There’s a conceit out there prevalent among both past and present diplomats and conflict resolution activists that if only all parties sat down and engaged in dialogue, seemingly inextricable crises would evaporate. It really is kindergarten philosophy which, when applied to the real world, can and will backfire.
Hence it is with the most recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on Iraq. The ICG has some very good people but, because it embraces a sometimes simplistic notion of dialogue, most of its reports are predictable. Separatists beheading Christians in Southeastasiastan? It’s imperative that the two sides sit down and talk. Civil war breaks out in Formersovietakazia? Dialogue. Tribal violence erupts in Centralafricaland? Negotiations. Al-Qaeda rears its ugly head in Iraq? More talks. And if there already is a precedent of talks failing, and failing miserably? No matter. That must be the exception rather than the rule, no matter if reality shows exceptions to trump the rule each and every time.
On April 28, the International Crisis Group released “Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain” which seeks to put the crisis in al-Anbar in the following context:
When in December 2013 Iraq’s central authorities cleared a year-long sit-in in the city that was demanding better treatment from Baghdad, Falluja’s residents took to the streets. ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) took advantage of the ensuing chaos, moved forces into the city and asserted it had seized control. The claim was greatly exaggerated: while it raised its black flag above some administration buildings in the city centre, locals blocked most of their forays and forced them to retreat to the outskirts.
But Baghdad had a casus belli: it besieged the city, ignored local attempts to mediate an ISIL withdrawal and threatened to attack. Falluja residents held no brief for ISIL, but their hatred of the Iraqi army – seen as the instrument of a Shiite, sectarian regime, directed from Tehran, that discriminates against Sunnis in general and Anbar in particular – ran even deeper. The city’s rebels struck a Faustian bargain, forming an alliance of convenience with ISIL. The jihadis’ military might kept the army at bay, but their presence justified the government’s claim that the entire city was under jihadi control. A self-reinforcing cycle has taken root: jihadi activity encourages government truculence that in turn requires greater jihadi protection.
This is a pretty problematic recasting of a narrative of what happened. While I fault Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for letting electoral calculations color the timing of military action against al-Qaeda in al-Anbar (and while I find reason to criticize Maliki for other aspects of his administration as well), it is inane to suggest that the protest camps did not include al-Qaeda elements. Indeed, there is quite a lot of video evidence to suggest they did. The ICG, for its part, confuses chronology when they declare, “The crisis has rescued Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s chances in the parliamentary elections, which, until ISIL entered the picture, appeared grim.” As the Syrian conflict has metathesized, ISIL had been a growing threat in Iraq, responsible for dozens of attacks that killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians. And while Maliki’s third term was and is far from certain, the idea that his chances were ever “grim” is simply wrong. Elections should determine destiny. Alas, rather than simply let elections determine al-Anbar’s fate, the ICG appears to castigate the many Sunnis from local parties who have joined in coalition against the terrorists in al-Anbar. Encouraging cross-sectarian (and cross-ethnic) political groupings is something the ICG should encourage. Shame on them and anyone else who does not do so.
The ICG continues—as per its apparent organizational template—to recommend that the central government begin negotiations with Fallujah’s military council. This seems to be the repeat of the disastrous experience with the so-called Fallujah brigades at the beginning of the insurgency in 2004. Hence, once again, the religion of dialogue trumps empirical evidence that talking to the wrong people can make matters much, much worse.
Twisting reality to encourage dialogue permeates the report. The Baath Party was an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist party that imposed a brutal dictatorship responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of people. Here’s how the ICG describes it, though: “An ostensibly secular party that monopolized political representation under Saddam Hussein.” It describes the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) as “nationalists” and suggests they want merely to establish “a new political system without sectarian and ethnic quotas.” First of all, they are not simply nationalists. Both have embraced the most brutal terror tactics and pronounced their desire to target “unbelievers,” which suggests that religion trumps nationalism in their worldview. As for eliminating sectarian quotas, that’s merely the slogan both groups have sold to gullible Westerners to explain their vision to purge Iraq of all sectarian diversity altogether.It’s akin to apologists for Attila the Hun to describe his refusal to take prisoners and engage in wholesale massacres as evidence that he is truly committed to reducing prison overpopulation.
The ICG is no better when it comes to individuals. It describes Harith al-Dhari, who is on Interpol’s wanted list and is also sanctioned by the UN for al-Qaeda activity, merely as “a cleric with an affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood.” It describes Izzat al-Duri, Saddam Hussein’s former deputy and the most wanted man still on the run, as merely “an ex-senior official under Saddam and reputed Sufi.”
There’s a time and a place for dialogue, but that dialogue should never extend to those who reject constitutionalism, disregard the rule of law or, absent a broad-based revolution such as that which heralded the collapse of the Eastern bloc or Brotherhood rule in Syria, seek to achieve through violence what they are unable to achieve via the ballot box. Nor in the face of terrorism—a military challenge that rejects every aspect of the established order—is it wise to recommend that the United States cut off assistance to the Iraqi government. Terrorists respond to weakness not with compromise, but with redoubling their efforts.
Just as when the American Friends Service Committee–the official NGO of the Quakers–embraced the Khmer Rouge, good intentions are not an excuse when the result is the empowerment of hateful groups which do not recognize the value of human life for those who do not share their beliefs. The ICG has wrapped itself in an ideological cocoon from which it has crafted a reality that does not match what is on the ground. The result of following ICG recommendations would be a bloodbath. Talking to terrorists doesn’t bring peace; it simply legitimizes and empowers terrorists. Most Iraqis recognize this. Let us hope that John Kerry’s State Department does as well.