Best Post on Iraq Yet

As some of you know, I am card-carrying member of the John Robb Fan Club. Here’s yet another reason why:

What did happen with the Awakening, and the speed of the transition should be a clue to this, is that the US military opportunistically embraced the insurgency (in a move akin to IBMs embrace of open source development in the 90’s). This embrace showered autonomy, weapons, money ($300 per month x 60,000 participants), protection (from Shiite militias and the Iraqi government), and training on insurgent groups. By doing so, it replaced the ISI (Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda affiliate) as the leading participant in the insurgency. The only “cost” to these insurgent groups, which were under extreme pressure from Shiite militias due to overreaching by the ISI, was to sacrifice the ISI. They rapidly complied.

Where this goes from here is problematic since (and I say this to get you thinking and not to shock you) the US is now leading both the insurgency and the counter-insurgency in Iraq.

Whereas conventional counter-insurgency means strengthening the central government, US collaboration with “ex”-insurgents aligns us with some of the central government’s bitterest foes.

I’m an advocate of staying in Iraq, but I also think Matt Yglesias and others are right to suggest that we’re basically in the role of imperial umpires. Principled anti-imperialists like Chris Hayes find this deeply distasteful, and with good reason: what a senseless waste of blood and treasure, and in the name of a project that runs against the American grain. I originally wrote “ideological project,” but I think that concedes too much: the project is less “liberal imperialism,” now baldly discredited, but rather the project of “stepping into the breach,” preventing security vacuums and thus fierce security competition from emerging. I happen to think this project is worthwhile, if problematic. To be sure, it reflects a Mackinderian imperialist sensibility in some sense. More a faint echo, I’d argue, but I’ll bet Sankar Muthu and others would strongly disagree.

But I’m also reminded of the quite smart post-declinist essay written by Parag Khanna a few weeks back. A mutual friend said, “Yeah, the piece was so broad that clearly it’s going to fail on some analytical level, but it still gave a vivid picture of the way the global power picture is changing at the ground level.” That’s exactly right. A condominium of some kind looks unlikely because the other great powers are too accustomed to free riding. A time will soon come when the United States can’t police the infrastructural latticework that is the bedrock of global prosperity, not because we’ll be ground down and penniless but rather because the threats will be so multifarious, fast-moving, sophisticated. The “solution,” if you can call it that, will be greater resilience: adaptation to a more dangerous, unpredictable world. At least that’s what I’ve learned from Robb. The hope is that our capabilities — our wealth — will grow fast enough to keep up with the mounting chaos. We’ll see.

I wish we had an icon for “Security” separate from “Politics.” We’ll get to that.