I don’t know what the Romans called the area that is now—for the next months at least—called Iraq. Just to make it easy on me, let’s say they called it “Iraq.” That brings us next door to one of the best known sentences in all of Latin literature: “Iraq est omnis divisa in partes tres.” The increasing likelihood that modern Iraq is going to be divided into three parts. According to a recent map, which Ross Douthat linked into his column today, this is what that would look like. Tucked in there between Syria on the west and Iran on the east are : Free Kurdistan, Sunni Iraq, and an Arab Shia State.
Douthat doesn’t have a perspective, in this column, at least, about what American policymakers ought to prefer in the Middle East. He is content with pointing out that there are really very few options that fall within the tradition of the projection of American power.
Here is one option.
As Jerry Muller argued in Foreign Affairs in 2008, the brutal ethnic cleansing and forced migrations that accompanied and followed the two world wars ensured that “for the most part, each nation in Europe had its own state, and each state was made up almost exclusively of a single ethnic nationality,” which in turn sapped away some of the “ethnonational aspirations and aggression” that had contributed to imperialism, fascism and Hitler’s rise. But this happened after the brutal ethnic cleansing that accompanied and followed two world wars. There’s no good reason to imagine that a redrawing of Middle Eastern borders could happen much more peacefully.
We don’t want to choose that because although we might like the end product, we want no part of the means of achieving it.
Another option is to intervene directly on the side of whoever is most likely to keep the various regions together. That’s a bad idea for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it would take a long time. The domestic political pressure against it would be severe. And, of course, the entry of an outside power tends to unify the local powers as much as is necessary to repel the “invader.” The most graphic recent example is the weapons we gave to the mujahidin in Afghanistan so they could repel “outsiders.” Then, when we invaded after 9/11, we were the outsiders and the weapons worked just as well against us as they did against the Russians.
On the other hand, it’s hard just to give it up. Whatever lack of merit the policies may have had, the cost to American soldiers was awful and it is hard to conquer real estate as such cost and then just abandon it. It must be done, but it is hard.
Douthat positions himself in the middle, not so much by proposing a way forward as by critiquing the views of others. That is perfectly appropriate; he is a columnist after all. He criticizes the Bush administration (George W, not George H. W.) for “recklessness.” He criticizes the Obama administration for “neglect.” But he comes to the present dilemma when he points out:
Now our leverage relative to the more immediate players is at a modern low point, and the progress of regional war has a momentum that U.S. airstrikes are unlikely to arrest.
Douthat just barely manages to avoid saying that the U. S. ought to have more leverage than the immediate players. Just barely. The point here is that there are people who live there and who care intensely about borders we have only recently heard about. They will kill each other over ethnic nuances that elude us entirely. Is there any reason they should not have more leverage than we do?
Oddly, all this reminds me of Abraham Lincoln’s re-entry into politics after his term as a Whig Congressman. My son, Doug, and I are listening to some really good lectures by David Zarefsky, of Northwestern University. Zarefsky is really clear that Lincoln had an instinct for the center and when he couldn’t get it by defining the policy he favored, he got it the way Douthat gets it—but ridiculing his foes. Lincoln held that slavery was fundamentally wrong, but that it was constitutionally guaranteed. Lincoln’s fight was not to abolish slavery, but to contain it in the states of the old South. He rejected the slavery faction on the one side and the abolitionist faction on the other side. He may very well have argued that so far as the federal government is concerned, “our leverage relative to the more immediate players is at a modern low point.” I hope that sounds familiar.
As he was debating with Senator Douglas, he had no idea what policy would get us where we wanted to go but he was sure he wanted to preserve his options. It is that, I think, that helps me watch Douthat struggling with where we should go.
 Another good one by the Teaching Company: “Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words.”