Monday, January 29, 2007

Looking Into the Abyss? (Part I)

It's staring at us, right in the face! We might as well face up to it.

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.
I have also published before the words of Edward Luttwak. Luttwak is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Last June, he addressed this same issue in the Los Angeles Times. His point is that history shows civil wars must be fought without foreign interference before stability prevails:
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.
But what about the regional destabilization issues? I give you Andrew Sullivan writing two days ago in Times on Line, who says civil war in Iraq might suit the West's interests:
. . . . 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.
What are the implications of immediate Anglo-American redeployment?

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.

20 Moderated Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

vigilante, A superb post. Well written and well documented.

While I can't agree with either Carr's or Luttwak's academic arguments about civil wars, I do think a rational and cogent case can be made for American withdrawal. I believe Hagel is making one now.

It is important to take a good look at today's reality in Iraq and analyse the potential outcome of the actions we chose today.

If only Bush had taken a close, disciplined look at the potential outcome of his toppling of Saddam and feeble attempts at nation building before he began the UULUIUOI we might not be in the horrific mess were in today.

the WIzard.....

1/18/2007 07:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yea right , if only Bush had...

They are there for a reason , and not leaving for a reason. Oil. Nothing has changed.
It is wrong to call this thing they call a war unprovoked. Oil and greed provoked it.

1/18/2007 08:29:00 AM  
Blogger LTE said...

Faux news blames Democrats for not providing an alternative solution. The basic flaw in this logic is a failure to recognize that the whole fiasco was created by the lies and miscalculations of the Bush/Cheney/Rove administration, partly to make George W. Bush a "wartime president" who would be immune to the normal scrutiny of a patriotic and supportive electorate. It worked. They actually won the White House and kept both houses of Congress in 2004.

The tradition of politics remaining within our borders and not extending into foreign matters was combined with rubber-stamp Republican leadership in both houses to force Democrats to quietly observe the Iraq fiasco helplessly from the sidelines, even as it spiraled into chaos.

Bush can only hope to leave the mess for a future administration to deal with. But to blame Democrats for not having the answers now is simply ludicrous.

Besides, many ideas are sprouting forth from Congress now, from both sides of the aisle.

Immediate redeployment from Iraq to Afghanistan, implied by this column is entirely worthy of consideration.

1/18/2007 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

Andrew Sullivan - what a find! Makes a lot of sense.

1/18/2007 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger M.D. said...

If those in charge of American oil interests can accept the Balkanization of Iraq, it will happen.

The conduct of this war is being dictated by oil people, not the politicians or the military. Freedom Agenda is a smoke screen. Democracy is a smoke screen. Terrorism is a smoke screen.

1/18/2007 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read a column at the Asian Times web site written by someone using the name Spengler who has been saying for quite a while that we Americans should learn to enjoy the chaos in the Middle East we have sown and use it to our benefit. Given that Bush and his underlings have been the greatest recruitment tool Osama could have ever hoped to come his way it would be nice to turn the tables back on him.
So, like emily, I agree Sullivan's conclusions make a tragic sense.

1/18/2007 05:36:00 PM  
Blogger Blogging4Food said...

Nice going, M.D.

Vigilante ought to bring you on board on the Vigil's staff. You say the same thing he says only more succinctly, right to the point, and leaving nothing out. Vigilante? It took me forever to get through this article.

1/18/2007 05:58:00 PM  
Blogger Blogging4Food said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1/18/2007 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger Recidivist said...

Bush says we fight 'them' over there so we don't have to fight 'them' over here? They're going to follow us here if we leave. 99% of the Iraqis are not seeking revenge, they are seeking refuge.

1/18/2007 09:55:00 PM  
Blogger Vigilante said...

Beach, I's sure you've noticed, as have I, that Bush's language has changed recently. Among the changes is the use of the plural, "enemIES" when speaking of our adversary in Iraq.

At one point Bush was leading Americans to believe our current adversary there was al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, (the people we invited in when we invaded and occupied a country that was not a danger to us). But now, and of a sudden, we have more than one enemy. What can that mean?

I think it means that we - in Bush's eyes - have to grind down all anti-American elements in Iraqi society, which raises a couple of questions.

How long will it take? A long time.

Why is it necessary? Because Bush wants us to be there a long time.

If the mission - going forward of course - is just to worry about al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, it would seem to be most expeditious to leave and soon: the sooner we leave, the sooner al Qaeda loses any reason for being in Iraq. The sooner we leave, the sooner Iraqis themselves turn on al Qaeda as being the remaining anti-Iraqi foreigners in their midst.

In this context it seems to me not to be a good idea to take down the Mahdi Army. To do so is definitely taking sides in a civil war. Do we owe Sunnis any favors?

