iran of developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Each year the Iraqi military conducted an exercise code-named Golden Falcon that focused on defense of the Iraq-Iran border.
The United States was seen as a lesser threat, mostly because Mr. Hussein believed that Washington could not accept significant casualties. In the 1991 war, the United States had no intention of taking Baghdad. President George H. W. Bush justified the restraint as prudent to avoid the pitfalls of occupying Iraq, but Mr. Hussein concluded that the United States was fearful of the military cost.
Mr. Hussein's main concern about a possible American military strike was that it might prompt the Shiites to take up arms against the government. "Saddam was concerned about internal unrest amongst the tribes before, during or after an attack by the U.S. on Baghdad," Mr. Aziz told his interrogators. Other members of Mr. Hussein's inner circle thought that if the Americans attacked, they would do no more than conduct an intense bombing campaign and seize the southern oil fields.
One of the reasons both the US and the EU hesitated to intervene in Slobodan Milosevic's genocide in the Balkans was because it was characterized as a "civil war"; a conflict of immemorial hatreds in which it would be useless to intervene. Even at his speech marking the Dayton accords, President Clinton portrayed events in the Balkans, not as the result of an organized conspiracy revolving around Slobodan Milosevic, but from an underlying geopolitical fault. "When I took office, some where urging immediate intervention in the conflict. I decided that American ground troops should not fight a war in Bosnia because the United States could not force peace on Bosnia's warring ethnic groups, the Serbs, Croats and Muslims."
Not unsurprisingly, the same civil war theme has been used to describe the lack of options in Darfur. In US to Sudan: We can't clean it up, ABC News reports:
"It's a tribal war," Zoellick said. "And frankly I don't think foreign forces want to get in the middle of a tribal war of Sudanese." "I don't think we can clean it up because it's not just a question of ending violence, it's a question of creating the context for peace," Zoellick said.
The power of the "civil war" theme is that it provides an automatic rationale for withdrawing from the fray, especially if intervention is supposed to have 'caused it' in the first place. Rebranding Iraq as a civil war puts it in the same category of hopelessness as the former Yugoslavia and the Sudan. The NYT story is important to bear in mind when reading recent articles such as these, authored in March 2006 by former President candidate Gary Hart, who argues that the US Army is about to be annihilated in the Iraqi civil war.
Recently one of Islamic Shi'ites' most revered sites, the golden mosque in Baghdad, was destroyed by sectarian enemies. By this act and the reprisals that followed, Iraq moved a substantial step closer to civil war. Though a remote, but real, possibility, an Iraqi civil war could cost the United States its army.
Hopefully, leaders are planning for this possibility. If sectarian violence escalates further, US troops must be withdrawn from patrol and confined to their barracks and garrisons. Mass transport must be mustered for rapid withdrawal of those troops from volatile cities in the explosive central region of Iraq. Intensive diplomatic efforts must be focused on preventing an Iraqi civil war from spreading to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria. Such a potential could make the greater Middle East a tinder box for years, if not decades, to come.
But the first concern must be the safety of US forces. It is strange to contemplate the possibility that the greatest army in world history could be slaughtered in a Middle East conflagration. But prudent commanders have no choice but to plan for this danger.
In greatest danger are the units in the Sunni central region cities. They are in real jeopardy if tens of thousands of angry Sunni and Shi'ite citizens, supported by their sectarian militias, surround and then overrun those units before they can be withdrawn.
(Former Senator Hart unsuccessfully sought the Presidency in 1984. Walter Mondale received the Democratic nomination that year, but was defeated by Ronald Reagan)