A PROVOCATION....In my ongoing effort to embarrass myself in public, I'm going to revisit the subject of the feared Mideast meltdown that might follow in the wake of an American withdrawal from Iraq. First, though, to make my position absolutely clear: I do believe that the Iraq civil war itself would likely get worse if we leave, but I don't believe this would necessarily lead to a broadening of the war to the entire region (the "Middle East In Flames" theory).
My skepticism of the MEIF theory is mostly grounded in two things. First, it's a theory that gets an awful lot of uncritical acceptance without much in the way of actual detailed argument. That's always a bad sign. Second, worst case scenarios have a long history of being trotted out as a convenient way of forestalling unwanted action, and that's what seems to be happening in this case.
Beyond that, though, there are the specifics of the MEIF scenario itself and this is the part where I embarrass myself. So here's the nickel version of why I suspect an Iraqi civil war won't spread.
The four neighbors that are most likely to get involved in a wider war are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan, and Syria. Basically, I consider Saudi Arabia a paper tiger. They're militarily incompetent and will never get directly involved in Iraq, no matter how much the local Wahhabi imams rant about the persecution of Iraq's Sunni minority. Iran is more competent, but over the past 30 years they've never displayed any territorial ambitions. They prefer working through proxies. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are likely to provide some modest funding for their "side," but probably not much more.
Jordan has no desire to get involved in any kind of war, and in any case we have a moderate amount of influence with King Abdullah. We can almost certainly keep Jordan from taking precipitate action as long as they don't feel too threatened. Syria is harder to predict, but they've got plenty of problems on their plate already. Besides, they've been making fairly consistently conciliatory noises lately, and as Eric Umansky reminds us, they actively tried to cooperate with us in the early days of the Iraq war until Donald Rumsfeld put the kibosh on them.
Needless to say, no one can predict the future with any confidence, especially in a region as turbulent as the Middle East. And it's impossible to prove that a worst case scenario won't happen. Still, I think most of the regional players are more invested in stability than we give them credit for, especially if the United States takes a sane and energetic diplomatic approach to things. Saudi Arabia and Iran both want to keep their oil flowing, and both continue to keep bilateral talks plodding along. Syria will follow Iran's lead. Jordan will hunker down.
But having said all that, here's the thing: I'm talking through my hat. My instincts tell me that the MEIF theory is overblown, but I don't know the region well enough to say this with any confidence. So take this post as more of a provocation than anything else. What I'm hoping is that a few genuine regional experts will read it and chime in, telling me either that I'm full of shit or else that I'm onto something. Anything just to get the MEIF theory out in the open and the subject of genuine conversation. You may all fire when ready.