Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Carping Diem

It was George Santayana who said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But what fate awaits those that re-write the past to their liking?

That is a question that Spencer Ackerman might pose to Mark Moyar who recently penned a factually dubious account of Vietnamese strongman Ngo Dinh Diem. According to Moyar's version of history, Diem was "a highly effective national war leader" who "experienced an upsurge in prestige" after his 1963 crackdown of Buddhist sectarians and otherwise "saved" his country. As Ackerman noted:

This is a Marine Corps University professor describing Bizarro Vietnam. What upsurge in "prestige" did Diem enjoy after supressing the Vietnamese Buddhists? From his wife? His brother? If Diem was such a "highly effective national war leader," why did the Viet Cong increasingly snatch his territory?

Despite what Moyar describes as Diem's "political acumen and force of personality," he was eventually done-in by a coup inspired by a conspiracy of myopic "American officials and journalists." Right on the cusp of total victory, it would seem from Moyar's hagiography.

Shortcomings aside, Moyar's piece does offer a possible answer to the question of what fate befalls those that re-write history: they are doomed to continue re-writing future events so as to make them conform to their prior re-writes. Oh what a tangled web we weave.

Witness, for example, this counterfactual assessment of the loyalties of the Iraqi army:

In Vietnam as in Iraq, the only strong force not beholden to the sects was the army...

The Iraqi army is not infiltrated, influenced and corrupted by sectarian loyalties? Really? One of Maliki's first statements as prime minister expressed his intention to fold certain militia elements into the army. Every indication is that he has succeeded - at least with respect to SCIRI's Badr Corp.

Moyar's conclusions might also be news to citizens of Iraq who have grown to distrust any Iraqi in uniform (police or army) for fear of what sect or other ulterior interest they represent. In fact, not long ago, Iraqi's were instructed by the Ministry of Defense via the below excerpted message to adopt this position of suspicion as standard operating procedure:

The Ministry of Defense requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the army or police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by coalition forces working in that area.

In Moyar's rosy fabrication of Iraq, though, the Army is a force of nationalism, not beholden to any sectarian interests. Riiiight.

Not surprisingly given Moyar's dubious grasp of events, the recommendations he offers for Iraq based on his poorly constructed Vietnam analogies are of nominal value. The historical lesson Moyar seeks to draw is as follows:

Just as Diem established himself because Eisenhower let him participate unhindered in a Darwinian struggle, we should give Mr. Maliki the chance to restore order as he sees fit, provided his government does not try to suppress the insurgency through wholesale violence against Sunni civilians, as some fear it will.

If we pull back our troops temporarily and let Mr. Maliki deal with Iraq’s problems using Iraqi forces, we will be able to determine more quickly whether he can save his country as Diem saved his in 1955. We will see whether he has the political skills to cut deals with local leaders, the support of enough security forces to suppress those who won’t cut deals, and the determination to prevent the obliteration of the Sunnis.

The problem is, as mentioned above, Maliki's government is comprised of groups with militias. The army and police are heavily infiltrated with the armed factions of Maliki's constituents - and this is the result of deliberate policy choices. Other than some minor confrontations with Sadr (more today), Maliki will not take advantage of his "unfettered" access to the full panoply of military options to go after Shiite militias because they are he.

Quite the contrary, every inch Maliki takes away from Sadr, he likely concedes to SCIRI in exchange for their support in this internecine chess match. But at the end of the day, it amounts to little more than swapping one militia's influence for another's.

Further, this plea for removing restraints on Maliki is essentially an argument for the US tilting in favor of the Shiites in an effort to neutralize Sunni insurgents that I cautioned against recently.

When that strategy fails, or worse still explodes in regional war, the next generation of Mark Moyars can wax revisionist about the great Nouri al-Maliki and how we was this close to saving Iraq, and would have succeeded if it weren't for those traitorous journalists and weak-kneed types in the Pentagon.

They'll have to labor long to bend events to fit this narrative, but hey, revisionism is hard work.

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