More ten year old IR pieces that read as if written tomorrow. Up today, though sadly enough not on the web, The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict by Barry Posen, who you may remember from such op-eds as this Boston Review piece. For those of you with access to a decent research library, well worth looking up.
The security dilemma is one of those theoretical shortcuts that has gotten surprisingly little attention during the past, oh, five years. The concept, in a nutshell: actors want to be security vis a vis each other, and the measure of this security is the ability to defend themselves against the other. To ensure his own security, one actor stockpiles weapons, or takes up an aggressive tactical position just in case trouble happens, or hoards resources. The other actor looks at the first, sees that the other actor now has an advantage; and confronts a question: does he trust actor the first? Because measured sheerly on capability, the first actor now has a power to hurt the second actor that wasn't there before, and the only thing which would prevent the first actor from using this power is his own good will towards actor two. It's thus not irrational for the second actor to take an action to ensure his own security, which in turn makes actor one less secure, which starts the whole thing over again. And in that kind of spiral, it doesn't take much for one actor or another to think that maybe, maybe, it could best ensure its security be getting rid of the other actor. Permanently.
So how does this play into civil wars? Like this (and really, Posen's article is much richer than this half-digested version I'm giving up here, and you really should go find it; in the meantime, here is a decent little explication of Posen's piece in a paper by Jack Snyder and Robert Jervis). Ethnic groups look at each other in a vacuum and have to gauge the relative likelihood that the other groups will, if in power, use the power of the state to persecute. If Group A might be persecuted by Group B, Group A is going to want to retain the ability to defend itself, or is going to want to keep Group B from gaining power. The ability to defend itself of necessity implies the power to hurt Group B. Group B in turn retains its arms to defend itself against the armed Group A, which in turn causes Group A to feel it needs a stronger option to protect itself against Group B. Each step closer to the brink makes it harder for to step away, as the ability to punish on both sides is now so great. Eventually a mistake happens; an incident is misintepreted, or blow out of proportion, and it all breaks loose: better to strike first, and we're racing off to the killing fields. The application to Iraq should have been obvious by now.
What makes this situation worse in places with ethnic conflict is that, very often, groups have good reason to distrust the intentions of the other; the odd bit of forced relocation, or ethnic cleansing. The kind of thing that makes it hard to forgive and forget.
Anyway. A strongly recommended read if you can find it, and remember: no one could have predicted that Iraq would fall apart.