The noted British historian Niall Ferguson, who likes grand, sweeping comparisons, has an interesting riff on civil wars in this month's Atlantic Monthly. He reviews the most vicious recent examples--Yugoslavia and Rwanda--and wonders where Iraq fits into the paradigm.
As bad as it was, Yugoslavia was a relatively benign civil conflict, because it did not spill over into neighboring states. The Serb-Croat feud that re-emerged after the death of Tito was confined to those groups and the Bosnian Muslims of Bosnia-Hercegovina. There were no Serbs, Croats or Bosnians in neighboring states, as there had been before World Wars I and II, and so the violence remained contained to Yugoslavia. By contrast, in Rwanda, extremists among the Hutu majority launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Tutsi minority, which brought on an invasion of Tutsis living in Uganda, who drove many Hutus into neighboring Congo. Most of Rwanda's neighbors ended up heavily involved and invested in that conflict. Some 3 million died in that long-running horror.
Iraq, Ferguson argues, belongs in the more lethal category, because all of its neighbors have players in the crux of that conflict, Sunni v. Shiia. Iran is predominantly Shiia, with a small minority of Sunnis, Syria has a significant Shiia minority amidst Sunnis, Saudi Arabia is mostly Sunni but has Shiia as well. Meanwhile, Turkey has a significant and troublesome Kurdish minority, as do Syria and Iran. None of these neighbors is disinterested; indeed, Saudi Arabia has threatened to intervene on behalf of the Sunni Iraqis if the situation worsens, Turkey has made noises about war if the Kurds declare independence, and it's the worst kept secret in the world that Iran has been aiding their fellow Shiia. Add to invested neighbors the strategic importance of the region, and there is a great potential for a wider war. I don't think President Bush is in a position to fight all these people, so maybe it's time for some jaw-jaw with the parties rather than war-war.
The most ominious part of Ferguson's article is his comparison of the Middle East, 2007, with Europe before June 28, l9l4. Even given Ferguson's penchant for overreaching, that's not a happy thought.