Monday , May 20 2024

Iraqi Prism: Perspective Is Everything

Like real life, Iraq is a near-blinding mass of prismatic shards right now, the “real reality” of the situation very much depending upon your stance when the light shards hit you.

War and Bush supporter Mark Steyn says things are “really” pretty good:

    Then there are the naysayers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who, as we now know, were claiming before the war that nothing could be done, nothing would go right, patently absurd to think Iraq can ever be a democracy, old boy. Topple Saddam, install his replacement, and pretty soon Iraq would be reverting to type. “Military coup could succeed coup until an autocratic Sunni dictator emerged who protected Sunni interests. With time he could acquire WMD.”

    I have no problem with that. If the best-case scenario is that Iraq winds up as agreeable as my beloved New Hampshire, the worst case was laid out by yours truly in this space three years ago, on September 27, 2001, when I acknowledged that a post-Saddam Iraq might wind up merely with “a thug who’s marginally less bloody….”

    ….That’s still the bottom line. It is the stability of the Middle East – the stability of the Ba’athists, Ayatollahs, Sauds, the Arafats and Mubaraks – that has enabled it to export its toxins. At a bare minimum, we need a kind of Sam Goldwyn Doctrine: I’m sick of the old dictators-for-life. Bring me some new dictators-for-life.

    But in Iraq we are already way beyond that. After the predictions of hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and a mass refugee crisis and a humanitarian catastrophe and wall-to-wall cholera and dysentery all failed to pan out, the naysayers fell back on predictions of imminent civil war. But the civil war’s as mythical as the universal dysentery.

    There is a problem in the Sunni Triangle and in certain Baghdad suburbs. If you look at the figures for August, over half the 71 US fatalities that month died in one province – al-Anbar, which covers much of the Sunni Triangle.

    Most of the remainder were killed dispatching young Sadr’s goons in Najaf or in operations against other Sunni Triangulators in Samarra, with a couple of isolated incidents in Mosul and Kirkuk. In 11 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, not a single US soldier died.

    ….In two-thirds of the country, municipal government has been rebuilt, business is good, restaurants are open, life is as jolly as it has been in living memory. This summer the Shia province of Dhi Qar, south-east of Baghdad, held the first free elections in its history, electing secular independents and non-religious parties to its town councils.

    The Kurdish North, which would be agitating for secession if real civil war were looming, is for the moment content to be Scotland. The Sunni Triangle, meanwhile, looks like being the fledgling Iraqi federation’s Northern Ireland for a while to come.

    That’s a pity. But, if you can quarantine it, the difference between it and the rest of the country will become starker, month by month.

    ….But the beauty of handing over “sovereignty” to Ayad Allawi is that the new Prime Minister has more freedom of manoeuvre than Paul Bremer ever had, and, as he doesn’t have to give press conferences on CNN every morning, there will be fewer questions afterwards.

    ….That is not to say there are not serious questions about both short-term tactics (Fallujah, Najaf) and long-term goals (a democratic Iraq).

    ….in the end, the reality is this. A few weeks ago, Prof Bernard Lewis, the great historian of the Muslim world, told Die Welt that “Europe will be Islamic by the end of the century”. That seems demographically unavoidable.

    Given that much of what we now know as the civilised world will be Muslim, it seems prudent to ensure that what is already the Muslim world is civilised. And, for those who say that Islam is incompatible with democracy, we might as well try to buck that in Iraq today than in France, Scandinavia and Britain the day after tomorrow. [Telegraph]

For Steyn, who I often find more flippant and simplistic than insightful, this is measured and insightful. The greater effort here is to bring Islam, kicking and screaming or otherwise into the 21st, or at least 20th, century in terms of functioning rule of law, civil society, democracy, economic viability, women’s rights – all that shit – and it doesn’t matter so much in what order this is accomplished, so much as that momentum be maintained in the right direction, and kicking the baby-raper Saddam the fuck out of power in Iraq is most certainly momentum.

Was it the ideal move after Afghanistan? Perhaps not in an ideal world, and with the foreknowledge – that no one had – of the absence of WMD, but this is not an ideal world and Iraq was the most practical place to go to continue the process that must be finished before, as Steyn puts it, “Given that much of what we now know as the civilised world will be Muslim, it seems prudent to ensure that what is already the Muslim world is civilised.”

A post-Saddam shitstorm was inevitable anyway – better now than later – it wasn’t going to get better or easier.

