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Inside the Labyrinth

Ms Shock and Awe looked as if she was on a Hollywood set. From under a black space helmet a few golden curls peeped out—but the set was real and the place was frontline Iraq. With microphone in hand CNN’s Jennifer Eccleston had joined edgy US troops “clearing” guerrillas from house to house; had seen a tank shell a supposed hiding place nearby; then watched as Iraqis with blood on their faces staggered out and collapsed, a man on the ground crying “Why us? We are not the enemy!”

Melvin Laird, a former Secretary of Defense who extricated the US from an earlier war, has written in Foreign Affairs strongly urging rapid Iraqization because he feels this sort of thing would be better handled by Iraqis themselves. American military force is too provocative; the army’s footprint too large. That is also the message now coming from Laird’s modern counterpart Donald Rumsfeld, who said in June that “If the insurgency does go on for four, eight, 10, 12, 15 years, whatever … it is going to be a problem for the people of Iraq”: they are evidently expected to handle it themselves in the long term. But setting aside Mr Rumsfeld’s cavalier “15 years, whatever”, would an action like this fare any better or worse with Iraqi troops in charge? Today domestic sectarian hatred is at least as great as hatred of the outsider. If the householders were Sunni, would they welcome being shelled by Shia troops?

The soldiers themselves had seen it all before, one of them telling CNN’s reporter that it was hard fighting a war where civilians and combatants were inextricably mixed. As if we didn’t know. The clip ended before there were too many scenes of householders confronting the troops with their injured and their dead. After that the frustrated, angry, well-meaning and sturdy “nation-builders”, weapons in hand but unable to tell friend from foe, fearful, confused, hating their task and doubting their president, went stumbling on.

A good idea at the time

Democracy at gunpoint never seemed a good idea. But it seemed not too bad an idea if there really were WMDs, and if Saddam had to go, and if change in this part of the world would come no other way, and if western oil interests had to be defended, and if contingency plans had to be made to buttress the House of Saud, and if mere containment after 9/11 was not an option.

American optimism is infectious, and by and large the world needs more of it. So why not take out Saddam? And if that works why not take out the rest? Let’s have democracy from Morocco to Mindanao, from the shores of the Red Sea to the heights of the Hindu Kush. Thus was born a dangerous but bewitching plan.

Realists warned—in Walter Lippman’s words—that “Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs.” But what the hell? We all know about realism.

Some said if terrorists flooded into Iraq, who cares? We’ll kill them as they come! (Easier there than here.) Doubters prophesied that invading Iraq would double their number, perhaps treble, perhaps quadruple. And now that’s what seems to have happened: pouring in from other lands and eager to join the jihad, the prophecy is self-fulfilled. It is less than three years since it started, but those who have forgotten the beginning cannot see the irony of the end. “President Bush is right on target”, said a former CIA operative on Fox News the other day, “Iraq is proving to be the center of terrorism in the world.” Translated: what we now have is a full-scale guerrilla war.

Though as the bombs explode who can tell how many enemy there really are? Estimates range between 20,000 and 100,000. And where are they coming from? According to Robert Baer in Newsweek a Syrian official reported that of 1,200 suspected suicide bombers arrested by Syrian authorities since 2003, 85 percent were Saudis. An interview with Iraqi guerrilla leaders showed a more serious threat than living bombs: two mature ex-military men determined, in their words, to fight ‘until the last American soldier is dead’. The rhetoric was unoriginal; but their patriotic resolve was chilling. The existence of guerrilla commanders like these would seem to make it largely academic whether or not there’s a rift between Zarqawi’s killers and the rest. Zarqawi might disappear tomorrow. But the commanders will not.

Incredible political progress

Meanwhile President Bush was still talking of “incredible political progress” early in October, though sectarian tensions were mounting, scores were dying each day, and pessimists talked of civil war. A similar optimism inspires Front Page Magazine, though speakers at its regular symposia help the editors stay in touch. One of these gatherings explored the mind of the suicide bomber, Theodore Dalrymple explaining for anyone who would listen that

The act of killing oneself for a cause, in the process taking a few ‘enemies’ with one, is an apologia pro vita sua. Let us not forget that we in the West have a long and inglorious irrational tradition of supposing that the lengths to which people are prepared to go in the furtherance of a cause is itself evidence of the moral worth of that cause.

