Is Iraq turning into Yugoslavia?


by Max Boot

February 21, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations

The Iraq debate is starting to resemble the Yugoslavia debate of the early 1990s. Once again we are hearing that crazed foreigners are in the grip of ancient ethnic hatreds and that the U.S. has no cause to get involved in their internecine strife. Ironically, some of those now making this “realist” argument resisted its spurious logic 15 years ago. They were right to do so then, and they would be tragically mistaken were they to succumb to the siren song of nonintervention today.

In the former Yugoslavia, as in Iraq, ethnic groups have clashed over the years, but they also have had long periods of peaceful coexistence—and not only under the heavy hand of a Tito or Saddam Hussein. Croats, Bosnians, Slovenians, Kosovars, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbs lived together for centuries under the relatively benign Ottoman and Habsburg empires and later under their own monarchy. So did Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis in Mesopotamia.

In both cases, intermarriage rates were high, and there was no popular clamor for civil war. In more recent times, domestic strife was fomented by megalomaniacs such as Slobodan Milosevic and Abu Musab Zarqawi, who sought to profit from the violence. They were able to gain the upper hand because central authority had collapsed. In a lawless land, ordinary people were forced to seek protection from sectarian militias. As these groups committed atrocities, they fed demands for vengeance, leading to a death spiral.

Viewing the violence from a comfy couch, it is easy to conclude that “these people are animals. We can’t help them.” But imagine what would have happened in Los Angeles if the 1992 riots had gone on for weeks, with no police or military intervention. L.A. could have come to resemble Baghdador Sarajevo, with Anglo, African American, Latino and Asian gangs rampaging out of control.

To extend the analogy, violence could have spread throughout Southern California. That’s what happened in the Balkans when fighting spread from Slovenia, the first province to secede, to Croatia,Bosnia and Kosovo. A wider spillover was averted thanks to American-led intervention.

Today, only the U.S. troop presence is preventing Iraq, already in the throes of a low-level civil war, from degenerating into an all-out conflict a la Yugoslavia. The likely effect of such a bloodletting is spelled out in a recent report, “Things Fall Apart,” by Brookings Institution fellows Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack. They examined recent civil wars not only in Yugoslavia but in Afghanistan,Congo, Lebanon, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Somalia and Tajikistan. “We found,” they write, “that ‘spillover’ is common in massive civil wars” and “that while its intensity can vary considerably, at its worst it can have truly catastrophic effects.”

They cite six such effects, beyond the obvious humanitarian nightmare.

First, a massive exodus of refugees, “large groupings of embittered people who serve as a ready recruiting pool for armed groups still waging the civil war.” For example, Palestinian refugees sparked conflicts inJordan in 1970-71 and in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990.

Second, states in civil war can provide a haven for existing terrorist groups (Al Qaeda in Afghanistan) or create new ones (Hezbollah in Lebanon).

Third, civil wars often radicalize neighboring populations. For instance, the Rwanda genocide in the mid-1990s sparked a civil war in Congo, which has led to an estimated 4 million deaths.

Fourth, “secession breeds secessionism,” as in Yugoslavia.

Fifth, there are huge economic losses.

Finally, Byman and Pollack write, “the problems created by these other forms of spillover often provoke neighboring states to intervene—to stop terrorism as Israel tried repeatedly in Lebanon, to halt the flow of refugees as the Europeans tried in Yugoslavia, or to end (or respond to) the radicalization of their own population as Syria did in Lebanon…. The result is that many civil wars become regional wars.”

As Byman and Pollack note, “Iraq has all the earmarks of creating quite severe spillover problems.” This is, after all, a state with something worth fighting for (oil), and one where all the major combatants (various Sunni, Shiite and Kurd groups) are amply represented in neighboring countries. Iraq’s potential as a breeding ground for terrorism is even greater than Lebanon’s or Afghanistan’s.

Maybe it’s too late to avoid the catastrophe that Byman and Pollack warn of. But Yugoslavia showed how much good a decisive intervention could do. The case for action—for sending more troops rather than withdrawing the ones already there—is even stronger in Iraq because we have caused its current turmoil and cannot escape its consequences.

Max Boot is Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He specializes in defense policy, proliferation, nation-building and peacekeeping, democracy and human rights, military technology, US foreign policy, and terrorism concerns. Boot is a weekly foreign-affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, among others. He has lectured at various American military institutions, including the Navy War College, the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Marine Corps University, West Point, and the Naval Academy. He is a member of the US Joint Forces Command Transformation Advisory Group. Before joining the Council in 2002, Boot spent eight years as a writer at The Wall Street Journal, the last five years as an editorial features editor. From 1992 to 1994 he was an editor and writer at The Christian Science Monitor. His book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, was selected as one of the best books of 2002 by The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Christian Science Monitor. His last book is War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today. In 2004, Max Boot was named by the World Affairs Councils of America one of “the 500 most influential people in the United States in the field of foreign policy.” Boot holds a B.A. in History from the University of California, Berkeley (1991), and a M.A. in history from Yale University (1992).

Reprinted with kindly permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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