Tuesday, May 08, 2007

All Too Human

Our friend the badger has an interesting post about recent political developments in Iraq in which he takes a little snipe at this "progressive blog-jihadi" (I've been called worse):

Along with the fixation on US exit-strategy, we have also been fed a steady diet of self-cleansing blame. According to the NYT editorial yesterday, the whole Iraq problem is the result of the do-nothing attitude of the Maliki administration. And the "progressive" blog-jihadis have been at the forefront of this interpretation, dismissing internal UIA political tensions as "theater", describing Sadr as a thug and Sistani as a Mafia figure, all of them driven by narrow self-interest only, and together engaged in deceiving the Americans about the prospects for reconciliation. As if the sole purpose of the Americans in Iraq was to establish peace and tranquillity, like missionaries in a way, so as to be able to leave with a clear conscience...

Badger's post generously provides me with an opportunity to clarify my position on these, and related, matters. First of all, I want to make it abundantly clear that I do not seek to "blame" Iraqis for the current political deadlock, and attendant inter- and intra- sectarian/ethnic fighting. The results were predictable, and predicted. The unrest was set in motion by the proximate causes of our invasion of Iraq, the evisceration of Iraq's security infrastructure and the upending of its social order with few institutional safeguards in place to manage the aftermath.

Observing the tragic state of affairs in Iraq that currently pits myriad armed groups against each other in pursuit of money, power and influence (as well as the settling, and preoccupation with, historical grievances), and recognizing that this is an impasse that we are powerless to resolve, does not and should not necessarily be construed as an abdication of responsibility for the situation.

Further, I have never argued - or even implied - that the "sole purpose of the Americans in Iraq was to establish peace and tranquillity, like missionaries in a way." On the contrary, among the primary motives for our invasion of Iraq (at least for some of the key authors of the policy) was the desire to attain physical proximity to, and control over, vast oil resources (especially vis-a-vis other hungry global consumers such as China). In addition, there was the drive to establish a long term military presence in Iraq through the construction and staffing of massive permanent bases - which themselves could be used as staging grounds for subsequent military adventures in nearby Iran and Syria or, at the very least, as a formidable defensive straddle of the aforementioned oil supplies.

The eventual realization of those goals, however, is in jeopardy because of the uncertainty wrought by the ongoing conflicts, the enormous toll in terms of military and economic resources such unrest is exacting, the resulting erosion of domestic political will and means, as well as the empowerment of factions in Iraq that are considerably less amenable to these designs (Sadr, Sistani) than some of the pre-war draft picks would have been (see, ie, Chalabi, Ahmad).

So, no, the desire to establish relative stability is not necessarily born out of some moral or ethical well-spring of magnanimity (after all, the same "do-gooders" were the ones that unleashed "shock and awe" in the first place). Nevertheless, it is in the interest of those motivated by more cynical aspirations to see the fighting die down and some semblance of calm take root. In pursuit of this, the US has been searching for a political accord acceptable to enough of Iraq's population so as to sap the potency of the insurgency and militia reliance. Thus, the US has been pressuring the various factions to make concessions in the interest of forging such a national modus vivendi. Thus far, however, those factions have resisted making such concessions (the Sunni's continue to support insurgent attacks, there has been no progress on Constitutional amendment, oil revenue sharing, de-de-Baathification, etc.).

Now why would all these groups refuse to make concessions if they are really motivated by a desire for unity and national reconciliation?

With respect to the "theatrical" component of UIA political tensions, I should clarify the limits and extent of such an interpretation. There are, without a doubt, very real "tensions" in the UIA political coalition - as well as between current UIA constituents and erstwhile members like Fadhila. Sadr's forces have been clashing with SCIRI's in the south (with Fadhila mixing it up as well at times), and Maliki himself seemed to get sucked in on the SCIRI side for a brief interval in the Summer/Fall of 2006 (and might again, if the right opportunity presents itself). There currently exists - despite Sistani's ongoing efforts - a very real possibility that a schism will form between some or all of the Shiite factions that could prove to be explosive and unmanageable.