At another symposium held early in August 2005, “Iraq, a Report Card”, panellists were asked to rate the progress of the Coalition. Some conservatives gave the war an A, but the journalist Steven Vincent, who was in Iraq and knew the situation on the ground better than most (was he talking by telephone from Basra?), gave it a B–.

American military tactics have widely alienated the very people we liberated. Something’s not working right… Yes, there’s an elected government, but when Baghdad lacks power and water, and the road to the airport is a life-threatening crap shoot, and I can’t leave my hotel here in Basra without Iraqi protection—I can’t see much nation building going on.

Insurgents win by not losing. If they keep Iraqis living in misery, then no matter how many we dispatch to Paradise Amir Zarqawi gets the prize. In assessing the war effort, then, we must also include the quality of Iraqi’s lives. Want a grade for that? F.

The symposium adjourned, and by time it reconvened Steven Vincent had been kidnapped and killed. But he had managed to make another point before he died. Asked about the motives behind the unending killings, most of the dead being Iraqi themselves, he said:

Perhaps its time we consider that there is no answer, that the killing has no point, beyond archaic notions of tribal honor and revenge.

Tribal honor and revenge

But “archaic notions of tribal honor and revenge” are things Washington doesn’t understand. Nor does it grasp the psychology of tribal cultures that would rather die than switch. Nor can it see that Iraqi religious obsessions are entirely beyond the reach of ballot boxes and equable public discussion. As for the notion that the trial of Saddam “will bring closure” to anyone inside Iraq—who is deluding whom? Anyway the men and women who talk about freedom, democracy, constitutions, and market economies (all of them things I strongly approve of) don’t seem to understand—or realise the wild destructiveness of the emotions now unloosed.

As western tempers fray some call for a stiffening of the will, others look for straws in the wind. When things are not going well “if onlys” multiply. Why wasn’t the Syrian border mined to prevent incursions? If only this had been done those Saudi suicide bombers might have been stopped. Too many people have been influenced by Lady Diana’s campaigns against a perfectly sensible weapon. Were it not for her crusade against anti-personnel mines the border could have been sealed long ago.

If only liberal and progressive Islamic scholars would speak up… But they don’t, says Ahmed H. al-Rahim in the Wall Street Journal, and as a result “the battle against Islamism—and also for the heart of Islam—has become a battle for the West to fight.” Mr Rahim is a sometime teacher of Islamic studies at Harvard. He says it is shameful that there are no mass Muslim protests. “Why not a ‘Million Muslim March’ on Washington, of law-abiding Muslim citizens clamouring to reclaim their faith from those who would kill innocents in its name?” Why indeed?

Some find grounds for hope in reported divisions within the insurgency. Bernard Haykel says that “Mr Zarqawi’s war on Shiites is deeply unpopular in some quarters of his own movement.” There are supposed to be growing splits among the jihadis, some of whom feel on-camera beheadings are counter-productive. Meanwhile, back home in Washington, there is increasing doubt as to whether the most sacred doctrine of the Coalition—that democracy will automatically reduce the country’s divisions and usher in peace and freedom—will in fact have that effect.

Perhaps it will only sharpen the divisions. Or galvanize the antagonists. Or precipitate civil war. It is unclear from conflicting statements from the White House, on one hand, and from the generals, on the other, whether there are now thirty battalions of Iraqi troops able to go “in the lead” against the insurgents, or only one. It is quite possible that none of these morally torn, divided, and fearful men are capable of going it alone. Some strategists want more troops in Iraq. Others want fewer. As Macaulay wrote, those behind cry “forward!”, and those before cry “back!”

From labyrinth to conflagration?

