Iraq was doomed when peace broke out: Column
Diverse nations without looming outside enemies tend to fall apart.
Iraq no longer faces imminent invasion by its neighbors. Yet it may be breaking apart. Ditto Syria. A social scientist writing in 1996, Michael Desch, predicted such a turn of events. He noticed that external threats led to internal cohesion, and when the threat was removed, the cohesion broke down, sometimes violently.
Take the United States' own history. After removing French and British threats with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, followed by pushing Spain out of Florida in 1819, acquiring Texas in 1845 and defeating Mexico in the 1840s, the U.S. was left without enemies along its borders. Not coincidentally, argues Desch, the country soon descended into civil war.
The same could be said of 19th century Europe. From the Napoleonic Wars through the 1850s' Crimean War, Europe was more or less at peace with itself. But internally, its countries were riven by factionalism. Russia saw the Decembrist revolt. Greece rebelled against its Ottoman overseers. Later, popular revolutions raged across the continent.
During the Cold War, Yugoslavia was held together by a strongman, Tito, but also by the threat of European war. Once the Berlin Wall fell, the fractious Croats, Bosniacs and Serbs all went at each others' throats.
Similarly, for decades Arab countries such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt were ruled by secular strongmen who used the threat of external enemies — Islamist radicals, Israel and so forth — as the glue to keep fractious societies together. With the threat of foreign invaders fading, the Arab Spring arrived in 2011.
This is not to downplay the seriousness of war but rather to emphasize an overlooked consequence of peace: A lower threat environment could lead to weaker national bonds. But with foreign wars going out of fashion in the U.S., that has reduced the external-threat environment and arguably with it, national unity. We still rally around the flag during World Cup games, but rarely are we going off "in search of monsters to destroy."
We might expect countries to engage in more diversionary wars. If Iraq and Israel went to war tomorrow, that might unite Sunni and Shiites. One theory to explain China's recent saber-rattling in the South China Sea is to keep its fractious Muslim and Tibetan minorities in check. The inflated boogeyman of the U.S. has done wonders to hold North Korea's hermetic kingdom together for half a century. And Russia has become less fractionalized internally since annexing Crimea and demonizing the West. The uglier things look outside the tent, the better things looks inside it.
The lesson for policymakers is not that too much peace is a bad thing. Rather that once foreign threats are removed or neutralized, religiously and ethnically diverse countries used to hostile environments abroad can often turn inward and become unglued. Hence, we should not be all that surprised by the civil wars in Iraq and Syria.
One might even argue that the divisiveness we are witnessing in the U.S. is evidence of this theory, as the country is tearing itself apart over how (and how much) the federal government should rule. This tension re-emerged only after the post-9/11 threat of Islamist radicalism began to recede.
Coincidence? Maybe it's time for Canada to invade.
Lionel Beehner, editor of Cicero Magazine, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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