Sunday, July 08, 2007

Options in Iraq

For about 13 years I've been a very active participant on an internet list called H-Diplo. A few days ago the list posted a long article by Sally Marks, a respected historian now retired from Rhode Island College, which argues, in effect, that we cannot withdraw from Iraq. The article can be read here.

Here is my reply, which has not yet appeared on the list, but undoubtedly will tomorrow at the latest.

With characteristic erudition, Sally Marks touches a great many bases and mentions some very real dangers in her piece on Iraq. I agree with some of what she says, especially the need of the United States to pull together behind some reasonable policies. I do not think, though, that I agree with the ones she has in mind.
I certainly agree that the United States government has brought an almost unprecedented catastrophe upon us, similar in some ways to the Austro-Hungarian decision to attack Serbia without sufficient diplomatic preparation in 1914, although nowhere near as serious, since Iraq is not on our doorstep and since nations no longer field armies in the millions. However, it is possible--actually, I think, probable--that what we have done (which cannot in any case be undone) is to accelerate something that was already happening: the rise of Islamic fundamentalist movements and the eclipse of the regimes that have ruled much of the region in cooperation with western powers since the 1950s. This has been happening for a long time. Iran, of course, overthrew its American client ruler in 1979. Earlier, Iraq had become an anti-western, totalitarian state, albeit one that could play a role in maintaining a balance of power in the region (as she points out), and one which, alas, allowed most of its people to live normal and even productive lives while nurturing an active middle class--things which Iraqis (except in Kurdistan) are now unlikely to know for decades. Pro-western regimes have been losing ground in Egypt since Sadat's assassination, and the Saudi kingdom is in many ways not pro-western at all. Pakistan is heading down the same road. Meanwhile, Hamas and Hezbollah are gaining.
The issue we face is whether keeping troops in Iraq, as Prof. Marks wants to do, will help arrest this trend. I think it is far, far more likely to accelerate it. Western occupation is a terrifically effective target for Islamist movements. To put it bluntly, it proves (to millions of Arabs) that we are just as bad as they say we are. What we have in the non-Kurdish areas is our own version of the West Bank, but without settlers. There is no reason to believe that we shall be any more successful than the Israelis have been in securing popular Arab support for our presence or even in dealing with opposition. (Our intelligence is never going to be anywhere near as good as theirs.)
Iraq, she says, is fragile, but indispensable. Well, so was the Austro-Hungarian empire, as it turns out, but it died anyway. As Peter Galbraith has pointed out, Iraq for the moment is the only survivor of four multi-ethnic states created after the First World War, the others being Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. There really is no evidence now that any major group in Iraq wants a truly united, pluralistic Iraq (although the Sunnis would like to return to the days that they ruled the roost and some Shi'ites would like to dominate the Sunnis.) I don't see any reason for the United States not to encourage a de facto partition, under some "autonomy" scheme, combined with some peaceful population transfers, before all the transfers are accomplished through mass violence.
More broadly, we face the situation which President de Gaulle sketched out to JFK with respect to Southeast Asia in 1961: the west can, perhaps, maintain some influence, but only by NOT stationing troops in the region. Whatever we think of Islamic fundamentalism, the time has come to recognize the Arabs' right to self-determination. If we can survive 75 years of Communism in the Soviet Union (and 45 in Eastern Europe), we can survive some fundamentalist regimes in the Middle East. The alternative of trying to rule or intimidate the area military is simply a fantasy. Meanwhile, I do not share her view that the armed forces of the United States can sustain this occupation. They simply cannot, and they could be needed for something else.
We have to realize how small our army has become. Measured in proportion to our population--or in proportion to the world's population--it is only a little larger than it was in 1940, nowhere near as large as it was in 1965, much less 1945. Unless we want to return to the days of a draft and triple its size--and I most certainly do not--we have to allow other regions of the world, particularly those that have never been part of western culture, to rule themselves. That could mean a huge effort to rely on alternative energy and a huge change in American lifestyles (or at least the size of our cars.) I would vastly prefer that to endless military intervention in the Middle East in violation of most of our traditional principles.
I share Prof. Marks's positive evaluation of what Bush I did in 1990-1. Unfortunately, anything we could have gained from that has now been thrown away, and we cannot go back to where we were then any more than we can reconstitute Yugoslavia or the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Meanwhile, the Administration is determined to stay the course, and today's Washington Post reports that it is designing new measures of "progress" to announce in September, since the Iraqis have so clearly failed to meet either those laid down by the Congress or those laid down by the President. That in turn leads me to another point I have been meaning to make here. War is such an emotional undertaking and engages our deepest feelings so deeply that one simply cannot expect leaders who have wrongly undertaken one ever to admit a mistake or essentially reverse course. Rather than repent secession, southern historians even today discuss how the Confederacy might have won. Ludendorff, having lost the First World War, blamed the civilians. Johnson, Nixon and Kissinger never repented Vietnam (indeed, Robert McNamara was almost the only leading policy-maker who did.) In theory this is perhaps one of the great strengths of our Constitution--that the Congress can take charge and bring a conflict to a halt. But that has only happened once, in 1973--after all American ground troops were out of Southeast Asia.


Anonymous said...

...we cannot go back to where we were then any more than we can reconstitute Yugoslavia or the Austro-Hungarian empire.

I think this overstates the case by quite a bit--though a federal system seems the key (no less because our own allies--the Kurds--want it as well). In Iraq I found the vast majority of Arab Shia and Sunni far more likely to identify themselves as Iraqis than not. If anything the Sunni would be considered the Austrians or Serbs, much more intent on keeping the integrity of an Iraq as a part of their own identity.

It resembles less a formal, artificial European 19th century state than an amalgamation of clannish, tribal and religious sentiments with a heavy seasoning of nationalism (two generations of Baathists and an epic war with Iran).

Be that as it may, after two tours in Iraq what is striking is how--even with modern communications technology--those far removed from Iraq see things. It's a bizarre informational game of 'chinese whispers'; some facts are lost, some are distorted while other are transformed.

Most populated areas in Iraq are safe to travel for the U.S. military, most Iraqis aren't involved in the insurgency (mainly Sunnis), most of the combat is contained in a geographical area made up of 20% of the country, Most of the country isn't 'in flames'...well you get idea...truth a casualty of war and all that.

Sorry to ramble off topic, still emotional about my time there perhaps. Great blog by the way, I've subscribed to it.

George Buddy said...

>. . . that the Congress can take charge and bring a conflict to a halt. But that has only happened once, in 1973-- after all American ground troops were out of Southeast Asia.

Yet, "Congress," "liberals," and "Democrats" are blamed for cutting off funding to 'force' an end to the war.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:

"Most populated areas in Iraq are safe to travel for the U.S. military,"

Meaning very large, heavily armed convoys.

"most Iraqis aren't involved in the insurgency (mainly Sunnis),"

Yes, the Kurds aren't, and the Shiites aren't, almost by definition - they're part of the government.

"most of the combat is contained in a geographical area made up of 20% of the country,"

Fresher bullsh*t, please - this is old, stale stuff. Most of Iraq, IIRC, is empty desert. The '20%' includes many major population centers - like, um, Baghdad.

"Most of the country isn't 'in flames'...well you get idea...truth a casualty of war and all that."

How much of the country is safe for a couple of Americans to walk in and have lunch?