The civil war solution

EDWARD N. LUTTWAK is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

CIVIL WARS can be especially atrocious as neighbors kill each other at close range, but they also have a purpose. They can bring lasting peace by destroying the will to fight and by removing the motives and opportunities for further violence.

England’s civil war in the mid-17th century ensured the subsequent centuries of political stability under Parliament and a limited monarchy. But first there had to be a war with pitched battles and killing, including the decapitation of King Charles I, who had claimed absolute power by divine right.

The United States had its civil war two centuries later, which established the rule that states cannot leave the union -- and abolished slavery in the process. The destruction was vast and the casualties immense as compared with all subsequent American wars, given the size of the population. But without the decisive victory of the Union, two separate and quarrelsome republics might still endure, periodically at war with each other.

Even Switzerland had a civil war -- in 1847 -- out of which came the limited but sturdy unity of its confederation. Close proximity, overlapping languages and centuries of common history were not enough to resolve differences between the cantons. They had to fight briefly, with 86 killed, to strike a balance of strength between them.


And so it must be with Iraq, the most haphazard of states, hurriedly created by the British after World War I with scant regard for its rival nationalities and sects. The sectarian hatred -- erupting during the Saddam Hussein era and at full boil since his ouster -- is now inflicting a heavy toll in casualties.

Attempts by U.S. and British forces to stop the killings are feeble; it would take many times as many troops as remain in Iraq to make any difference. Nor can the fundamental factors that are causing the violence be reversed at this point, certainly not by fielding more Iraqi army and police units.

Sure, it would be nice to think that all the parties could just sit down and partition the country peaceably. But the Shiites can’t even agree among themselves, so what hope is there of them talking to the Sunnis? There is no hatred as strong as theological hatred. So it is time for outsiders to step aside and let the Iraqis fight it out among themselves, ending with each controlling its own region.

Of the conflicts, the Kurdish-Arab one is the least volatile. Decades of bloody fighting over Arab rule appear to be ending, and there’s no longer any question that the Kurds will separate. The only question is whether they’ll remain part of a loose Iraqi confederation or become an independent state.

As to the Shiites and Sunnis, however, there’s no end in sight. The Shiite majority among the Arabs of Iraq had been ruled by Sunnis for centuries. But Hussein’s vigorous attempt to modernize Iraq in a secular direction infuriated Shiite prelates. That in turn triggered brutal repression by the regime, which most Shiites inevitably viewed as yet another bout of Sunni oppression. The spread of Salafist fundamentalism among the Sunnis mandates violence against the Shiites.

And, while today’s theocratic Iran is not necessarily viewed as a model, it demonstrates to Iraq’s Shiites that they need not always be ruled by Sunnis. That in turn provokes the ire of the many Sunni Arabs who firmly believe that Iraq belongs to them regardless of their numbers.

And so the massacres continue on both sides.

Physical separation is therefore the only way to limit the carnage. That process has begun, to some extent, because the violence is driving out the members of one sect or the other from the many mixed villages, towns and city districts. This is a painful and very costly way of interrupting the cycle of attacks and reprisals, but that is how civil war achieves its purpose of eventually bringing peace.


Back in the 17th century, if the kings of continental Europe could have prevented England’s civil war, it would have been at the price of perpetuating strife by blocking progress toward stable parliamentary government.

If the British and other European great powers had sent expeditionary armies to stop the enormous casualties and vast destruction of the American civil war, they could have prevented the eventual emergence of a peacefully united republic, perpetuating North-South hostility.

That is the mistake that the U.S. and its allies are now making by interfering with Iraq’s civil war. They should disengage their troops from populated areas as much as possible, give up the intrusive checkpoints and patrols that are failing to contain the violence anyway and abandon the futile effort to build up military and police forces that are national only in name.

Some U.S. and allied forces still will be needed in remote desert bases to safeguard Iraq from foreign invasion, with some left to hold the Baghdad Green Zone. But for the rest, strict noninterference should be the rule. The sooner the Kurds, Sunni, Shiites, Turkmen and smaller minorities can define their own natural and stable boundaries within which they feel safe, the sooner the violence will come to an end.


Iraq’s civil war is no different from the British, Swiss or American internal wars. It too should be allowed to bring peace.