Friday, January 06, 2006

It Won't Mean A Thing In A Hundred Years

Optimistic Interpretations Don't Have A Very Good Track Record In Iraq

The prevailing hope underlying the December 15th elections in Iraq was that the high turnout of Sunnis, together with the momentum of the democratic process, could lead to a rapprochement of the warring factions in Iraq. If such a forging of common cause could be accomplished, then a broad-based, national unity government could be formed, the Iraqi constitution could be amended to soften the punitive provisions and the Sunni population could be given a share in the new Iraq. The Sunnis, thus included, would be prone to view the insurgencies as pointless, counterproductive and unduly destructive and so they would lose patience with them and withdraw support, if not actively root out certain factions (especially with respect to the Zarqawi group comprised of foreign fighters and other domestic Salafists).

There have been some recent encouraging developments on this front. First, there was the emergence of an intriguing alliance of disparate opposition groups (the MARAMists - including Sunni groups and secular Shiite parties) formed for the purpose of ensuring electoral honesty (recounts, international assessment of the results) or at least what they deem to be a fairer apportionment of seats after the fact. More recently, there have been talks between the Shiite parties, Kurdish parties and the religious Sunni parties (Iraqi Accord Front) about forming a national unity government (the secular parties under Allawi and other assorted figures would likely be shut out under such an arrangement and thus the MARAMist ranks would be splintered and most likely rendered impotent going forward).

But as praktike pointed out, a recent spate of brutal attacks (especially those targeting the Shiite religious site of Karbala) may have soured the feelings of national compact and the desire, on the part of the Shiites and Kurds, to include the Sunnis in a unity government. This was clearly the intention of the attackers, and if SCIRI leader Abdul-Aziz Hakim's words are any indicator, their mission may have been accomplished:

Sunni Arab groups that have warned of potential civil war "bear the responsibility for every drop of blood that was shed," said Mr. Hakim, whose party is allied with Iran and is the most influential group in the governing Shiite coalition. He said "pressure" from American forces had impeded the Interior and Defense Ministries from "doing their job chasing terrorists and maintaining the souls of innocent Iraqi people."

"We're laying the responsibility for the blood of innocents shed in the past few days on the multinational forces and the political powers that declared publicly their support for terrorism," he said. "Our people will not be patient for much longer with these dirty sectarian crimes."
It is not clear, though, if efforts to include key Sunni groups in the new government are a non-starter in light of these recent, and ongoing, attacks. But it is equally unclear that the Sunni groups involved in these discussions (to paraphrase Swopa): (1) are genuinely interested in undermining the insurgencies or are only following through on the bullets and ballots approach; (2) speak for enough Sunnis to make a difference even if their intentions are true; and (3) could survive potential assassination attempts from the insurgencies even if #2 is true.

The ongoing violence certainly does tend to drain the optimism away when one considers the delicacy of the effort at hand, and the hostilities and righteous anger that must be overcome to achieve success. Still, I try to remain hopeful that the various parties (even Hakim) understand the stakes and will thus practice forbearance for the sake of laying the groundwork for a long-term and lasting peace. There is still time, and room, to carve out a political niche for Sunnis that would create the wedge needed to isolate the insurgencies. Nevertheless, Swopa's words are troubling in their historical accuracy: "Optimistic interpretations don't have a very good track record in Iraq."

The 200 Year Plan

...Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.

-Donald Rumsfeld speaking at a press conference addressing the issue of looting and widespread lawlessness after the fall of Baghdad.
A familiar refrain one encounters when discussing the fits and starts with which the democratic Iraqi experiment is progressing(?) is that it took the United States a couple of hundred years to get democracy right, so we should be more realistic in our expectations. According to this line of thought, critics are being naive to assume that Iraq could form a stable and peaceful democracy in a matter of months or years (decades?) when it took the United States as long as it did.

In many ways, they're right. Iraq's society was brutalized, traumatized and deeply debilitated by many decades of despotic Baathist rule. There are, and were, significant underlying ethnic/sectarian differences that have only been exacerbated by the spilling of blood and oppression of entire segments of the population (historical and ongoing). These conditions will take time to correct themselves, and the cathartic process is/was inevitably going to involve violent, retaliatory and destructive manifestations. Rumsfeld might have been on to something by noting the harsh result that can spring forth from sudden freedom (or absence of sovereign control) after an extended period of despotism.

With Iraq's historical context in mind, is it right to expect the Iraqis to do much better than the US? Recall, America's first 100 years of democracy were marred by the ethnic cleansing of the native population, violent subjugation and enslavement of an entire minority group (African-Americans), disenfranchisement of others (women), wars with outside powers (England, et al) and a massively destructive civil war (600,000 dead). Many of these problems continued, albeit in less extreme fashion, well into the 20th century as well.

But here's what worries me: The problems associated with the war on terror are present in the here and now. If Iraq has to go through the growing pains of the United States in order to reach democratic stability and peace, then I'm afraid of how this process will affect the larger war on terror.

If Iraq is to become the democratic spearhead that is going to change the Middle East and turn the tide against terrorism, as many war supporters have claimed, I don't think the 200 year plan is going to suffice. On the contrary, a warring and fractious Iraq could be a serious impediment to our efforts (especially if certain areas of Iraq continue to serve as a training, networking, indoctrination and launching pad for future terrorists). Should Iraq take half the time as the United States, that would present a long-term problem of sizable dimensions. Even if the Iraqis manage to speed through the process in no more than a decade, the repercussions could be staggeringly destructive. Far from producing the irresistible force for change that will usher in a democratic era in the region and undermine the appeal and support for terrorism, Iraq's birthing process could create a persistent terrorist backlash for many years to come.

So the history might be correct, but the timeline leaves much to be desired. In truth, I believe there is more anxiety with respect to Iraq making a speedy and smooth transition amongst the foreign policy commentariat because of the potential damage an unstable Iraq could do even if such instability only lasts a decade. Short by comparison historically speaking, but potentially catastrophic to our security in the near term. Not to mention how certain aspects of Iraq's transition might play out. One possible scenario I touched on last week:

If in our zeal to stand up an army and beat a hasty retreat from Iraq we end up creating, arming and assisting a military composed primarily of Kurdish and Shiite forces, and that military becomes the fighting force in an eventual civil war, can you imagine the propaganda field-day Osama would have?

The United States (already viewed with suspicion, cynicism and mistrust) will have, in effect, armed, trained and possibly provided air support and other tactical assistance to one side (the Shiites) in a clash of religious sects within the Muslim world. The Sunni population in other Muslim nations (a majority in almost all save Iran)...would be radicalized, horrified, enraged, humiliated and desperate to strike back at the "imperialist crusader" that many would no doubt blame for the carnage - probably inordinately so, but that is to be expected.

How do you think such a dynamic would interact with our effort to curb the appeal and support for extremist jihadists and other groups looking to do harm to American interests? Not well in my estimation - a glaring understatement. If we are perceived as the facilitator and actor in such a sectarian clash, we will undoubtedly come out losers regardless of the outcome. The consequences could be severe and destructive in the short term and provide an indelible blemish on our image in the region in the long term.
So you see, I take no solace from historical analogies to America's long and winding road to democratic stability.

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