History Lesson

Memo to Iraq

Four strategies for averting civil war.

Depending on whom you ask, Iraq is either on the verge of horrifying civil war or already in a civil war that is on the verge of getting much wider and bloodier. Is there any way to step back from the brink?

In the wake of Bosnia and Rwanda, the assumption is that ethnically divided countries can never function. But countless countries at risk of civil war have been able to avoid going over the cliff. The most famous example is South Africa. Under apartheid, the country was widely seen as a likely candidate for a massive and devastating all-out civil war, yet despite some substantial violence, it managed to transform into today’s multiethnic democracy. Throughout Africa, as the Stanford civil war experts James Fearon and David Laitin point out, 18,000 examples of ethnic groups interacting regularly with each other between 1960 and 1979 led to only 52 civil wars.

So, how have divided countries kept the peace? Here are a few successful strategies.

1. Preventive Diplomacy by Outsiders
In 1992, the United Nations sent a “preventive deployment” force to Macedonia. These troops were joined in 1993 by 300 American U.N. peacekeepers. The U.N. troops patrolled Macedonia’s border with Serbia and Albania as a pointed reminder that America would frown on any expansion of the war in Bosnia into Macedonia. The deterrent worked. The wars of a crumbling Yugoslavia did not spread into Macedonia (although that U.N. mission did nothing to help Bosnia, and there was some ethnic violence in Macedonia in 2001). It was a limited mission but a success.

2. State Strengthening
Fearon and Laitin argue that weak and unstable states ruling over large and poor populations are at particular risk of insurgencies. The countries most in danger of civil war tend to have weak regimes—fragile governments that don’t have the capacity to be dictatorial enough to completely stifle their opposition or to be democratic enough to placate it. That’s why the continued weakness of Iraq’s own police, and the presence of a variety of armed militias, is so worrisome in Iraq. Wealthier governments are generally probably better at quashing rebellions.

3. No Bowling Alone 
When ordinary people come together across ethnic lines to form unions, political parties, soccer leagues, or movie clubs, their social connections can help prevent civil strife.

The scariest rift in India is between Hindus and Muslims. That division ripped the country apart in 1947 and at worst could do so again. But Ashutosh Varshney, a University of Michigan expert on Indian politics, points out that Hindu-Muslim riots usually happen only in certain of India’s cities and very rarely in the countryside. Why are some places, like Bombay and Ahmedabad, so much more volatile than others?

Varshney’s answer, updating Tocqueville, is that intercommunal civic life in India has been a powerful force in preventing Hindu-Muslim violence. In Hyderabad, Varshney argues, Hindus and Muslims don’t come together in social and economic life. In places like Calicut and Lucknow, by contrast, members of the two groups mix in groups like trade unions, business associations, and professional organizations of teachers and doctors.

Those civic ties, nurtured in good times, can ride out the inevitable shocks that come from bad times. In India, that has included upheavals like partition in 1947 or the 1992 demolition of a revered 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya by a mob of Hindu militants. The destruction of the mosque sparked nationwide riots, but India did not disintegrate into civil war. In some places during moments of ethnic upheaval, there were even small-scale emergency “peace committees,” in which Hindus and Muslims patrolled neighborhoods, quelled inflammatory rumors, and helped keep communications open across ethnic lines.

4. Ethnic Group Self-Policing
A final strategy is for moderates to shut down their own extremists. This makes ethnic cooperation much easier, Fearon and Laitin argue. For example, nasty behavior by an Abkhazian extremist would ideally result in punishment by more level-headed fellow Abkhazians who don’t want to risk mass retaliation by rival Georgians. Without that kind of intra-Abkhazian self-policing, the Georgians can’t really tell the benign Abkhazians from the nasty ones, so they have to lash back at all of the Abkhazians. This kind of thing happens all over the world. Fearon and Laitin relate an incident in British-controlled Yorubaland in west Africa, in which the Yoruba complained that some of the Hausa were sheltering thieves. As a result, an influential Hausa man was chosen to be held responsible for his people and to rat out Hausa burglars to the authorities.

Although it’s a case of regional rather than civil conflict, in-group policing was exactly what Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, did after a Jewish settler massacred Palestinians worshiping in a Hebron mosque in February 1994. The settler had been killed in the wake of his attack, so Israel could not try him for his crimes. But Rabin thunderously told the Israeli Knesset: “[A]s a Jew, as an Israeli, as a man and as a human being, I am shamed over the disgrace imposed upon us by a degenerate murderer. … To him and to those like him we say: You are not part of the community of Israel.”

In Iraq, some Sunni and Shiite leaders have been doing their own self-policing, exactly as you might hope. After the destruction of the Samarra mosque last month, religious leaders across the country used their Friday sermons to call for peace. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a major Shiite leader and imam, said on Iraqi television that no Sunni mosques should be attacked, and that the bombers of the Samarra mosque “do not represent the Sunnis.” Those were the right kind of remarks.

But restraint was not the only thing preached. Some Shiite imams had harsh words for the Sunni leadership, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, usually a powerful voice for Shiite moderation, said that regular people would have to start protecting mosques since the government could not do so. There are many ways out of the trap of civil war. But those are the kind of fighting words you hear as a country slides over the edge.