Monday, September 17, 2007

What to do in Iraq

A recent Op-Ed in the Economist, a magazine that I respect even though it occasionally seems to err on the side of having contributors who can tell good gin from bad gin as opposed to those who have genuinely in-depth knowledge of the countries they are reporting on, made an argument for the continued presence of United States and other forces in Iraq.

Titled “Why they should stay,” the editorial posited the following:

If America removes its forces while Iraq remains in its present condition, the Iraqi future is indeed likely to be disastrous. For that reason above any other, and despite misgivings about the possibility of even modest success any time soon, our own view is that America (and Britain) ought to stay in Iraq until conditions improve.

It is a horrendously thorny issue, with those on both sides of the issue, the neocons safe in Washington and much of the anti-war movement, safe behind their computer screens, arrogantly sure that they know the ONLY right path by which to succeed, while the Iraqi people themselves are aught up in a terrible whirlwind of violence, as typified by the recent murder of Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha and the recent attack on Shiite villages north of Baghdad, both of which were apparently carried out by Al Qaeda-linked elements. Add to this the killing of nine people by private U.S. security contractors in Baghdad itself and you have only the tip of the iceberg of the suffering the Iraqis have had to endure over the last four years.

Regarding the Economist piece, a British acquaintance here in Paris wrote that “It's too late to avoid earthshaking regional consequences and the US or the UK are the last people to be able to head them off. The damage has been done, but like any imperial leadership, the US (which hasn't learned from the earlier antics of the UK, USSR, France) can't lose face and admit this.”

An American friend of mine, a fluent Arabic speaker who has spent a fair bit of time in Iraq, responded to the argument for a continued American and British presence in Iraq (in part) with the following:

I'm definitely scared of what will happen when we pull out, but as the article observes, it's already been happening. I think pulling out sooner rather than later would be a good idea, not because it would be a good thing, but I think things will get worse if we stay and the best thing to do at the moment would be to admit in a very dramatic fashion our total ignobility in this enterprise and to acknowledge that all of the chaos, sectarian violence, criminal mayhem, and civilian suffering and death is our fault and particularly the fault of this administration. Then hopefully either the situation in Iraq would improve or if, more plausibly, it deteriorated rapidly, Iran and Syria would have a newfound freedom to contain the situation which would probably have a better chance of restoring law and order . People here are obviously distrustful of both Iran and Syria, particularly Iran, but I'd trust Iran insofar as it has a much more direct and urgent need for a stable Iraq than we do.

For it’s part, in the Guardian, one columnist, Timothy Garton Ash, writes on the invasion of Iraq that “the likely consequences of Iraq range from the bad to the catastrophic. Looking back over a quarter-century of writing about international affairs, I can not recall a more comprehensive and avoidable man-made disaster.”

Another columnist from the same paper, Simon Jenkins, compared the Congressional grilling of America's senior commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, to Britain’s own often seemingly mute junior-partner status in the Iraq adventure.

“Britain should be so lucky,” Jenkins wrote. “A top general grilled on the Iraq war by skeptical representatives of the people. An ambassador summoned to explain his policy before the cameras. Three detailed reports challenging the official line submitted to Congress. A nation in a ferment of debate. Americans may have blundered into the Iraq morass, but they will retreat from it with political guns blazing.”

For my part, my thoughts on the matter (formed, like those of most people, from afar, without having ever set foot in Iraq) are roughly the following.

The invasion of Iraq was a terribly misguided affair from the beginning, undertaken with a willful deception of the public, an ignoring of expert advice, an almost magic-realist view of the likely consequences of U.S. military action and no desire or ability on the part of the Bush administration to face up to the cauldron of violent forces that toppling Saddam Hussein let lose on the country until it was too late.

That said, now that the U.S. and U.K. helped set into motion a multifront civil war, I think it would be immoral to say "Whoops, sorry we destroyed your country" and then depart to leave the Iraqis at the mercies of the Iranians, the Syrians, the Turks and Al Qaeda.

Unless one subscribes to a theory that news organizations across the board a conspiring to slant the news in favour of the now-thoroughly discredited Bush administration, articles written by journalists on the ground, in Iraq suggest that, however unpalatable the U.S. and U.K. presence in Iraq is (and for me, it definitely is), the alternative at present is far worse.

I don't know if any of the armchair commentators such as myself really have the answer for this mess, though some opinion writers certainly seem to think they do. I certainly don't have the answer, aside from hanging on a little while longer with Congress pushing the Bush administration to try and put Iraq back together again. I just more or less have always adhered to the "you broke it, you bought it" school of foreign affairs and, as such, feel that it would be wrong the throw the Iraqis to the wolves any more than they have shamefully been already. Hopefully, some day, the Bush administration. will be hauled into the dock to answer for all of this, but as disorganized and spineless as the Democrats often show themselves to be, I doubt it.

For further reading on the subject, I suggest two books: The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq by New Yorker staff writer George Packer and Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War by a Lebanese-American (and Arabic-speaking) Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid,

The first, written by someone who was a moderately pro-invasion left-winger, examines how, in the wake of September 11th and given Saddam Hussein's record - the invasions of Iran and Kuwait, the al-Anfal Campaign against the Kurds, the tens of thousands of Shiites murdered in the wake of the first Gulf War, the everyday brutality and monstrousness of the regime and behaviour of the two maniac sons he intended to bequeath it to - some rather decent folks such as Kanan Makiya and Ayad Rahim were able to justify supporting the invasion on humanitarian grounds (an ironic turn of phrase) and how that support was used by some of the most cynical, corrupt and least visionary political operators Washington has ever seen in mustering an agenda for the ultimately disastrous enterprise. I don't know if I have ever read a more scathing critique of the administration or its policy, its ignoring of its own Middle East experts and military planners or the fantasy of the neocons thinking they would remake the Middle East in their own image.

The second book paints a devastating picture of the effects that the war and its aftermath had on the lives of ordinary Iraqis, of whom Shadid appears to have interviewed hundreds. It is really reportage in the finest tradition and it gives a despairing picture of the human cost of the endeavour.

In the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions or thoughts on the subject, please do comment away.


Mira Kamdar said...

This is such a thoughtful piece. I especially like your courage in admitting that, as an armchair commentator, it's hard for you to assess what may be best to do. Many are those who bravely forge a strong opinion from the wilds of Washington or London and cling to it like a terrier to his bone! Still, my own view -- of the armchair variety, I admit -- is that enormous damage has been done to Iraq and the region and that there is no "solution" at this point. It is going to stay bad and quite likely get worse no matter if the U.S. stays or leaves. Our government has created a mess that will fester and spread and deepen and do much more evil to civilians, no matter what we do or don't do now. And all for imperial hubris.

I remember a French friend warning when the Bush administration was threatening to invade: "You don't break open a hornet's nest unless you have a plan of what to do with the hornets." Even this doesn't capture the enormous crime committed against the people of Iraq.

Eve said...

Provoking article. I'm naturally in favor of getting out- AND then taking the same amount of money we would spend to stay in and redirecting it towards some kind of "Iraq Repair Mission." Now what that mission would be is the hard part- perhaps something creative that's never been done before- based in technology (wait this is beginning to sound like the framing Bush used to gain support for the war in Afghanistan- the "new kind of war")- but really, my 2 cents, since you're asking- take all that money and put it towards an information empowerment campaign that would provide every Iraqi with safe internet access and a route to voice their exact story and concerns from their exact on-the-ground perspective for the world to hear and for a giant team of social analysts to sort through. Then, with the sorted data in hand we can begin to speak/act more effectively to their actual needs. Is this idea too "magic realist"?