The Duck of Minerva

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Iraq Study Group: Iraq needs a group hug

December 7, 2006

Yes, my headline is unfair. But the phrase “national reconciliation” appears 45 times in the ISG report. It even gets its own subsection (pp. 64-69).

I’m far from the only blogger to note a certain fantasy-island quality to the ISG report: it calls for lots of different actors–the Iraqi Government, Iran, and Syria–to adopt policies that they either can’t or most likely won’t implement. In particular, it seems to assume that the Iraqi Government is, well, part of some sort of coherent state rather than a patrimonial and ineffectual microcosm of the civil conflict in Iraq.

But I think its repeated use of the term “national reconciliation” encapsulates all of these problems. National reconciliation is something people do in a post-conflict environment, not something they do in the midst of ethnic cleansing, sectarian massacres, an ongoing insurgency, and other assorted forms of collective violence.

Large parts of the relevant sections, in fact, read like recommendations for a peacekeeping operation. Keep the political process on track. Open dialog. Bring international organizations and non-governmental organizations in to effectuate the disarmament of the militias. Make sure the state can credibly commit to respecting the rights of minorities. That sort of thing.

These sections also strike me as very much stuck in 2004-2005 thinking. Remember back when purple thumbs, elections, and the formation of a government would resolve the conflict?

All of this makes sense in a world of, as the ISG repeatedly stresses, “shared interests.” Herein lies the basic problem with the report. Many of the factions and key players don’t have a “shared interest” in peace and stability under a national unity government. Iraq isn’t stuck in a prisoners’ dilemma in which commitment problems preclude a pareto-efficient settlement. For too many actors what the US seeks isn’t pareto-improving but, rather, worse than the status-quo of conflict and far worse than an outcome of sectarian domination, partition, or what-have-you.

We tried to bring many of the current spoilers into the process before and our efforts, if anything, made the situation worse. The ISG report, at least in this respect, offers the same–only more so.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.