Looking Into the Abyss? (Part I)
Bush's un-provoked, unnecessary, largely unilateral invasion and unplanned occupation of Iraq (UULUIUOI) has produced a free-for-all civil war in Iraq. It is time for us to leave Iraq, but the prospect of imagining even more harm coming to Iraq than Bush's UULUIUOI has already done, seemingly paralyzes us. Lil'Bill and Wizard have goaded me into pondering the hypotheticals of this apocalypse. But others have dared before us.
I have already posted (twice) in these pages the words of Caleb Carr, who is an American novelist and military historian.
Carr is the author of "The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians" (Random House). He teaches military studies at Bard College. Writing about Iraq last April in the Washington Post, Carr said, let them have their civil war. In abriged form, he says,
. . . the real issue of importance for Americans with regard to any impending Iraqi civil war is: Are we morally justified in trying to prevent it?
. . . . every time an American official tries to tell the Shiites and the Kurds (along with the many smaller minorities in Iraq) that they are not entitled to the same judgments and justice as we ourselves received and wrought from 1861 to 1865, they make civil war in that country more -- not less -- likely. Such statements reveal the blatantly paternalistic, even racist, opinion that what was necessary in the American experience is not something for which the Iraqis are ready or qualified.
. . . . If the Iraqis wish to try it on their own, better that we allow them to use a mixture of their own militias and conventional forces -- the kind of combination that fought our Civil War.
England's civil war in the mid-17th century ensured the subsequent centuries of political stability under Parliament and a limited monarchy. But first there had to be a war with pitched battles and killing, including the decapitation of King Charles I, who had claimed absolute power by divine right.
The United States had its civil war two centuries later, which established the rule that states cannot leave the union — and abolished slavery in the process. The destruction was vast and the casualties immense as compared with all subsequent American wars, given the size of the population. But without the decisive victory of the Union, two separate and quarrelsome republics might still endure, periodically at war with each other.
Even Switzerland had a civil war — in 1847 — out of which came the limited but sturdy unity of its confederation. Close proximity, overlapping languages and centuries of common history were not enough to resolve differences between the cantons. They had to fight briefly, with 86 killed, to strike a balance of strength between them.
And so it must be with Iraq, the most haphazard of states, hurriedly created by the British after World War I with scant regard for its rival nationalities and sects.
Attempts by U.S. and British forces to stop the killings are feeble; it would take many times as many troops as remain in Iraq to make any difference. Nor can the fundamental factors that are causing the violence be reversed at this point, certainly not by fielding more Iraqi army and police units.
Sure, it would be nice to think that all the parties could just sit down and partition the country peaceably. But the Shiites can't even agree among themselves, so what hope is there of them talking to the Sunnis? There is no hatred as strong as theological hatred. So it is time for outsiders to step aside and let the Iraqis fight it out among themselves, ending with each controlling its own region.
. . . . Physical separation is therefore the only way to limit the carnage. That process has begun, to some extent, because the violence is driving out the members of one sect or the other from the many mixed villages, towns and city districts. This is a painful and very costly way of interrupting the cycle of attacks and reprisals, but that is how civil war achieves its purpose of eventually bringing peace.
Back in the 17th century, if the kings of continental Europe could have prevented England's civil war, it would have been at the price of perpetuating strife by blocking progress toward stable parliamentary government.
If the British and other European great powers had sent expeditionary armies to stop the enormous casualties and vast destruction of the American civil war, they could have prevented the eventual emergence of a peacefully united republic, perpetuating North-South hostility.
That is the mistake that the U.S. and its allies are now making by interfering with Iraq's civil war. They should disengage their troops from populated areas as much as possible, give up the intrusive checkpoints and patrols that are failing to contain the violence anyway and abandon the futile effort to build up military and police forces that are national only in name.
. . . .Iraq's civil war is no different from the British, Swiss or American internal wars. It too should be allowed to bring peace.
. . . . Withdrawal would indeed be likely to prompt a massive blood-letting in Iraq. It would give the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war far more oxygen and almost certainly provoke the Sunni powers, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to intervene financially or militarily in defence of Iraq’s outnumbered Sunni minority.
It would mean Iran emerging as a Shi’ite superpower in the region, with a strong presence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon further intensifying the sense of Sunni beleaguerment and anger. We could see violence along the ancient Sunni-Shi’ite fault line sucking in much of the region, with its many fragile regimes. The consequences could be soaring oil prices, and any number of unforeseen disasters. After all, ask yourself: how many pleasant surprises come out of the Middle East?
And yet the alternative — an indefinite entanglement with the pathologies of Iraq — prompts the question of whether there’s anything in this nightmare scenario that could be advantageous for the West. Is there a constructive argument for leaving? That’s the alternative scenario worth pondering.
Here’s how the counterintuitive argument would run. From 9/11 onwards the West’s war on terror has essentially followed the ideological narrative of Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden: this is a war between Islam and the West. President Bush’s dismal war strategy has only intensified that narrative, and that storyline is easily the most powerful recruitment device for Islamist terrorists in the West.