If Steyn is cheerfully pro-war, Robert Novak is a gloomy conservative “realist”:

    Inside the Bush administration policymaking apparatus, there is strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year. This determination is not predicated on success in implanting Iraqi democracy and internal stability. Rather, the officials are saying: Ready or not, here we go.

    This prospective policy is based on Iraq’s national elections in late January, but not predicated on ending the insurgency or reaching a national political settlement. Getting out of Iraq would end the neoconservative dream of building democracy in the Arab world. The United States would be content having saved the world from Saddam Hussein’s quest for weapons of mass destruction.

    ….Kerry supporters with foreign policy experience speculate that if elected, their candidate would take the same escape route.

    Whether Bush or Kerry is elected, the president or president-elect will have to sit down immediately with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military will tell the election winner there are insufficient U.S. forces in Iraq to wage effective war. That leaves three realistic options: Increase overall U.S. military strength to reinforce Iraq, stay with the present strength to continue the war, or get out.

    Well-placed sources in the administration are confident Bush’s decision will be to get out. They believe that is the recommendation of his national security team and would be the recommendation of second-term officials.

    ….The end product would be an imperfect Iraq, probably dominated by Shia Muslims seeking revenge over long oppression by the Sunni-controlled Baathist Party. The Kurds would remain in their current semi-autonomous state. Iraq would not be divided, reassuring neighboring countries — especially Turkey — that are apprehensive about ethnically divided nations.

    This messy new Iraq is viewed by Bush officials as vastly preferable to Saddam’s police state, threatening its neighbors and the West. [Chicago Sun-Times]

I have no idea how good Novak’s sources are, if this prediction is true, or simply a projetion of what he wants to see happen, but other than the clear difference of Steyn seeing Kerry as being likely to bail, and Novak seeing them both likely to pull the plug post haste, the rest of their scenarios are actually quite similar, yet Steyn sees the positives in the current situation and Novak leans negative, ending with:

    In the Aug. 29 New York Times Magazine, columnist David Brooks wrote an article (”How to Reinvent the GOP”) that is regarded as a neo-con manifesto and not popular with other conservatives.

    ”We need to strengthen nation states,” Brooks wrote, calling for ”a multilateral nation-building apparatus.” To chastened Bush officials, that sounds like an invitation to repeat Iraq instead of making sure it never happens again.

“Chastened” would seem to be an editorial decision made by Novak. If Novak is a dry, grim realist, Steve Chapman makes him look like Polyanna skipping through the yum-yum trees by comparison:

    The real debate about our mission in Iraq is no longer between those who say it’s succeeding and those who think it’s failing, but between those who think it’s failing and those who think the word “failure” grossly understates the scope of the catastrophe. The same CIA that found ways to rationalize the invasion beforehand has lately had to acknowledge that things are going badly–though not so badly that they can’t get worse.

    A new National Intelligence Estimate furnished to the president, reports The New York Times, “outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005, with the worst case being developments that could lead to civil war,” and the best scenario “an Iraq whose stability would remain tenuous in political, economic and security terms.”

    ….Much of western Iraq is now outside the control of the central government. Fallujah, which our military spared rather than antagonize the locals, has become a rebel stronghold. The rampaging violence has forced the U.S. to shift money from reconstruction to security, while raising doubts whether the national election scheduled for January can even be held.

    ….It’s not entirely fair to blame the Bush administration for everything that has gone wrong. Even the most farsighted plan probably wouldn’t have worked much better. What the U.S. is trying to do in Iraq–suppress a widespread insurgency in another country–is a task that borders on the impossible.

    As University of Chicago national security scholar John Mearsheimer notes, the closest parallels are Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Soviets’ 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and our 1965 buildup in Vietnam. In each case, the outside power boasted a huge advantage in military capability, as well as a strong commitment to prevail. Yet all failed miserably.

    ….Now, we face the classic dilemma of counter-insurgency: If you focus on defeating the enemy militarily, the collateral damage in property and innocent lives will turn the populace against you–but if you hold back in the hope of placating civilians, you give the rebels the upper hand in the fight. We can’t gain the support of the Iraqi people until we assure security, and we can’t assure security without alienating the Iraqi people. It’s a seven-sided Rubik’s Cube, a problem with no solution.

