Three foreign policy wonks, Steven A. Cook and Ray Takeyh from the Council on Foreign Relations and Suzanne Maloney from the Brookings Institution, advanced a highly coherent argument yesterday on why the Iraq civil war won't spill over into the region if the U.S. withdraws.
The reasons are fairly straightforward. First, Middle Eastern leaders, like politicians everywhere, are primarily interested in one thing: self-preservation. Committing forces to Iraq is an inherently risky proposition, which, if the conflict went badly, could threaten domestic political stability. Moreover, most Arab armies are geared toward regime protection rather than projecting power and thus have little capability for sending troops to Iraq.They admit to a possible exception - the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. That may yet turn out to be the greatest pravicationary incompetence of the whole Bush-led fiasco in Iraq. Still, I find their reasons compelling on the face of it.
Second, there is cause for concern about the so-called blowback scenario in which jihadis returning from Iraq destabilize their home countries, plunging the region into conflict.
Middle Eastern leaders are preparing for this possibility. Unlike in the 1990s, when Arab fighters in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union returned to Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and became a source of instability, Arab security services are being vigilant about who is coming in and going from their countries.
In the last month, the Saudi government has arrested approximately 200 people suspected of ties with militants. Riyadh is also building a 700 kilometer wall along part of its frontier with Iraq in order to keep militants out of the kingdom.
Finally, there is no precedent for Arab leaders to commit forces to conflicts in which they are not directly involved. The Iraqis and the Saudis did send small contingents to fight the Israelis in 1948 and 1967, but they were either ineffective or never made it. In the 1970s and 1980s, Arab countries other than Syria, which had a compelling interest in establishing its hegemony over Lebanon, never committed forces either to protect the Lebanese from the Israelis or from other Lebanese. The civil war in Lebanon was regarded as someone else's fight.
Indeed, this is the way many leaders view the current situation in Iraq. To Cairo, Amman and Riyadh, the situation in Iraq is worrisome, but in the end it is an Iraqi and American fight.
As far as Iranian mullahs are concerned, they have long preferred to press their interests through proxies as opposed to direct engagement. At a time when Tehran has access and influence over powerful Shiite militias, a massive cross-border incursion is both unlikely and unnecessary.
So Iraqis will remain locked in a sectarian and ethnic struggle that outside powers may abet, but will remain within the borders of Iraq.
The Middle East is a region both prone and accustomed to civil wars. But given its experience with ambiguous conflicts, the region has also developed an intuitive ability to contain its civil strife and prevent local conflicts from enveloping the entire Middle East.
Iraq's civil war is the latest tragedy of this hapless region, but still a tragedy whose consequences are likely to be less severe than both supporters and opponents of Bush's war profess.
This report would have gotten major attention from progressive anti-war blogs if it weren't for the way all are chasing the same ambulances - Cheney, the 2008 nominee race and other domestic issues. It's a great pity that more haven't noticed as the meme that the civil war in Iraq will spread is on of the few remaining blocks in the public's mind towards accepting that complete U.S. withdrawal from iraq is the correct way forward for American interests and the world as a whole.