But if America withdrew from Iraq and a Sunni-Shi’ite war took off, the narrative of the long war would inevitably change. It would go from Islam versus the West to Islam versus itself. Escalating conflict in the Arab Muslim world would only be fully explicable in terms of the Sunni-Shi’ite split.
Instantly, Sunni Al-Qaeda would have a serious enemy close at hand: Shi’ite Iran. Think of this not as a “divide and conquer” strategy so much as a “divide and get out of the way” strategy. And with deft handling it could conceivably reap dividends in the long run.
Wars, after all, are not just about guns and military action. They are also about ideas and ideology. Long wars, especially, are won by those who gain control of the narrative . . . .
. . . . redefining the war on terror as essentially the product of ancient feuds within Islam immediately shifts the argument onto terrain favourable to the West. For the first time in five years, it takes the narrative out of Bin Laden’s hands.
It also has the added benefit of being true. Al-Qaeda’s primary foes have always been Arab regimes not in accordance with extreme fundamentalist Wahhabist theology. But that theology is also full of contempt for those regarded by Al-Qaeda and most Sunnis as heretics: the Shi’ites of Iran.
We are learning in Iraq not to underestimate the power of this mutual hatred. The loathing of Muslims for other Muslims in the Middle East today is as deep as the loathing of Christians for other Christians once was in Europe. For Sunni versus Shi’ite, think Protestant versus Catholic. For 2007, think 1557.
Freud’s term for the passionate hating of people very like oneself — but different in some minor degree — was the “narcissism of small differences”. The West has a chance to exploit that Muslim narcissism for our own purposes — and for the sake of moderate Muslims across the world.
Or look at this another way: what is the greatest weakness of our enemy? The answer is fanaticism. It was fanaticism that prompted Bin Laden to attack on 9/11 before he had access to WMDs. He struck too soon because he couldn’t help himself. His rage forces him to make mistakes. The same went for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who alienated all of Jordan by bombing a wedding and who even prompted Bin Laden to worry about killing too many Muslims in Iraq.
Al-Qaeda hates the West but its main beef is with fellow Muslims who are heretics and traitors. The fanatics have certainly killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims over the years.
So why not let them hang themselves by this rope? By leaving Iraq, America could create a dangerous civil war that nonetheless has huge propaganda potential for changing the entire game of this larger war. It takes the West much further out of the picture and focuses the mind where it truly belongs: on current Muslim pathologies, paranoia and self-hatred.
We can still prove our pro-reform bona fides by concentrating on Afghanistan, where we still have a chance to turn things around. And we also give Iran a big headache in grappling with the chaos on its border.
The other likely result of a Sunni-Shi’ite war is serious damage to the world’s oil supply. But isn’t that just what the West needs? Don’t we desperately need to wean ourselves off oil — and wouldn’t $100 a barrel be the best way to accelerate that?
I’m not saying that leaving a civil war in Iraq is not dangerous. But so is staying. And the upsides of leaving haven’t been fully thought through yet, so let’s think them through, shall we? My fear is that Bush has not thought this through. There is no plan B because his rigid, incurious mind doesn’t have the dexterity to entertain it. The fundamentalist psyche doesn’t like paradox or nuance. But in dealing with this complex and metastasising problem, paradox and nuance and ruthless self-interest are indispensable.
This surely is the real conservative insight: that ideology must never trump reality, that new scenarios need new thinking, that in every crisis there is an opportunity. Currently the axiom that withdrawal is unthinkable is impeding our ability to think of new directions and new strategies. But we desperately need to think outside our comfort zone. Flexibility is not an enemy in wartime. In fact in this war our very survival may even depend on it.
Bush has accomplished his regime change. Not only has Saddam's crime family been erased, but all of the Sunni tribes that supported it have been dispersed. Our occupational forces saw to it that a 'constitution' was cobbled together and that an election selected a fragile majority of figureheads to represent a parliamentary 'government'. Not surprisingly, Shi'ias dominated.
But the point is, this government does not govern. It does not command a monopoly of armed force. More and more it appears that the reins of governance are really sprouting in the street. In Baghdad, Sunnis and Shi'ia communities are separating one from another, each one collecting into defensive enclaves, gated communities, and tribal groupings, defended by their own militias manning their own checkpoints.
There is no longer 'an Iraq'. There is already a Kurdistan in the north. Soon there will be an unified 'Shiiastan' in the south. What becomes of a 'Sunnistan' to the west is unclear.
But the real point is that the Iraqis will work it out. Our continued presence, while-well meaning as we understand it, is illegitimate in Iraqi eyes. Our continued presence therefore only prolongs their struggle and delays a resolution which is legitimately Iraqi.
It is understandable that Bush still wants to 'creep his mission' and salvage his legacy, but no one can afford it.