THE SPINE MARCH 6, 2010
There were moments--long moments--during the Iraq war when I had my doubts. Even deep doubts. Frankly, I couldn’t quite imagine any venture like this in the Arab world turning out especially well. This is, you will say, my prejudice. But some prejudices are built on real facts, and history generally proves me right. Go ahead, prove me wrong.
Of course, Iraq hasn’t turned out that well. Sunni jihadniks are still routinely murdering pious Shi’a on pilgrimage to Karbala. Still...
There are three especially compelling personal testimonies arguing that Iraq is on its way to making its own inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian history, and it will be a relatively democratic history.
The last of these judgments came today, and it came from Gordon Brown, the British prime minister who is under Tory siege in the May elections. Iraq was always an unpopular war into which Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, also a Laborite inhabiting 10 Downing Street, led the Brits under the command of America. Brown’s last statement in this regard, including some politic dissents from George Bush’s early Iraq policy, appears in Friday’s New York Times.
The second of these pronunciamientos comes from Tom Ricks, authoritative or especially believable because of his authorship of two critical books on the American venture in Iraq, Fiasco and The Gamble. In “Extending Our Stay in Iraq,” an op-ed in last Wednesday’s Times, Ricks focuses on President Obama’s coming predicament. Having pledged to start removing American troops early on, Obama may find that his withdrawal will come just at a time when U.S. personnel are needed most. The president put himself long ago--during the campaign, when he played to the crowds--in this Iraqi conundrum. In his West Point address, he repeated the promise of withdrawal from Afghanistan when our presence there could be most important. This is a tic of the president’s, as a recent TNR editorial pointed out and as Dexter Filkins argued in the same issue. Ricks concludes that American and Iraqi leaders “may come to recognize that the best way deter a return to civil war is to find a way to keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come. ... As a longtime critic of the American invasion of Iraq, I am not happy about advocating a continued military presence there. Yet... just because you invade a country stupidly doesn’t mean you should leave it stupidly.”
In one way or another, the logic of this last sentence will be taken up by the Obami in their irresistible volte face on Iraq. It will be an embarrassment, an enormous one. But there is no alternative save shame and defeat.
Unlike Ricks, Fouad Ajami has no reason to be unhappy about the consequences of his historic arguments about Iraq. (By the way, if you haven’t already, you should read Ajami’s review in TNR of the searing Algerian novel, The German Mujahid, by Boualem Sansal.) “Another Step Forward for Iraq” is his title and his argument in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. He begins with a gentle slap at Vice President Joe Biden for having “the audacity of claiming on CNN’s ‘Larry King Live’ that Iraq is destined to be ‘one of the great achievements of this administration.’” I would call it chutzpah, especially for Joe, who, despairing all through the Iraq venture, recommended a break-up of the country into three sectarian and tribal states.
Ajami reopens the argument about Paul Bremer’s order No. 1, which was an edict banning adherents of the Ba’ath from political life. It was, says Ajami, “a boon to the new Iraq,” removing Hussein’s gangsters without there being a bloodbath revenge against those who had “perpetrated on Iraqis a reign of the darkest terror” ... and the longest terror. Imagine post-World War II Germany without de-Nazification.
Ajami’s argument is intricate and deepened by the knowledge of a history that other “experts” think they can pick up on the fly.
Here is his summation of it:
For decades, American policy makers have imbibed the Sunni orthodoxy of the Arab holders of power. That view seeped into the American official consciousness. It survived the terrors of 9/11 and the doctrines of the Sunni jihadists. America remained wedded to the idea of Shiite radicalism. Now a Shiite-led state in Baghdad could yet make its way into the American security structure in the region, and the Sunni rulers have taken up sword against it.
In the received wisdom of those who never took to the justice or the wisdom of the Iraq war, the balance of power in the region was upended by the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime that had presumably served as a buffer against the Iranian theocracy.
But that view grieves for a golden era that never was. It was in the 1980s and the 1990s, when the tyranny of Saddam Hussein ran a regime of extortion and plunder in the region, that the Iranians made their way to the Mediterranean, formed and trained Hezbollah in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, installed their proxies in southern Lebanon on Israel's northern border. It was in that fabled time that the Iranians spread mayhem all around and stoked the furies of the Sunni-Shiite schism that has poisoned the life of Islam.
There is a better way of "balancing" Iran: a regime in Baghdad endowed with the legitimacy of democratic norms. Of all that has been said about Iraq since the time that country became an American burden, nothing equals the stark formulation once offered by a diplomat not given to grandstanding and rhetorical flourishes. Said former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker: "In the end, what we leave behind and how we leave will be more important than how we came."
We can already see the outline of what our labor has created: a representative government, a binational state of Arabs and Kurds, and a country that does not bend to the will of one man or one ruling clan.