Impossible Anachronism

Max Boot published an email from a Lt. Colonel Miska here last week. What struck me was the time frame in which he saw the Iraq conflict.

How long, you ask? I am on my second tour following a year in Tikrit from 2004-2005. A realistic goal is to have stabilized this region by the time my eleven-year-old son is old enough to serve in the military. Not that he is preordained to serve, but my hope is he will not have to deal with the complexity and tragedies that I have witnessed in Baghdad over the last eight months. My only other goal is to be able to look myself in the mirror every day, knowing that I stuck to my principles and did as much as possible to win in this very dangerous environment.

If our government decides to prematurely pull out, I would fail to reach both goals, and my son and his generation may find themselves embroiled in something far worse than what we experience now—all because my generation couldn’t get the job done.

That is just one man’s perspective but he has a lot of direct experience and more than enough rank to trust his opinion is a professional one. He is talking about another seven years which does not seem possible in today’s political climate. Yet he still thinks it is worth doing. So do I. Because it has always been a long war and one with two aspects. The first aspect is”stabilizing the region” as Lt. Colonel Miska put it and is needed to ensure the stable flow of oil to, not just the US, but the rest of the world. This aspect is not about plundering the oil in 19th century colonialist fashion, but trying to ensure enough political stability so that the oil can be bought in an orderly market place that in turn makes possible a stable world economy. (And I would argue a stable world economy is the only way to have the wherewithal to eventually create a carbon neutral economy.) So this political and market stability is necessary for the economies of Europe and China and India and everyone else, not just the US.

The second aspect is the war against Islamic extremism. The two are interlinked but the rise of Islamic extremism is the one that has forced the hand of the West because there is no way to give them what they want. It began with the seizing of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and escalated to a level where it had to be taken seriously on 9/11. At base, I believe it is a war between modernity and a violent rejection of modern life that sees the solution as not only returning to the past but to an unsustainably rigid past. The fanaticism of radical Islam – exemplified by the claim that they will win because they love death while the West loves life – is a source of both strength and weakness. Apart from the violence of radical Islam, its broad outline reminds me of the New England Puritans who fled England after their revolution failed in the 17th century. They too were determined to set up a perfect society based on an idealized period from the past. In their case the first 300 years of the Christian church. (In radical Islam’s case, the early caliphates.) To become a member of the Puritan church each individual had to have and publicly demonstrate that they had a religious experience called a conversion experience. However, when the children of these people grew up they often had no such experience. So the Puritans invented the ‘half way covenant’ so that their children could become members of the church and still carry on the prosperous businesses that made colonial New England such a success. The beginnings of the modern world put paid to the New England theocracy just as today’s modern world is undermining the theocracy in Iran. Similarly, it is the chance to become modern that is being so eagerly embraced by Iraqi Kurdistan. People as a whole will not reject prosperity and the opportunity to lead a comfortable life for a highly restricted life focused on God. Some of every generation will choose such a life, but if it is not chosen it become just another form of tyranny not much different than living under any totalitarian collectivist regime – Fascist or Communist.

Islamic radicalism greatest difficulty is that it is attempting to reverse the course of human development. Historically, modernity comes after simpler modes of social organization often creating a desire for an earlier world and its certainties. By the way, I am not making the Marxist argument for historical inevitability. I believe that history is what we make it and that it is possible for human societies to go backwards as well as forwards. I believe this happens both when they simply degenerate and when they give into the impulse to take a great leap backwards. Attempts to artificially impose a social order from the past even when the authority of God is invoked are inherently unstable because they require the denial of too many known alternatives. The more developed options are already out there beckoning. The West must learn to exploit this structural vulnerability over time and I believe that what we have learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that long term nation building is the way to do this. I don’t believe the West can afford to retreat in Iraq or Afghanistan. As long as we don’t leave a vacuum for totalitarians like al Qaeda or Sadr to exploit, the long slow work of nation building can proceed. Bush and many of his advisers expected this process to work quickly. It did not. Neither has it worked quickly in the Balkans I would add. However, the Iraqi elections and the gradual coming into focus of the moderate Shiites associated with Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the rise of the anti al Qaeda Sunni Salvation Councils show that there is a real internal impulse toward nation building within Iraq. If no such political and social process existed then there would no point in going on fighting. But these processes are the key to both aspects the long war and if we want to prevail we must continue to support them.

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