The Mahdi Army is just one of the potential building blocks we could leave behind us, assuming we wish to leave anytime soon. If they're organized, disciplined as a fighting unit, it seems to me we should leave this element in place. The eastern areas of Iraq are only divided among Shi'ia. It seems to me that we ought not to be breaking up the building blocks of what follows us, if we want to leave this desert toilet anytime soon.

The more eggs we break, the more we're going to get stuck in our own omelet indefinitely.

Of course, that must be the whole point, huh?

1/19/2007 07:50:00 AM  
Blogger Recidivist said...

You know, Vigil, I have to agree with you. We don't owe the Sunnis any favors.

1/19/2007 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

Rosa Brooks concludes in The Los Angeles Times,

By focusing on Iraq to the near exclusion of all other issues, we're also sacrificing our own national security interests. We're virtually ignoring the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Russia's slide toward repression, expanding regional conflicts in Africa and — ahem — the ongoing activities of Osama bin Laden.

So don't be shy, my fellow Americans: Give yourselves some credit for the sacrifices you're making for Iraq. Just as a soldier hit by an IED may at first be too stunned to feel pain, it will take time for you to truly feel the depth of your sacrifice. Rest assured: Though it may not hurt now, it will soon.

1/19/2007 11:06:00 AM  
Blogger Malfrat said...

Kurdish elements in the Iraqi "army" deployed to Baghdad have deserted and returned to Kurdistan.
McClatchy Newspapers

1/20/2007 07:14:00 AM  
Blogger MadMike said...

Vigil you are absolutely correct. The Iraqis don't like al Qaeda any more than we do. They are seen as carpetbaggers, albeit violent ones, who are there strictly for their own agenda, which does not include the well being of the Iraqi people. The first opportunity they have I suspect they will "convince" them to find more hospitable climes.

1/22/2007 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger Vigilante said...

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specializes in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. Writing in Open Democracy, he presents his case for immediate American Withdrawal.

Basically, he says that Americans are clueless about the depth of Iraqi resentment as a consequence of having been 'bombed back to the stone age' (James Baker's words) during the Gulf War as well as been starved in the decade following. Such was the devastation of Iraqi culture and economy, that by the time Bush invaded in 2003, we Americans had zero sympathy among Iraqis. Our occupation, our elections we staged, as well as the government we erected has zippo legitimacy. Nothing tangible, he says, can be started before this institutionalized corruption we have burdened them with is removed.

1/22/2007 06:52:00 PM  
Blogger Vigilante said...

Read Richard Engel, Dangers Of The Baghdad Plan.

1/23/2007 06:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Gollin said...

I am not sure that it would be disastrous for the United States to walk away from the mess it created in Iraq. It is by no means certain that if we leave, Iraq will fall into chaos and that war will erupt throughout the region, as predicted by alarmists. Even if the worst-case situation occurred after our withdrawal, the disaster for the U.S. would be less than what we are currently enduring. And there is no assurance that by staying in Iraq and sacrificing more lives and wealth, we will somehow stabilize the country.

Everyone advocating a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, including the president, concedes that the success of our mission in Iraq is questionable. The predicted disaster for the U.S. if we withdraw is even more questionable. The only sensible option is for the U.S. to withdraw immediately.

1/25/2007 08:22:00 PM  
Blogger Vigilante said...

An official from a top Shi'ite party in Iraq said Washington would lose focus in fighting terrorism if it decided to open up a new front against Shi'ite militias.

"Comparing Shi'ite militias to al-Qaeda is ridiculous.

They are protecting their own communities after a three-year onslaught by terrorists and only a few outlaws take revenge. How are the militias a threat to the United States?

The only solution is to give the government control of its own forces," said the official."

Another Shi'ite official, Falah Hasan Shanshal from radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's political movement, said the cause of Iraq's problems was the presence of foreign troops.

"They should just give us sovereignty and let us Iraqis deal with our own problems. The ultimate solution must be political and achieved through dialogue, the military solution is no longer useful."

The Age

1/25/2007 08:49:00 PM  
Blogger Indicted Plagiarist said...

Vice-President Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Thursday that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an "idiot decision" and Iraqi troops now need to secure Baghdad to ensure the country's future.

1/26/2007 07:52:00 AM  
Blogger Messenger said...

Addressing comments by Vigil, Beach Bum, Mad Mike:

Bush's references to "enemies" [plural] is extremely revealing: it demonstrates mission-creep beyond just opposing al Qaeda-in-Iraq. So is Bush's statement:

"It just makes sense that if somebody is trying to harm our troops or stop us from achieving our goal, or killing innocent civilians in Iraq, that we will stop them"

It is clear from this that Bush has dealt our troops the unwarranted mission of suppressing a civil war, which you simply cannot do without appearing to the belligerents as taking sides.

1/27/2007 07:08:00 AM  

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