Moving On

David Warren in this succinct column expresses something I have long felt about President Bush’s attitude toward the Iraq war, but been unable to articulate.

President Bush’s hopeful idea from the beginning, was that democracy would spread through the Arab and Muslim world, in the same way it had spread through central and eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He seems sincerely to believe, to this day, that freedom and democracy are things all human beings want, and will have, if only they aren’t prevented from obtaining it. Hence, the rather naive efforts to endow Iraq and Afghanistan with paper constitutions, and in Iraq especially, the failure of the country’s politicians to agree to anything.

If David Warren is correct, then it is immediately clear to me that I have never shared that particular expectation with President Bush or more broadly neo conservatives. It certainly goes a long way to explain the incongruous talk at the beginning of the post invasion period about Iraq being in a similar position to America while writing its constitution in the late 18th century. That tendency is also clear in the emphasis on the Iraqi constitution and elections and the apparent lack of anticipation that an insurgency might arise. I remember in particular my unease when the Iraqi soldiers demonstrated outside Paul Bremer’s office demanding to be paid. My reaction was, pay the devils and put them to work – then you control them. Despite this apparent numbness to the negative possibilities inherent in the post invasion situation, the neo-conservative expectation was not entirely unrealistic. Despite the insurgency, Iraqis showed they had a genuine enthusiasm for voting and the Kurds demonstrated that Muslims were quite capable of doing exactly what Bush and his advisers hoped the rest of Iraq would do. But the Sunni and Shia insurgencies and thier respective state sponsors succeeded in nullifying any gains. Despite capturing a letter from Zarqui to the al Qaeda leadership declaring his intention to induce a civil war well before the Golden Mosque bombing, the US couldn’t prevent the descent into sectarian violence.

To me the worst failure was that the violence has driven into exile many of the very people who could have formed a civil society in Iraq – in particular, educated professionals. Two of my favorite bloggers from this group are Zeyad of Healing Iraq and Mohammed and Omar Fadhil of Iraq the Model. Zeyad, already a dentist, is now studying Journalism in New York. Mohammed Fadhil is trying to collect his US Visa – and having a terrible time – to likewise study in the US. The second failure is that the government the US worked so hard to put in place in Iraq shows no sign of moving away from sectarianism and corruption. I am forcibly reminded of Yassir Arafat’s inability to move beyond narrow self interest and his utter failure to lead his people forward to a better life. Unlike Palestine, Iraq is a wealthy country but the central government seems to have little sense they are in a position to create a ‘commonwealth’. All they have to do is look at the Kurds to see that they could be enjoying peace and economic growth, yet they seem unwilling to make it happen.

Although we have yet to see how much trouble the enemy will be able to create to coincide with General Petraeus’ September report, it currently appears that he has made some real progress toward establishing better security. Real enough to make the Democrats hedge their bets and tacitly admit that they can’t both force a pullout and hang the blame for the consequences on President Bush. But real enough to stop an all out civil war? I don’t know. The Iraqi bloggers mentioned above differ sharply. Zeyad believes that Petraeus’ arming the Sunni militias against al Qaeda is simply laying the groundwork for a bloodier civil war. Mohammed is more optimistic but sees the political process in the Iraqi government as completely stalled.

What I find interesting about the surge is that it seems to be providing enough security to be causing a bottom up political process which may eventually improve the central government. Blackfive, in an interview with General Bergner asks why this is happening in a country with a long history of a dominant – even overbearing – central government:

GEN. BERGNER: You know, that’s a very good question, it’s an interesting one, because on one level, it has been a centrally governed country, without question, but in this country the tribe, the family have always been the most powerful bond that the Iraqi people have felt. And so you have kind of a duality of centrally directed but, if you ask the people who they trust and who they want to work with, it’s at the family, tribal and community level. So both of those exist and both of them are very real parts of the nature of Iraqi society.

I get the clear impression that the US may have finally engaged the critical layers of Iraqi society that it initially failed to deal with in its top down approach. In all fairness I think the Sunnis needed to learn the hard way that al Qaeda were not their friends. And it is still unclear whether enough of Iraq’s Shiites have rejected mullocracy and/or Iranian dominance. Sadr’s recent difficulties make me hopeful. In any case, the country is going to take a long time to fix. Ironically General Petraeus, if he succeeds, may give both President Bush and the Democrats a different way forward than either anticipated. It would be good if we could move on from arguing who was right in 2003 and deal with the realities of 2008.

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