From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
The Capital Awaits a Masterstroke on Iraq
By HELENE COOPER / December 17, 2006
SOMEONE in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office has gotten everybody
on this city’s holiday party circuit talking, simply by floating an
unlikely Iraq proposal that is worthy of a certain mid-19th century
British naturalist with a fascination for natural selection.
We shall call it the Darwin Principle.
The Darwin Principle, Beltway version, basically says that Washington
should stop trying to get Sunnis and Shiites to get along and instead
just back the Shiites, since there are more of them anyway and
they’re likely to win in a fight to the death. After all, the
proposal goes, Iraq is 65 percent Shiite and only 20 percent Sunni.
The Darwin Principle is radical, decisive and most likely not going
anywhere. But the fact that it has even been under discussion, no
matter how briefly, says a lot about the dearth of good options facing
the Bush administration and the yearning in this city for some
masterstroke to restore optimism about the war.
As President Bush and his deputies chew over whether there’s a Hail
Mary pass to salvage Iraq, it has become increasingly clear that the
president will probably throw the ball toward his secretary of state,
Make no mistake, the Rice way is a long shot as well. It’s a catchall
of a plan that has something for everyone. Its goal – if peace and
victory can’t be had – is at least to give a moderate Shiite
government the backbone necessary to stand up to radicals like Moktada
al-Sadr through new alliances with moderate Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
In this plan, America’s Sunni Arab allies would press centrist Iraqi
Sunnis to support a moderate Shiite government. Outside Baghdad, Sunni
leaders would be left alone to run Sunni towns. Radical Shiites, no
longer needed for the coalition that keeps the national government
afloat, would be marginalized. So would Iran and Syria. To buy off the
Sunni Arab countries, the United States would push forward on a
comprehensive peace plan in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The Rice plan seems diplomatic and reasoned. But it breaks no molds.
Which is why examining the Darwin Principle better helps explain the
mood of the capital right now.
“Deciding to side with the Shia is probably the most inflammatory
thing we could do right now,” says Wayne White, a member of the Iraq
Study Group who is now at the Middle East Institute, a research center
here. “It would be a multi-headed catastrophe.”
At first glance, the idea of siding with the Shiites doesn’t seem
that crazy. America has, after all, had more spectacular trouble of
late from Sunni extremists like Al Qaeda and the Taliban than from
Shiites, whose best-remembered attacks on Americans were two decades
ago, by hostage-takers in Iran and truck bombers in Lebanon.
But Middle East experts can provide a long list of reasons why a
survival-of-the-fittest theory might not necessarily be the best way to
conduct American foreign policy in Iraq. First, they say, it’s always
dangerous to take sides in a civil war. Second, siding with the Shiites
in a Shiite-Sunni war is particularly dangerous since most of the Arab
world is Sunni and America’s major Arab allies are Sunni. Besides
Iraq, Shiites form a large majority only in Iran, and, well, enough
If America has problems now with Muslim extremists around the world,
those would likely worsen if the United States was believed to have
aided the uprooting or extermination of Iraq’s Sunni population.
On Monday, a group of prominent Saudi clerics called on Sunni Muslims
everywhere to mobilize against Shiites in Iraq, complaining that Sunnis
were being murdered and marginalized by Shiites.
So, where is the Darwin Principle coming from?
Well, there’s no proof Mr. Cheney really even backs it. Unnamed
government officials with knowledge in the matter say the proposal
comes from his office, but they stop short of saying it comes from Mr.
Other top officials say it is highly unlikely that the administration
would pursue such a radical course. (Of course, the radical nature of
the Darwin Principle is all the more reason to assume it comes from Mr.
Cheney himself.) But it is difficult to imagine the administration
actually publicly announcing such a course even if it decided on it.
Can you just hear President Bush’s speech to the nation? “My Fellow
Americans, the United States has decided that there are more Shiites
than Sunnis in Iraq, so we are therefore going to side with the people
most likely to win a fight to the death. We’ll figure out how to deal
with the rest of the Arab world, where there are more Sunnis than
Still, somewhere deep inside the Beltway, someone has laid out the
intellectual basis for the Shiite option. So some people with knowledge
of the thinking behind the proposal were asked to explain it. None
agreed to be identified, citing an administration edict against talking
about President Bush’s change-of-strategy in Iraq before the
president articulates exactly what that change will be. But here’s
what they said:
America abandoned the Shiites in 1991 and look where that got us. Mr.
Cheney has argued that America can’t repeat what it did after the
Persian Gulf war, when it called on the Shiites to rise up against
Saddam Hussein, then left them to be slaughtered when they did. The
result was 12 more years of the Iraqi dictator’s iron-fisted rule,
which ended up leading to war anyway.
Reconciliation hasn’t worked. The logic of the past couple of years
has been that Iraq’s Constitution and election process would bring
together the Sunnis and the Shiites. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal
al-Maliki was eventually able to formulate a so-called National Unity
Government in which Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds all hold key positions.
That government has proved itself to be “disappointing,” one senior
administration official acknowledged delicately. And violence has
continued to surge.
Maybe America can scare the Sunnis into behaving. That’s the “stare
into the abyss” strategy, another senior administration official
said. He said that for the past three years, Sunni insurgent groups,
and many Sunni politicians, have refused to recognize that the
demographics of Iraq are not in their favor. Sunni insurgents can share
the responsibility with Shiite death squads for the violence in Iraq,
but the Sunnis have the most to lose in an all-out civil war, since
they are outnumbered three to one. So perhaps Darwin Principle
proponents – whoever they are – just want to scare Sunnis,
including those in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other American allies, into
trying harder for reconciliation.
Ms. Rice “does not believe we should plainly take one side over
another,” said a State Department official, who said he doesn’t
support the Shiite option but sees the convoluted logic of it. “But
the demography of Iraq is a fact.”
The longer America tries to woo the Sunnis, the more it risks
alienating the Shiites and Kurds, and they’re the ones with the oil.
A handful of administration officials have argued that Iraq is not
going to hold to together and will splinter along sectarian lines. If
so, they say, American interests dictate backing the groups who control
the oil-rich areas.
Darwin? Try Machiavelli. An even more far-fetched offshoot of the
Darwin Principle is floating around, which some hawks have tossed out
in meetings, although not seriously, one administration official said.
It holds that America could actually hurt Iran by backing Iraq’s
Shiites; that could deepen the Shiite-Sunni split and eventually lead
to a regional Shiite-Sunni war. And in that, the Shiites – and Iran
– lose because, while there are more Shiites than Sunnis in Iraq and
Iran, there are more Sunnis than Shiites almost everywhere else.