POLITICS APRIL 21, 2003
The war in Iraq has come and—barely three weeks later—already seems about to be gone. Of course, this is not the end of the Iraqi venture. Indeed, if history teaches us anything about modern Mesopotamia, it is that this venture will only get harder. Iraq frustrates those who attempt to remake it. The British tried, for many years, after they planted the Union Jack over Baghdad on March 11, 1917. That victory did not come to pass until nearly 30, 000 British troops had been killed, with a roughly equal number of Ottoman soldiers slain on the same battlefields. The combat for what was not yet called Iraq was one of those vast and legendary death-happenings of World War I, and it included, besides, a march of 13,000 British prisoners of war from Kut all the way to Turkey, an augury of what was to befall American troops at Bataan, which is to say, an augury of endless death en route.
One of the blessings of the present war is that military and civilian casualties seem to have been kept to contextually very low numbers; this is because the U.S. Armed Forces and their British compatriots have disciplined themselves, like the Israelis, to an exacting code of purity of arms. Indeed, American, British, and Israeli troops are the only armies technologically equipped to truly put such a code into effect. They are the only militaries that really invested in conscientiously scrupulous ordnance. (This is also why a high-tech American soldiery couldn't possibly be synchronized with the ragtag armies that the Security Council might have cobbled together if it had been able to muster the political will.)
This, however, tells us nothing about the future of Iraq. Humane rules in warfare do not translate into practical state-building, even less into effective nation-building. Alas, Iraq is one of those cartographical creations bound by straight lines—always a bad omen—and incorporating muddled populations. Among these are Sunni Arabs, who constituted less than 20 percent of the population when the borders were laid down. Nonetheless, 82 years ago, Miss Gertrude Bell, then-Oriental secretary to the civil commissioner in Baghdad, imported from the desert a Sunni descendant of the prophet to whose father his majesty's government owed a wartime debt. She tried first to install the Emir Faisal as king of Damascus in Syria (where there was a Sunni majority), but the French ruined her plans by sending Arab mobs into the city center to riot. So Bell had him crowned in Baghdad instead, and he proceeded to rule, brutally but incompetently, over the Shia, the Kurds, the Assyrians (now just about all gone, either murdered or exiled), and the Jews, who for centuries—until the early '40s constituted a plurality in Baghdad. The Iraqi branch of the Hashemite family ruled there under British and (latterly) U.S. patronage until 1958, when a "republican" revolt shed so much blood that the streets of the old city were red for days.
Saddam Hussein did not declare himself president until 1979. But the interregnum was not even a pause between the cruel routines of Iraqi politics. First Nasserism, then Baathism (part fascist, part Stalinist) defined the country's politics and social relations, perpetuating what by then were very old habits of barbarism and tyranny. The interethnic and inter-sectarian conflicts that have defined our grasp of the internal elements of this war were then, too, the essence of Iraqi policy. And, always the minority, Sunnis held the upper hand.
But the Baath Sunnis of Iraq were not millenarians. They were relatively secular and also clients of the Soviets as long as the Soviets existed, like the Syrian Baathists of the Assad clan and the Nasserites before them in Egypt. It is true that, in all these countries, there was a Muslim Brotherhood of Sunni fanatics, whose fortunes would ebb and flow. But the regimes did make their lives difficult, even treacherous, and then, in moments of crisis, the dictator would suddenly tilt the way of the hyper-faithful, as Saddam did in his last days.
Sunni dominance in Iraq has been for decades the axiomatic formula for foreign interlocutors, first the United Kingdom and subsequently the United States. For centuries, there were robust Christian communities in Iraq. No longer. In any case, the West is now serenely indifferent to the fate of Christians in the Muslim world. The very existence of the Kurds, however, always seemed to imperil the territorial integrity of Iraq, a highly fatuous construct, and the territorial stability of other neighboring countries as well. They were almost everyone's favorite lost cause, but a lost cause nonetheless, gruff figures in a museum of threatened ethnic minorities. The Kurdish hour, however, has finally come. The Shia, by contrast, were no one's favorite cause, lost or otherwise. In the Levant and the Fertile Crescent, the Shia were the downtrodden and disinherited of Islam, despised and derided as fanatics. After the transformation of Iran into a revolutionary Shia state by the ayatollahs, an even more malignant aura was attached to them. In Saudi Arabia, the Shia had always been seen as insidious religious heretics. Now they were thought of as dangerous Persian agents as well. So too, of course, in Iraq, despite the fact that no Shia had risen against Saddam during his disastrous war with Iran.
