C’est Plus Ca Change…

the more they stay the same.

Apparently, the truce in Fallujah is on the brink of collapse–if it hasn’t already been shattered by the time I’m writing these words. We’ve been hammering the insurgents from the air, using helicopters and close air support from the Air Force. I would expect for us to try to resume the offensive in the next couple of days–that’s assuming we haven’t already. The situation on the ground, of course, is highly uncertain, and the fog of war is highly impenetrable.

But if, in fact, we’ve decided to scotch negotiations with the Fallujah rebels, then we’ve made a heinous military mistake–one that will result in greater casualties to both sides. Already, this month, we’ve suffered 91 deaths–that’s the greatest toll of any month, and we’re only halfway through. I expect that the toll will only be greater.

However, negotiations down in Najaf are still proceeding, with al-Sadr having made some serious concessions. If we can resolve that situation peacefully, then–just maybe–the situation isn’t entirely lost. As I said, it’s hard to say, and there seem to be multiple parties involved in the parley down there, all saying somewhat different things.

So tonight, I’m going to address my pessimism about the situation in Iraq.
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So why am I still pessimistic?

A number of reasons. First, the rumors are swirling that Paul Bremer’s going to be replaced by John Negroponte, the current UN Ambassador. As Matt Yglesias has ably written, Negroponte’s got an awful history of supporting terrorism. Yes, I’m referring to the days when he was the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, and he helped support the Honduran Government’s death squads. If government-sponsored bands of thugs charged with kidnapping and murdering people aren’t terrorists, then I submit that the concept has lost all meaning.

Plus, not that it would be an extenuating circumstance, but Negroponte doesn’t even bring any kind of special knowledge to the table. Heck, he doesn’t even speak Arabic! Couldn’t we find any Arabic-speaking Republicans who would be able to take on the challenge? Spencer Abraham, where are you? Seriously, what about Morton Abramowitz? Or James Zogby? Or, here’s a real left-field choice–how about Norm Schwartzkopf?

I’m just pulling names out of my bonnet here. Feel free to propose any that you can think of. But, ye gods! About the only person that would be worse than Negroponte would be Paul Wolfowitz. And say what you wil about Wolfie, at least he didn’t back terrorists.
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Another reason that I’m pessimistic about the situation is that, contrary to all the bluster about how he’s got a plan for victory, I really don’t see an victory strategy. I know that people are fond of saying we need an “exit” strategy, but, truth is, we have one: we just pack up and leave. See–there’s your exit strategy!

Seriously, though: how can we justify the loss of life in Iraq, both American and Iraqi, if in the end, we leave Iraq worse off than we found it?

We can’t. I’ve stated previously that, having helped to disrupt Iraqi society, we have a moral duty to help restore it to normality. But our actions over the past three weeks have only served to further disrupt, rather than help restore, the security of this tragic land. And I’m less sure, than ever before, that we have a victory strategy.

Frankly, I don’t have much of a problem with trying to get rid of guys like Muqtada al-Sadr; I think that he’s a bit of a disruptive force, and, worse, he lacks a positive vision for what he wants to do if he should take the reins of power. Really, he’s an opportunist; he’s not committed to democracy; and he’s shown, throughout the past year, a very disturbing tendency for demagoguery and violence.

Along those same lines, I think that it would be a disaster if someone like Ahmed Chalabi takes over. Chalabi, frankly, is a genteel thief, and a polished con man. Every day that we’re associated with a slimebag like Chalabi is another day that our credibility among ordinary Iraqis takes a hit. What we really should do is arrest him and turn him over to the Jordanian authorities for embezzling all those millions from the Petra Bank back in the ’90s. If we did that, I suspect we’d reap a lot of goodwill.

