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Friday, April 20, 2007

Division--for its own sake

Some weeks ago, in a piece about Clausewitz, I observed that war is a highly emotional enterprise. It can hardly be otherwise—it combines the drama of a sporting event with real questions of life and death. This war is no exception. As it goes on and on, eclipsing one by one the length of most American wars of the past (only the American Revolution and Vietnam, now, were longer), emotion grows. As Richard Nixon realized, only a decrease in our involvement can begin to reduce it. That may however be a contributing element in President Bush’s decision to escalate rather than to follow the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Commission and scale back our objectives. Karl Rove remains one of the most powerful men in this Administration, and Rove believes in a politics of emotion, confrontation, and, frankly, hatred. Prolonging the war encourages that kind of politics—at a terrible cost to the quality of our public debate, our social cohesion, and, potentially, the military’s relationship to the rest of society.

As I read several years ago, Rove differs from political strategists of the past, who wanted to add moderate swing voters to a more ideological base. He is driven by an obsession with finding new wedge issues that people care enough to vote about. That is why gay marriage seemed like such a godsend in 2004—it frightened people in Ohio or Florida enough to change their votes. Other key wedge issues, of course, are gun control and abortion. And another one, as Germans learned to their everlasting regret during the twentieth century, is patriotism. Incredibly, the Administration seems determined to turn the most disastrous decision for war in American history into a political asset by making support for it a test for good Americanism. Certainly it has succeeded to the extent that Americans who should know better, like John McCain, have picked up this tactic as well.

Two days ago Harry Reid stated that the war in Iraq has been lost. That statement was courageous and, measured against our original objectives, undeniably truthful. We wanted to create a pluralistic Iraq dominated by a relatively secular and educated middle class; instead we have let loose a ghastly civil war, and about two million of the people upon whom we counted have fled the country and are most unlikely ever to return. The refugee flow may in turn de-stabilize Jordan, the vast majority of whose population is now made up of Palestinian refugees on the one hand Iraqi ones on the other. The government of Prime Minister Al-Maliki is trying to balance its Shi’ite constituency, much of which wants to fight the civil war to victory and exclude Sunnis from power, and the United States, which favors the opposite policy. (His position is similar, though even more precarious, to that of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, whom we laud as an ally in the war on terror even as Osama Bin Laden lives safely within his territory.) Maliki’s balancing act, however, seems to have collapsed, as evidenced by the withdrawal from his coalition of Moqtar Al-Sadr’s party, which—like the majority of the US Congress—wants a timetable for American withdrawal. Meanwhile, a high Cabinet officer (Robert Gates) is in Baghdad once again pressing Maliki to do the same things he has refused to do again and again. This is a humiliating posture for a nation that prides itself on being a world leader.

The LA Times today has also published a truly extraordinary piece of news—that in Baghdad, engineers from the 82nd Airborne are building a huge fence around a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad to wall it off from its Shi'ite neighbors. As early as the summer of 2003 I remarked to a friend that the United States in Iraq had apparently acquired its very own West Bank. Little did I know how apt the analogy would turn out to be. It would seem, although we do not know, that American military authorities, under enormous pressure to reduce casualties in Baghdad (rather like Israeli authorities a few years ago faced with dozens of suicide bombings), have decided that nothing less would work. But this strategy makes a mockery, of course, of our stated goals. “The Iraqi government has a lot of work to do to convince skeptical nations that they are going to be a pluralistic society,” President Bush said yesterday, and somehow, the American decision to construct a wall does not seem likely to help. Meanwhile, Sunnis and Shi’ites on both sides of the wall hate the idea! Could this news be a turning point that finally forces us to recognize that some kind of partition is inevitable and should be encouraged in order to reduce the attendant loss of life? Some kind of federalism was advocated two nights ago on Jon Stewart by Ali Allawi, an extraordinarily impressive Iraqi and former member of the government who has written a book on the occupation and who said frankly that for the moment, the idea of a single Iraqi national identity is moribund.

But meanwhile, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wails that Senator Reid’s statement will demoralize the troops. Although I am not in touch with anyone in Iraq, I am not so sure; some may be angry, but others, I suspect, will grimly shake their heads and express gratitude that some one has a clue about the reality of the situation. McConnell, like the President, is making belief in their false version of reality a test of patriotism. We should believe in the war, they say, to make the troops feel better—not because it is working. They are frankly and desperately appealing to the worst in the American people—a raw and bitter nationalism that insists that American traitors are responsible for every setback abroad. Only their refusal to cut back the effort in Iraq, as the Pentagon, the Baker-Hamilton Commission, the new Congress and the American people all wanted to do, is making this possible. To this we must add the President’s firm belief, also repeated yesterday, that his refusal to change his “principles” simply because the vast majority of the American people rejects his policies is somehow noble.

So far at least this is not working. Polls show that a large majority of Americans have lost faith in the war, and that the American presence in Iraq is opposed by the bulk of both Americans and Iraqis. But this tactic, pursued, now, by a minority party and a President whose approval rating is around 30%, is terribly disturbing nonetheless. Together with other wedge issues, it threatens to create a divide among Americans more serious, perhaps, that anything we have seen since the civil war era—and to enlist the support of the American military on the side of the minority. I do not think that will work. While the American military contains far more Republicans than the politicians at large, very few of them are ideologues. Many of the military's senior officers have become skeptical about this war for the same reason that most of them had to become skeptical about Vietnam--the damage it is doing to their own institution. But ithis tactic leaves the next few Presidents with the task of trying to make us a nation once again, after eight years of a clever campaign, waged from inside the White House, to divide us for political gain.


Nur-al-Cubicle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Trying again...

In Baghdad, US military is erecting walls nightly. So far, works have begun in earnest in the the Adhamiya and Dura quarters. But I believe these are Sunni quarters. Are people being walled _in_ or walled _out_?

Here's some construction images.

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