The political demonization of the Shia among the Saudi elite turned into marching orders for George H.W. Bush and for his partner in power and purse, James Baker. They let Saddam remain standing at the end of the first Gulf war primarily to ensure the continued dominance of the Sunnis in Iraq and not to threaten Sunni dominance in Saudi Arabia. And they turned their backs after the Gulf war on a Shia revolt for which the United States had sounded the trumpets. The fact is that the American political and petroleum vocation in the Arab world has always been premised on a partnership with the Sunni elites. This remains the concern of State's professional Arabists, and it shades Colin Powell's views as well. It is a remarkable declaration of political independence by George W.and perhaps a rite of personal passage-that he seems to grasp that the traditional historical dictum about Sunni domination may actually be banal. There is now a struggle in the administration between the Sunni-firsters, who are large in number and highly placed, and everyone else.
The Sunni-firsters say they want the new Iraq to be kept afloat in the only way that is possible: by the experienced hands of the old Iraq, its seasoned petroleum professionals, its sage judges, its competent administrators, its honest men of the army, even some of its politicians. But what they really intend is to maintain Iraq as a center of Sunni power, which means holding the Kurds and Shia at bay. In a paradoxical way, the Sunnis are the only ones they truly trust. And, in trusting the present Sunni hierarchy, they really trust the Iraqi Baath Party or whatever will remain of it at the war's conclusion.
It is no surprise that the powers at the United Nations who fought to keep Saddam alive are now angling for leverage in the new Iraq. Once again, Jacques Chirac has stated it most clearly: "The political, economic, humanitarian, and administrative reconstruction of Iraq is a matter for the United Nations and for it alone." It is not simply the mercantile interests of the intransigent European countries that animate them. It is also the fact that the Muslim states, mostly Sunni, are longtime players in the U.N. nomenklatura and apparat. The game that they have played is to sidle up to the Europeans, flatter them, make them feel important, even pivotal. But the portent that goes with being France is not unlike the portent of being Saudi Arabia: It is expiring and expiring fast. This is last-ditch politics in very high-flown language.
Old Europe also needs the Muslim states to soothe the rage of the vast Arab migration that has settled in and deeply troubles the Rhineland countries. No social or economic issue can now be discussed in Europe other than with its Muslim salient in mind. Whether they like it or not—and most of them don't—the countries of Western Europe are fast becoming multicultural societies. But they remain highly stratified ones, ethnically and religiously tense. The medium of exchange is not in the coinage of real power but in ancillary matters, in foreign affairs, one buy-off and then another: the fate of Israel, for example, and now Iraq. The European elites will want to keep it that way.
The fact is that, if Iraq is really to make it, it will have to make it as a multicultural society. Otherwise, it will return to ritual and routine bloodletting. Maybe the odds are not good that it will evade this fate. The past, especially a past like the Iraqi past, is always a tendentious mortgage.
Still, to the extent that the Americans who crafted this war are largely the people who will craft the peace—which is to say, craft the arrangements for governing Iraq—the odds become better. It is ironic, isn't it?that it is the Pentagon from which the boldest and most humane vision of the future Iraq has come. The State Department, which didn't want the war, is now also resisting the corollaries of victory. As in the months before the war, the issue is being framed domestically and internationally by those who historically have always wanted to rely on the United Nations as a deus ex machina. But it is in the interest of the people of Iraq that the United Nations be marginalized in the reorganization of their government. The United Nations made a hash of all the countries where it had reconstructive responsibilities, such as Cambodia and Haiti. The United Nations has never been interested in the internal arrangements of countries and governments. It is not in its mandate.
In fact, the United Nations hasn't performed exceptionally well on what is its mandate: the maintenance of borders, however arbitrary, of existing states. That mandate is why it has never really been able to deal with or have effective policies about enormous human tragedies within established borders. Internal genocide, as in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or Iraq, simply paralyzes the United Nations. Similarly, the United Nations has never recognized a refugee within national frontiers: The project of starving Biafran babies was always an internal matter for the Nigerians.
The United Nations has administered a corrupt oil-for-food program in Iraq. It ran an incompetent weapons inspections program, not once but twice. Its sanctions regime was breached even by permanent members of the Security Council. The organization is so fractured by factions, so mesmerized by melodrama, that it is a model of organizational dysfunction. The United Nations is not the world's last hope for anything. At worst, it is a sanctuary for those who do evil. At best, it is an excuse for those afraid to do good.