But, sadly, that won’t happen. Too many of the blindered geniuses who hold power in this Administration have bought into Chalabi’s lies and double-dealing, from his claim that Iraq was rife with WMDs to his ludicrously balderdash statement that Iraqis would be pro-Israeli.
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There is a third choice, though most American policymakers shudder at the thought: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He’s been admirably patient with our blundering, and has shown a real commitment to freedom and democracy. But we’ve allowed our memories of 444 captive Americans in Tehran to cloud us to the potential of allowing al-Sistani to be in charge of leading Iraq. I can’t stress this enough: he’s not a fire-breathing cleric who seeks an Iranian-style theocracy. He’s basically in support of an Iraqi government that’s democratic and will reflect the will of the people. That sounds good to me; so why haven’t we gotten behind that?
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For the simple reason that we don’t want an Iraqi democracy. I know, we say we do, but we really don’t. You see, what we really want is an Iraqi government that does what we tell it to do, and supports what we want it to support. We want it to be a haven for American business, a staunch military and political ally, and, most of all, we want it to be pro-Israeli.

But a democratically elected Iraqi government likely won’t be any of these things. It won’t be a haven for American business, likely opening its markets and resources to all buyers and investors; it won’t be a staunch ally (who knows?–it might start developing weapons and military capability right away, if only to defend itself from Iran); and most of all, it will be, like every other Arab state in the region, anti-Israeli. The plight of Palestine, as I heard it referred to by more than one Iraqi, is something that is in the back of most Iraqis minds, and support for the intifada runs deep. It really does–this is a starkly emotional issue for them; and now that they’re under the same situation, it’s even more so.

Given all that, I have to question just how serious our commitment to democracy in Iraq is. On that, I’m an utter skeptic. I really do think that we’d prefer a strongman (maybe Chalabi–who knows at this point?) who would toe the line we set.
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Finally, I’m a pessimist because, quite frankly, our men and women on the ground don’t understand the environment. And our civilian leadership hasn’t given us that understanding.

It’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the challenge facing us. We’re essentially going into Iraq with two strikes already: we don’t speak Arabic, and we’re not Muslim. This is more serious than we think. America may be the most religious Western country, but at the same time, we’re the most secular country as well.

This isn’t the case in Muslim countries, especially Arab ones. There, religion is utterly tied in with the culture. You can’t have an Iraqi culture that’s separate from an Islamic culture; it’s one and the same. And while we may be People of the Book, still, it’s clear that in Iraqi eyes, Islam is number one.

So you have a Christian army occupying a Muslim land; echoes of the Crusades are ringing inside Iraqi minds, both Muslim and Christian. And, quite frankly, we haven’t been quite sensitive to those concerns, especially lately; we’ve fired on mosques, we’ve entered them with our feet shod, and I’m sure that, in the expediencies and fog of war, we’ve inflicted a thousand other small indignities upon Iraqis. All of which add up, and which, slowly, are boiling over into rage.

We also don’t speak Arabic; this is a grave concern. Our lack of comprehension forces us to rely upon interpreters, and so much of the information we receive is second-hand, filtered through another person’s understanding. I speak another language; trust me, translating simultaneously from one to the other is devilishly difficult, and much more so when you’re in a violent environment, with bullets flying all around. It also places us in a reactive mode; Iraqis could conceivably stroll up to your checkpoint, chattering in Arabic, and for all you know, they could either be greeting you, or giving the final commands for an ambush.

These two strikes place a nearly insurmountable barrier between us and the average Iraqi. And our lack of familiarity with the culture basically has us boxed out.

I think we’re locked in a cycle here; I really do. We desperately want to help, but we lack the means to do so. And so we can’t. And the cycle grinds mercilessly onwards, until, I’m afraid, we face a tragic exit. I want us to succeed; I really do. Nothing would make me happier. But these three things, I’m afraid, will keep us from doing so.
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Tomorrow, I’ll talk about my strategy for success in Iraq. Plus, comments and analysis on developing events in Iraq as the situation develops.

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2 responses to “C’est Plus Ca Change…

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