As the sectarian violence in Iraq increases, I find myself wondering whether we ever really had a choice about fighting there. Had we left Saddam in power, we would have found ourselves embroiled in a sectarian war in the Persian Gulf eventually, anyway. In other words, it was a case of deal with the problem now, or deal with it later. And the longer we waited, the bigger the problem would have been. Rather than being caught in a sectarian war in Iraq, we'd have found ourselves caught up in a regional sectarian conflict.
Many people write as if the sectarian warfare in Iraq was caused by coalition intervention. But it is surely obvious that the struggle for mastery has been going on for some time and was only masked by the apparently iron unity imposed under Baathist rule. That rule was itself the dictatorship of a tribal Tikriti minority of the Sunni minority and constituted a veneer over the divisions beneath, as well as an incitement to their perpetuation. The Kurds had already withdrawn themselves from this divide-and-rule system by the time the coalition forces arrived, while Shiite grievances against the state were decades old and had been hugely intensified by Saddam's cruelty. Nothing was going to stop their explosion, and if Saddam Hussein's regime had been permitted to run its course and to devolve (if one can use such a mild expression) into the successorship of Udai and Qusai, the resulting detonation would have been even more vicious.
And into the power vacuum would have stepped not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, each with its preferred confessional faction, but also Turkey, in pursuit of hegemony in Kurdistan. In other words, the alternative was never between a tranquil if despotic Iraq and a destabilizing foreign intervention, but it was, rather, a race to see which kind of intervention there would be. The international community in its wisdom decided to delay the issue until the alternatives were even fewer, but it is idle to pretend that Iraq was going to remain either unified or uninvaded after the destruction of its fabric as a state by three decades of fascism and war, including 12 years of demoralizing sanctions.
The Middle East has been headed for a major war for decades. I don't think there was anything we could have done to stop it, short of military intervention. Iraq will wind up being the focal point of much of the war. And the real lesson of 9/11 is that the U.S. is not insulated from the problems brewing--or boiling over--in the Middle East. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans can't protect us. Our economic prosperity can't protect us. And our advance technology can't protect us. We can't hide anymore. Welcome to the real world, America.