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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Thursday, 16 November 2006
The Day We Chose Sides
Topic: Iraq
The Day We Chose Sides
Finding some way to make the war in Iraq turn out in some marginally acceptable way seems to be the issue consuming Washington, and to some degree our allies in the UK - which would be the Blair government there, not the people. Blair never quite got the people of the United Kingdom to buy into the war, but he had the levers of power so that didn't matter much. What are you going to do? He had been given the decision-making power, and he decided to throw his lot in with us.

Enough people here were for the war initially. Enough of the people were convinced Saddam had nukes and deadly chemicals and nasty biological stuff - and somehow had something to with 9/11 - that the substantial numbers of those who wondered about all that were drowned out. We were told his little drone airplanes could blanket Miami or Philadelphia with anthrax or whatever. We were told about mushroom clouds. And anyway, we had to hit back at someone - we had to make a statement, and Iraq was as good a someone as any you could find. Saddam Hussein was one nasty piece of work, a mass murderer and all. It would be good to take him out, in any event. And the bad guys around the world would discover we really did hit back, and as Thomas Freidman said at the time, we needed them to know that. So we made our statement, and everything that followed turned sour.

When the original reasons for this adventure turned out to be what the software folks call vaporware, the neoconservative theory about the "New American Century" remained standing. The "making a statement" argument stood - we were the sole remaining superpower after the end of the Cold War and bad guys everywhere had to be reminded of that, dramatically, and of their own impotence, even more dramatically. Rubbing their noses in their impotence would make us safe as they slinked off with their tails between their legs and everyone laughed at them. This was an odd reading of human nature, not allowing that they might dispute our assessment of their impotence and try to prove us wrong. When they did, we applied more and more force, and continue to do so. The problem is they have done the same, in their quite irritating asymmetrical way. So we apply more force. It didn't work before - so it must be going to work in the future.

Then too, when all the other rationales evaporated, we were reminded of our role in building the "New American Century" - it was our destiny or burden, or whatever you will, to build free-market Jeffersonian democracies where there had been none before. The basic idea informing the neoconservative movement was that when the Soviet Union self-destructed and communism turned out to be a dreadful joke, it was obvious our way of running things had prevailed. It was the one system left standing, so it must be, by default, the only way to manage a society. This was The End of History and all that - "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Francis Fukuyama said that, in 1989 and then in 1992. That was the whole idea. Iraq was to be taking that idea out for a spin - applying it. We'd plant the send of the manifestly best system of government there, and the whole region would be transformed, as everyone learned the lesson of the Cold War - only one system works, and history, which had just ended, proved it. That's now what we say we're up to.

Fukuyama has since left the neoconservative movement and decided he had been wrong. Some things that are universal and obvious are also things that are hard to set up, and may take decades of building the institutions and customs that underlie Western liberal democracy - a free press and a sense of compromise and codified basic individual rights and assured public safety and shared-cost basic services. Unlike the Manifest Destiny we proclaimed in the nineteenth century, our new mandate, our new destiny, turned out to be hard work - it wasn't just grabbing every acre out to the Pacific, killing off the Indians, and James Monroe telling the rest of the world to keep their hand off anything in the western hemisphere. This was building from scratch, in a year or two, what had evolved over centuries elsewhere.

And they thought this would work? That seems absurd. But then there were no nukes nor any deadly chemicals nor any nasty biological stuff, and Saddam Hussein seems to have had nothing to do with 9/11, and he had actually loathed and feared al Qaeda (the feeling was mutual). This would have to do for an objective - victory will be achieved when we have established, or helped establish, a Western liberal democracy in Iraq.

That's not working. We find ourselves pretty much responsible for a failed government in a nation in the middle of what looks like a brutal sectarian civil war, and now screw the Western liberal democracy thing - we'll settle for a stable government of almost any sort.

And that's the problem. What would a stable government of almost any sort look like? Do we choose sides in the civil war - supporting the folks who have the best chance of getting things under control - or do we try to get the three sides - Sunni, Shiite and Kurd - to play nice with each other?

We need to think that one through.

And we don't have much time. Consider the news the Associated Press reported Thursday, November 16 - a double-dose of grim -
The Pentagon said a convoy of civilians traveling near Nasiriyah was hijacked on Thursday, while earlier in the day the Shiite-led Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant for the top leader of the country's Sunni minority. The move was certain to inflame already raging sectarian violence.

… An official familiar with the incident said preliminary reports being checked by the military indicated that the attack occurred at a checkpoint near Nasiriyah and that four Americans were believed to have been taken captive.
So we had the second hijack-kidnap incident of the week - and four American contactors taken - while the Shiite head of the Interior Ministry orders the arrest of the top Sunni in the country. How do we deal with this?

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, announced Thursday on state television that Harith al-Dhari was wanted for "inciting terrorism and violence among the Iraqi people." And Al-Dhari is head of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars - the biggest of big guns on that side. The idea may be to drive any moderate Sunnis out of the political system, bringing things to a head. AP notes that moderate Sunnis have been threatening for weeks to leave the government and take up arms. This may turn them, leading to an all out civil war - not just reprisal killings and cleansing neighborhood - and making it impossible for us to leave. Someone has to keep a lid on things.

Hell, the Sunnis and Shiites couldn't agree on whether all hostages had been released from a mass abduction in Baghdad two days earlier. And there was the expected reaction -
Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, spokesman for the Sunni association, condemned the warrant for al-Dhari's arrest.

"This government should resign before the Iraqi people force it to resign," al-Faidi told Al-Jazeera television from Jordan. "The association calls on its people to be calm."

