In Things Fall Apart, Byman and Pollack, both Washington policymakers now affiliated with the Brookings Institution, provide informed speculation on the local and regional fallout from an Iraqi civil war.
Their approach, while theoretical, is grounded in a sound knowledge of history. The authors first explore patterns of past civil wars, consequences of spillover, and policy options the U.S. government might have adopted to counter such trends. Then, they offer well-referenced case studies of other civil wars: Afghanistan, Congo, Lebanon, Somalia, and Yugoslavia, examining many of the same patterns and consequences.
For policymakers, the relevance of Things Fall Apart is in its recommendations should Iraq descend into civil war. Byman and Pollack advocate neither the picking of winners nor dumping the problem on the United Nations, which is ill-equipped to handle violent conflicts.
Nor, the authors argue, should Washington support the partition advocated by Senator Joseph Biden and former ambassador Peter Galbraith. Despite the sectarian and ethnic violence, the authors argue, Iraq's population remains sufficiently mixed that any partition would precipitate rather than resolve violence. In the event of all-out civil war, the authors recommend that Washington resist the temptation to intervene on humanitarian grounds in Iraq's population centers. Protecting cities takes a massive investment of troops, and as the U.N.'s Bosnia safe-haven experiment demonstrated, halfhearted interventions can tragically backfire.
Rather, the authors suggest that Washington should endeavor to stabilize the region in order to prevent spillover. This means making clear to Tehran what behavior it is unwilling to tolerate and persuading the Kurds that they should not declare independence, since secessionism can be infectious. The U.S. government might also offer incentives to neighboring states to prevent their intervention and impose sanctions on those who do. To facilitate diplomacy and better manage crises, Byman and Pollack recommend the establishment of a permanent contact group with officials from neighboring states. They acknowledge that the Pentagon will need to remain poised to strike at terrorist centers and might assist in creating refugee "spill basins," or safe havens, along Iraq's borders to contain refugee flow.
Well-researched and written, Things Fall Apart is a useful exercise in thinking one step ahead. Not all of the authors' suggestions may be realistic: Their attitudes toward diplomacy can be Pollyannaish at times; they acknowledge that U.S. forces may need to undertake military action against Iranian meddling, but they do not explore what might happen if the Iranian government refuses to be intimidated. Nevertheless, Things Fall Apart provides an invaluable framework from which policymakers across the political spectrum might begin to develop strategies to contain a collapsing Iraqi state.