Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Truth is in the Details

To say that I am not a postmodernist would be putting it mildly, but postmodernism—the idea that reality is merely “constructed” by human agency, usually by those who enjoy either political or economic power—is addressing a real problem. (Difficulties arise, as in university humanities departments or the current White House, when people treat it as a solution.) The Bush Administration’s surge isn’t working and virtually every independent observer believes that it won’t, but it has become the “story.” (The Congress deserves credit for refusing to be impressed and insisting upon discussing an early withdrawal of our troops.) Yet several times a week, specific stories from Iraq confirm the truth: that nothing the United States is doing or has done has affected the course of events there very much.

Let me begin with the events last weekend and last week in Tal Afar. Tal Afar became a byword for American success after Colonel H. R. McMaster’s Third Armored Cavalry employed new tactics there during 2005. McMaster, according to numerous stories, stationed his troops among the population, insisted upon a respectful attitude towards Iraqis, and tried to bring local political groups together. All this garnered enormous publicity, and googling “’Tal Afar’ AND McMaster” now returns more than 20,000 hits. But after reading George Packer’s article on the subject last spring, I noted that the actual meeting of Iraqi leaders that Packer attended was not very encouraging. “The other and perhaps even worse news in Packer’s article,” I wrote, “came from his descriptions of the political meetings McMaster held. They showed no trust whatever between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and no political basis for the united Iraq that we want,” I wrote. Unfortunately it seems that Packer conveyed an accurate impression.

Last week, a series of massive truck bombs killed well over 100 Shi’ites in Tal Afar and destroyed as many as 100 homes. That obviously showed that the Sunni insurgency was still well entrenched there. The sequel, however, was worse. Shi’ites described in the first press reports as off-duty policemen went on a rampage and killed about 50 Sunnis at random. These policemen were not treating the insurgents as exceptional, but as representative, of their Sunni population. The elections upon which we insisted in Iraq created a Shi’ite government that the Sunnis do not trust, and that does not trust the Sunnis. That is why the civil war continues to get worse, not better, and why government forces, for the most part, seem to be involved in it. Neither Colonel McMaster, Ambassador Khalizad (now on his way to the UN), or any other American has been able to do anything about this, and I doubt that General Petraeus will be able to either.

An even more depressing story appeared last week in the LA Times, concerning the utter devastation during the last five years of the Iraqi middle class. The death toll among professionals is bad enough, including “more than 200 Iraqi academics, 110 physicians and 76 journalists.” Far more serious are the nearly two million Iraqi refugees, most of them now in Syria and Jordan, who include so many of the wealthier or better-educated Iraqis. Not long ago, a fellow blogger with some credentials as an Arabist remarked to me in an email that her respect of regimes like Nasser’s Egypt and the Ba’athists in Iraq had increased lately. For all their numerous faults and their abysmal human rights record, such regimes had unusual success—for a while—in creating a middle class and beginning to bring their nations into the modern world. They have not, however, been able to endure for more than half a century (Egypt’s is now teetering on the brink), and their replacements will undo much of that progress. After centuries of Ottoman rule (which now also look like a golden age), the Middle East in 1922 gave way to Franco-British hegemony, and then after 1945 to Arab authoritarianism. Now fundamentalism has taken the lead, and the United States drastically accelerated that process by invading Iraq.

And then, most relevant of all to the new American strategy was a New York Times story on Friday about a Sunni woman living in Baghdad. The Times headline writers seem to be on a mission to diminish the impact of bad news about the Bush Administration. About two weeks ago (I can’t find the story), the Times headline declared that the President had criticized the handling of the firing of certain federal prosecutors. Actually he had merely criticized its presentation to the Congress. The headline on Friday’s story strikes mea s rather pathetic: “Iraqi Widow Saves her Home, but Victory is Brief.” Last Tuesday some Shi’ite militiamen came to evict a Sunni widow and her seven children from a previously mixed area. The Times reporter quoted an American officer to the effect that such evictions are on the rise again. The widow did what the American authorities, presumably, would have wanted her to do: she asked the coalition for help, and a mixed force of US and Kurdish (not Sunni or Shi’ite!) forces arrived, surrounded her block, and arrested her tormentors. The next day, walking to the market, she was shot dead. Calling on the Americans worked about as well as calling the police to protest about intimidation from gang members in a poor urban area of the U.S. would, and for the same reason. The Shi’ite militias (and, elsewhere, the Sunni terrorists) have a constant, permanent presence in Iraq neighborhoods. The Americans and Kurds do not, and never will, largely because there are not nearly enough of them. The use of Kurdish troops for the surge—like the decision I noted last week to hire Jordanians, instead of Iraqis, to work in the Green Zone—illustrates the basic dilemma we face: there is no really significant pro-American force now among either Sunnis or Shi’ites. Any individual who works for Americans is at grave risk and fewer and fewer are willing to do so.

I have repeatedly advocated some kind of partition of Iraq here but I am beginning to doubt that even a peaceful partition is possible. While I have no actual primary sources on this question, it seems that the Shi’ite leadership—led by Moqtar Al-Sadr, who has now called for American withdrawal—isn’t interested in confining its rule to the southern part of the country anymore, but dreams of ruling over the Sunnis as well. There may be no way to avoid a long civil war—but that does not mean that American troops should remain, fighting a hopelessly undermanned campaign, in effect, against both political factions. Meanwhile, a new crisis is brewing over Kurdistan. The Turkish government is threatening to invade it to wipe out Kurdish terrorists which it claims are operating among Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. The effects of the invasion of Iraq will be disastrous for years to come. I do not, however, believe that they will include the establishment of Al Queda bases there. The Sunnis need help from Al Queda now, but they have no long-term interest in sponsoring a state within their state. The role of foreign fighters in the conflict has been exaggerated from the beginning and I suspect that it will diminish when the US withdraws.

The week’s biggest mystery concerns the British sailors in Iranian custody, whom I suspect—I do not know—are being held in an attempt to ransom the Iranian diplomats that the United States detained in Iraq. President Bush declared yesterday that he would not let them go (just as President Reagan declared that he would not release a Soviet spy to secure the release by Soviet authorities of Nicholas Daniloff, only to reverse himself after a few weeks.) Senator James Webb last month introduced legislation to explicitly deny the President authority to make war on Iran without Congressional approval. In his speech doing so, he quoted the President’s “signing statement” issued when the Congress in 2002 authorized war with Iraq. Webb said:

"In signing the 2002 Iraq resolution, the President denied that the Congress has the power to affect his decisions when it comes to the use of our military. He shrugged off this resolution, stating that on the question of the threat posed by Iraq, his views and those of the Congress merely happened to be the same. He characterized the resolution as simply a gesture of additional support, rather than as having any legitimate authority. He stated, "my signing this resolution does not constitute any change in ... the President's constitutional authority to use force to deter, prevent, or respond to aggression or other threats to U.S. interests..."

Webb explained that he has asked both the State and Defense Departments for clarification of this point without receiving a clear answer. In an article in the current New York Review of Books, George Soros writes that AIPAC, among other pressure groups, stopped the House leadership from inserting a provision such as Webb was asking for in recent legislation. If true, that is an appalling fact.

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