However, the recent withdrawal of ministers from the Maliki government seemed like a bit of theater because Sadr was able to use this demonstrative act as a means to bolster his nationalist/anti-occupation bona fides and distance himself from the unpopular government - without completely abandoning the UIA (his parliamentarians have, thus far, remained in the legislative body, despite the heated rhetoric). This was an important objective for Sadr. Oddly enough, badger himself seems to acknowledge this angle in subsequent paragraphs [emphasis mine]:

Meanwhile, closer to the real world, Sadrists are telling Al-Hayat that Sadr is making efforts to regain his nationalist and resistance credentials, having emissaries talk with Sunni groups outside of Iraq, and trying to engineer a purge of lawless elements in the Mahdi Army. The Sadrist sources say the current is seriously considering exiting from the UIA, as a result of the ongoing dispute over demands for a US withdrawal timetable, and more immediately as a result of disputes over how to replace the Sadrist cabinet ministers who have been pulled from the government by the movement. Sadrists say it now appears SCIRI will be trying to have those positions filled, not with competent and politically neutral technocrats, which was the original idea, but instead with SCIRI partisans. As reported, there have been Badr-Mahdi Army military clashes in the south, probably not unrelated to these political disputes.

The Tariq al-Hashemi interview with CNN is a reflection of the same trend. Hashemi too is bent on trying to salvage some degree of nationalist credibility, saying his decision to participate in this government will have been the "mistake of my life" (if the constitution is not amended, he added). What both Sadr and Hashemi are trying to do is distance themselves from the existing political arrangements, Sadr from the UIA, Hashemi from the Maliki administration. Naturally, the integrity, self-esteem and continued existence of the groups they lead is uppermost, but also, and as part and parcel of that, the preservation of their own reputations and that of their groups as proponents of national unity. And both of them seem to have decided that this has to lie in some other direction than continuing to hope for a government-led reconciliation. That would be the resistance.

I'm sure that Sadr's only objection to a potential take over of his former ministries by SCIRI (his chief rival) is SCIRI's lack of "technical" prowess. Just as Fadhila's earlier withdrawal from the UIA was based on Fadhila's disappointment with the "narrow sectarian agenda" of the UIA (nothing to do with Fadhila's loss of the oil ministry). No narrow self interest there. Nor, I suppose, should the need to bolster any party's "reputation" be seen as a motive for any type of political theater on the part of the players involved. Just honest, straight talk in the service of enlightened, nationalistic principles.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Sadr, Maliki, Sistani, SCIRI, Dawa, Fadhila, Hashemi, et al, are in fact all interested in reconciliation and unity due to their selfless, nationalistic impulses. Let's again assume, ex arguendo, that it is only the "progressive blog-jihadis" such as myself that would ascribe less noble motives to these parties.

If so, what could possibly be stalling the realization of a national reconciliation? What, or who, is getting in the way and preventing the Iraqis (who, despite differences in ethnicity and sect, are all more or less on the same page) from overcoming the divides? Is the stalemate really just the result of an elaborate and prolonged misunderstanding (see, everybody really wanted the same outcome, they just didn't know the other guy wanted the same thing!)?

The more cynical might argue that the US is deliberately stoking sectarian tensions to keep Iraq weak, divided and in chaos. This argument is not overly persuasive, however, given the fact that those divisions, and the resulting chaos, are threatening our ability to stay in Iraq - not prolonging our tenure. How does making our position in Iraq less tenable comport with either the cynical, or generous, interpretations of the Bush administration's long term goals? It doesn't.

Rather, the truth is the same in Iraq as it has been in almost every other conflict zone in human history: narrow, self-interest and greed trumps more enlightened principles, and where those enlightened principles were once present, they are too easily corrupted by temptation. Where there is a vacuum of power and rampant lawlessness, people will do the most unthinkable things to fill the void (especially when there is a back-story of violent repression, distrust and persecution animating the various parties - as well as interference from neighboring, and far away, interests). So now in Iraq, there is a swirling conflict of all against all, with certain alliance structures in place to delineate some of the combatants. But even then, those structures might not hold permanently.

Again, this was predictable, and predicted. And, it doesn't mean that we are free of blame for the obvious result.

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