Which legend best describes our situation? James Carroll writing in the Boston Globe prefers one from ancient Crete: “The myth has it that a person entering the maze will never find the way out. As if that were not terrifying enough, inside the maze lives the beast whose special appetite is for the young. The maze is a cluster of tricks, paths to nowhere, the realm of dead ends. There is no escape. The young must fear being eaten alive, but an eternity of false exits threatens everyone.”

Then there is the legend of Laius, who is told by the oracle that his own offspring will kill him, and no matter what he does, no matter what action he takes, events move relentlessly toward that fated end. Or does this really belong with the legendary law of unintended effects, by which even the most enlightened acts may lead to disastrous consequences—consequences no-one could foresee? The introduction of democracy leading to civil war, and that to a general conflagration throughout the Middle East? Though the west continues to talk about the desirability of Saudi democratization, Robert Baer, an experienced observer familiar with Saudi popular sentiment, gave this opinion back in 2003:

If an election were held in Saudi Arabia today, if anyone who wanted to could run for the office of president, and if people could vote their hearts without fear of having their heads cut off afterward in Chop-Chop Square, Osama bin Laden would be elected in a landslide.

It would be nice if we could have democracy all the way from the Red Sea to Afghanistan. It would be nice if the Palestinians could learn to love Israel, and vice versa. It would be nice if Shia could learn to live with Sunni and both could learn to co-exist with Kurds. In brief, it would be nice if backward lands could become forward lands with civilized debates in houses of parliament instead of uncivilized shootouts in dreary desert wastes for which men on each side must die. Believe me, I favor all those things. But I don’t think they will happen anytime soon. Not at gunpoint. Not delivered by infidel armies of occupation on Islamic soil. Not with most of the Arab world cheering Saddam in court.

Mr Taranto and Mr Polk

Recently James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal had this to say: “The reality is that President Bush’s legacy will be judged on two things: whether America is successful in Iraq, and, if so, whether success in Iraq helps promote democracy and discourage terrorism elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds. If the former happens, history will recognize Bush as a near-great president; if the latter, as a great one…”

Both predictions seem to me unlikely. Rather more realistic was the assessment given by William R. Polk last January in an article with the title “A Time for Leaving”. Iraq, he wrote, is a shattered country. Few of its people have useable drinking water. Seven out of ten are unemployed. Society has been torn apart, up to 100,000 Iraqi have died, and “dreadful hatreds have been generated”. As Polk sees it, we are now in the middle of a classic guerrilla war, similar to that in Algeria in the 1950s, where although relatively few men may be fighting for the “insurgency”, many more who do not fight support them.

Polk is a former member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Council, when he was responsible for the Middle East. He was also a founder of the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Most Iraqis, he wrote last January, regard the present government as an American puppet, and he himself sees little point in a constitution that “is not anchored in the realities of Iraqi society. Absent the institutions that give life to a constitution, it will be simply a piece of paper as was the one the British provided 80 years ago.”

He sees three options available for America—Staying the Course, Iraqization, and getting out now rather than being forced out later. The first means digging an ever deeper hole. Of the second he says that “the idea that America can fashion a local militia to accomplish what its powerful army cannot do is not policy but fantasy.” Everything we have seen so far of action by Iraqi troops suggests that this is true. Regarding the third—a truce and a pull-out—he says that “time is a wasting asset; the longer the choice is put off, the harder it will be to make. The steps required to implement this policy need not be dramatic, but the process needs to be unambiguous…” Ultimately it will need a decision by President Bush “as courageous as General Charles de Gaulle was in Algeria when he called for a ‘peace of the brave’.”

I am not as optimistic as William Polk when he says that following such a bold initiative “fighting would quickly die down”. The political forces unleashed both nationally and internationally now have a momentum of their own. But with Donald Rumsfeld talking publicly of a 15-year war, and both George W. Bush and his Coalition partners bereft of ideas, the alternative may mean wandering in the labyrinth forever. As the months turn into years, and the years into a military epoch, we may live to find Ms Shock and Awe—her curls greying, her helmet dented—reporting the “incredible political progress” she has seen the preceding week. [Recommended reading: Night Draws Near, by Anthony Shadid.]

Posted in For the Record, Notes.

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