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January 12, 2007

The Presidential Lottery

by Thomas Gale Moore

As expected, President George W. Bush announced on Wednesday that he planned to increase the number of troops in Iraq. From his point of view, he had no other choice. To "stay the course" meant doing same thing with the same force. That hadn't worked; after the "drubbing" of the election, he had promised a change in policy. He might have chosen to follow the recommendations of the Iraqi Study Group, but that would have meant reducing troop levels and eventually leaving. If he followed that advice, he was admitting failure in his Iraq adventure. Consequently his only option, short of acknowledging failure, was to add more boots.

It was like a lottery. If the president kept playing, maybe, in some future year, he might hit the jackpot and win the big prize. That might take many years. Instead he could buy more lottery tickets. It would be costly, but the chance of winning would rise from almost zero to a little above zero. In any case he could postpone defeat until he was out of office. He would not go down in history as having been defeated; that onus would be on the next Commander-in-Chief.

Many Democrats, as well as some Republicans, have criticized the projected escalation of force in Iraq, saying accurately that additional troops have been tried several times before without reducing the violence. They have asserted correctly that there is no military solution, but they have gone on to claim that there is a political solution. American politicians too are unable to admit defeat. Not only is there no military solution, unfortunately; there is no political solution either.

A political solution would require agreement on several key issues. The Sunnis would have to agree that control would rest with the Shi'ites, who are in the majority. Many Sunnis to this day apparently believe that they outnumber other Arabs and should control the government. Even those that know that there are more Shi'ites in Iraq are unwilling to allow those "heretics" to dominate the state. The Shi'ites, on the other hand, remember the Sunni dominance of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and want to ensure that they will control the government.

Another major political problem: who will control oil and its revenues? Some Shi'ites want to copy the example of the Kurds and establish an autonomous region that will keep the oil revenues from the south and institute its own religious laws. Other Shi'ites want to maintain Iraq intact with the Shi'ites in control. The Sunnis, while insisting that Iraq remain whole so that they can profit from the oil, oppose the Shi'ites ruling the country. The Kurds in the north want to maintain their autonomy and the oil in that region. They have already asked foreign oil companies to bid on exploration for more petroleum deposits in Kurdistan.

Connected to the oil issue is the fate of Kirkuk, a city surrounded by oil deposits. Kirkuk is partially Kurdish, partially Arab – some of that population are Sunnis and some are Shi'ites – and partially Turkomen, who are related to the Turks. The Kurds would like to incorporate Kirkuk into their autonomous region. The Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs are in agreement that it should not be part of Kurdistan. There have been periods in the past when Kurds were in the majority in Kirkuk and periods when Arabs were in the majority. What can only be called ethnic cleansing led to the shifts in populations.

When there are two or more ethnic or religious groups living in an area, the feasibility of a working democracy is very small. Typical, in a mixed ethnic society, one group dominates the state, usually by force. The Sunnis in Iraq ruled with Saddam Hussein. A stable democratic society is out of the question for Iraq. There is no political solution. If left to itself, the most likely outcome would be a Shi'ite-dominated state that controlled everything but Kurdistan. What happens to Kirkuk cannot be predicted, except that it will probably become a battleground.

There is little that the United States can do to change these facts on the ground. We can stay, as Bush clearly intends, for another two years, losing more troops and suffering more casualties. By the time the next president takes over, little will have changed. He or she will probably move quickly to extract us from this quagmire. It would be better to go now and cut our losses. People who say that we broke it and are, therefore, responsible for fixing it have it half-right. We did break it, but we cannot fix it. We can offer financial help to any government that emerges from the inevitable civil conflict that will arise or continue after we leave. That clash will occur whether we leave in 2007 or in 2009; better sooner rather than later.

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Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and has taught at Carnegie Institution of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Michigan State University, UCLA, and in the Stanford Business School. He has written numerous peer-reviewed economic articles and several books.

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