    That’s why President Bush, Sen. John Kerry and the American people need to start considering how to get out with the least possible damage to ourselves and Iraqis. We’ve already squandered the lives of more than 1,000 soldiers on this ill-starred venture. Do we have to sacrifice another 1,000 or 5,000 before we face reality? [Chicago Tribune]

Wow, that’s fatalistic.

These three writers are looking at essentially the same set of “facts” and arriving at wildly divergent conclusions, a cynic might conclude preordained conclusions, in fact.

Steyn was all for aggressive action, almost ANY aggressive action, and sees the removal of Saddam and inertial stability from the region as well worth the effort. Novak is an anti-interventionist paleo-con who just wants to get out ASAP one way or another and reads the tea leaves pointing in that direction. Chapman is a foaming-at-the-mouth anti-Bush Democrat and can barely contain his glee at what he terms the Iraq “catastrophe.”

I, like Steyn see the greater war on terror as crucial and inevitable, see Iraq as part of that greater war – sooner or later – and see as inevitable a violent scrum for power following Saddam’s departure, whenever and however that would have occurred. Again, it was a matter of sooner or later, and for us, “sooner” under our own terms was surely better than “later” with no say in the matter at all.

I don’t dismiss civil war in Iraq out of hand as does Steyn, nor see it as a foregone conclusion as do Novak and Chapman – a lot of it comes down to your definition of “civil war,” but I think Steyn’s Northern Ireland analogy for the Sunni Triangle is perceptive and perhaps closest to the truth – no minor matter, but a contained trouble-spot, even a large and vicious one, does not a civil war make.

Either way, we stepped in, asserted oursevles and rid the world of the worst regime in the heart of Islam, proved our seriousness of purpose, and moved the war on terror forward by doing so. That is not failure and it certainly isn’t catastrophe.

This dichotomy was reflected in the speeches of the candidates today as well. Bush at the U.N.:

    Bush made no apologies about his decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003 without U.N. Security Council backing based on claims Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which were not found.

    Instead, he acknowledged the presence of Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister of Iraq, and declared, “Since the last meeting of this General Assembly, the people of Iraq have regained sovereignty.”

    Later, he added, “The U.N., and its member nations, must respond to Prime Minister Allawi’s request, and do more to help build an Iraq that is secure, democratic, federal, and free.”

    ….In his speech, Bush did portray Iraq as a dangerous place, with militants “conducting a campaign of bombings against civilians and the beheadings of bound men.”

    He predicted more violence in the days ahead as both Iraq and Afghanistan attempt to hold national elections — next month in Afghanistan, and in January in Iraq.

    “The proper response to difficulty is not to retreat — it is to prevail,” he said.

    ….Taking a few questions from reporters in a subsequent meeting with Allawi, Bush all but dismissed a CIA report leaked last week that offered a gloomy outlook in Iraq with the worst scenario a civil war.

    “The CIA laid out several scenarios. It said that life could be lousy, life could be OK, life could be better. And they were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like,” he said. “The Iraq citizens are defying the pessimistic predictions.”

    Allawi blamed the media for ignoring good news in Iraq. [Reuters]

Kerry in Florida today:

    “Iraq is in crisis, and the president needs to live in the world of reality, not in a world of fantasy spin,” Kerry told reporters in Jacksonville, Florida. He said Bush “does not have the credibility to lead the world.”

And yesterday at NYU:

    In his most comprehensive and stinging indictment of the administration, Kerry charged that by nearly every measure, from attacks on U.S. forces to the pace of reconstruction to the training of an Iraqi security force, conditions in Iraq are far worse than the president has acknowledged. Kerry called the November election a choice between staying the course with failed policies and a change in direction that he said is urgently needed to prevent disaster in Iraq.

    “The president misled, miscalculated and mismanaged every aspect of this undertaking and he has made the achievement of our objective — a stable Iraq, secure within its borders, with a representative government — far harder to achieve than it ever should have been,” Kerry said in a speech at New York University.

    ….In condemning the administration, Kerry went further than he has in the past to dispute Bush’s principal rationale for going to war — that Hussein’s quest for weapons of mass destruction required a preemptive strike. He also sought to make clear that he would not have gone to war, even as he again defended his October 2002 vote for the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to do so. Kerry said that three dozen nations had greater capacity to develop nuclear weapons than Iraq.

    “Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell,” Kerry said. “But that was not — that was not — in itself a reason to go to war. The satisfaction that we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure.” [Washington Post]

The differences don’t get much more stark than that – looks like I’m stuck with Bush.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted,, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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