More deaths overnight in Iraq. We report on a chillingly important analysis from the Brookings Institute in Washington. We have been warned.

“With each passing day, Iraq sinks deeper into the abyss of civil war. President George W. Bush has staked everything on one last-chance effort to quell the fighting and jumpstart a process of political reconciliation and economic reconstruction. Should this last effort fail, the United States is likely to very quickly have to determine how best to handle an Iraq that will be erupting into Bosnia- or Lebanon-style all-out civil war. The history of such wars is that they are disastrous for all parties, but the United States will have little choice but to try to stave off disaster as best it can.

“To begin to help provide a solution to that dilemma, Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution have written Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War“. The full paper is available here.

The study draws on the history of the recent civil wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Congo, Croatia, Georgia, Kosovo, Lebanon, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Somalia, and Tajikistan.

Civil war in Iraq is not inevitable – although the study shows that contemporary analysis of just when Iraq-style conflict turns into civil war will not provide any clear answer until it is too late. If that is the case the costs will be very high.

Two paragraphs in particular caught Henry’s eye:

The United States will confront a range of problems stemming from the collapse of Iraq into all-out civil war. These will likely include the humanitarian tragedy of hundreds of thousands (or more) of Iraqis killed along with several times that number maimed and millions of refugees. American influence in the Middle East will be drastically diminished, as will our ability to promote economic and political reform there. The loss of Iraqi oil production could have a significant impact on global oil prices, and supply disruptions elsewhere in the region, particularly in Saudi Arabia, could be particularly devastating.

However, the greatest problems that the United States must be prepared to confront are the patterns of “spillover” by which civil wars in one state can deleteriously affect another, or in some cases destabilize a region or create global threats. Spillover is the tendency of civil wars to impose burdens, create instability, and even trigger civil wars in other, usually neighboring countries.

All this is pretty chilling. The authors provide a list of actions the US can take to minimise the chances of civil war but these look pretty ambitious (as well as ambiguous) to Henry.

If the worst outcome occurs and there is a vastly costly civil war, can John Howard remain relatively immune to the voter backlash that has afflicted George Bush and Tony Blair? That is the least of the questions in this matter, but the answer will matter to lots of Australian politicians.

Read more at Henry Thornton.