Al-Faidi accused the interior minister "of supporting terrorism by covering for (Shiite) militias that are killing the Iraqi people."
Yep, he's a bit ticked - earlier this year, the Sunni association blamed the Interior Ministry for the killing of a nephew and cousin of al-Dhari. Their bodies had turned up in a bullet-riddled van in Baghdad. These guys play for keeps.

And don't forget the Kurds. On Tuesday, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, called al-Dhari a hard-liner with "nothing to do but incite sectarian and ethnic sedition."

How did we get in the middle of this? And the arrest warrant thing has always been a problem - in April 2004 we issued an arrest warrant against Muqtada al-Sadr and got ourselves a two-week uprising by his Mahdi Army militia. Hundreds were killed. And the Shiite who runs the country and visistes the White House, Al-Maliki, will do nothing to wipe out the Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr, is a key backer of the prime minister.

And it seems this Mahdi Army is responsible for kidnapping all those people from a Higher Education Ministry office building in Baghdad on Tuesday of the week. On Thursday, the Sunni higher education minister called the Interior Ministry "a farce" for not preventing that and claimed more than half the one hundred fifty that were grabbed were still in the hands of the Shiite vigilantes. National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite, said everyone had been freed and said everyone was making trouble when there was none now.

Sunni guys who had been abducted and released said most of the other Sunnis had been tortured and killed -
I was lucky. They only beat me with a wooden club. Others were handcuffed and hanged from the ceiling by their wrists. They were beaten with iron bars. Others, building guards, had cotton shoved in their mouths and tape wound around their heads. They suffocated. One was shot in the back. The managers in the building and people with higher degrees, masters and doctorates, were in a different room. I could hear them screaming like women. Then it was quiet. I think they died.
And we're in the middle of this. Hanging Saddam Hussein and televising it around the world close-up for all the gory details, isn't going to make this all better. William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and chief spokesman for the whole neoconservative movement, famously said that people know nothing and always engage in cheap pop psychology, but really, there has never been any history of conflict and strife between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq - folks were just wrong about that. Wrong - but even if he had been right, there is conflict and strife now. And we have to deal with it.

That same day in Baghdad gunmen fired on a bakery, killing nine people. It's a Sunni thing - most bakeries in the capital are run by Shiites. And we lost four more of ours that day - 2,862 at that point, and 44 through November 16. Now what? The president picked a hell of a day to finally make it to Vietnam, about forty years late. All the levels of irony are just too obvious.

But there may be a plan. Laura Rozen in the still functioning, for now, Los Angeles Times, reported that same day that the Bush national security team met over the Veterans Day weekend, quite secretly, to discuss options for Iraq. National security advisor Stephen Hadley seems to have set the agenda for the meeting, and it was all about choosing sides -
Numerous policy options were put forward at the meeting, which revolved around a strategy paper prepared by Hadley and drawn from his recent trip to Baghdad. One was the Shiite option. Participants were asked to consider whether the U.S. could really afford to keep fighting both the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias - or whether it should instead focus its efforts on combating the Sunni insurgency exclusively, and even help empower the Shiites against the Sunnis.

... So what's the logic behind the idea of "unleashing the Shiites"? It's the path of least resistance, according to its supporters, and it could help accelerate one side actually winning Iraq's sectarian conflict, thereby shortening the conflict, while reducing some of the critical security concerns driving Shiites to mobilize their own militias in the first place.
Ah, so that's why the Shiite head of the Interior Ministry ordered the arrest of the top Sunni. We may have stepped back and said fine, do it, knock yourself out. If we let the Sunnis go - hell, let them use gas chambers - we'll get some stability and find a way to finally step back and fade away, little by little. Someone's got to pay the price to get us out of this mess. They'll do.

Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly understands -
Would this be an appalling strategy to follow? Of course it would. Appalling options are all that's left to us in Iraq.

More to the point: is it worse than the other options at our disposal? Or, alternatively, is it slightly less bad? I'd guess the former. There's not much question that Shiite forces are eventually going to wipe out the Sunni insurgency, but it's probably slightly better for them to do it on their own instead of doing it with our active help, something that would alienate every Sunni in the Middle East. And don't think that we might be able to keep this a secret. Even if our support for this strategy were never publicly acknowledged, there's not much question that everyone in the region would understand perfectly well what was going on.

Such is the moral calculus we're left with in Iraq. It's not a battle between good and bad, it's a battle between bad and worse.
So we piss off our Sunni allies over there - the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Gulf States. They'll get over it. We're in a jam.

David Kurtz says this -
There are other policy options on the table, but so far "the last big push" and "the tilt" are the two we've seen most publicly articulated.

Are the lame names for these strategies indicative of how poor the policy options are?
Yes. That was easy. (The "the last big push" idea was discussed here.)

Matthew Yglesias just offers common sense -
Let me merely point out that our occupation of Iraq has now gone on for so long that this, like essentially every other idea, has already had its moment in the sun. After the heady days of the Early Bremer period, we attempted a Sunni Placation Strategy during Iyad Allawi's administration. Then, at some point during the Ibrahim Jafari Era the decision was made that we needed to be backing the forces of "democracy" in Iraq (i.e., the Shiites) against their adversaries. We eventually wound up backtracking on that, and have spent much of Nouri al-Maliki's administration attempting a return to the Sunni Placation Strategy, complete with the resumption of on-again, off-again warfare against Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers.

And so, sure, why not tilt back again? Then again, why not leave?
That's a thought. But we can't do that.

Posted by Alan at 21:53 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 16 November 2006 21:57 PST home

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