Saturday, April 17, 2004

Goalposts With Wheels 

The secret of not appearing to be flipping when, in truth, you are flopping? Redefine your objective.

You can catch Charles Krauthammer in the act here.

The column is meant to be a lethal blow to the muddled idiocy of all those comparisons of Iraq to "Vietnam," and everything that word entails. And I'm not kidding about that "lethal."

There is no cure for the Vietnam syndrome. It will only go away when the baby-boom generation does, dying off like the Israelites in the desert, allowing a new generation, cleansed of the memories and the guilt, to look at the world clearly once again.

Amnesia as clarity. Interesting concept. Not remembering certainly makes a pundit's life easier; forming an opinion based on a density of likely contradictory data is always more difficult than doing so on a simple set of selectively remembered facts. Works for Bush. And for those who've hitched their wagon to his star.

So, Charles, the Kraut, is waiting for the boomers to shuffle off their mortal coil. And while he waits, he will happily, if sternly, guide non-boomers to the path of moral clarity. That there would be comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam was inevitable, he tells us, but not why. Instead, he offers the example of such a comparison from early in the Iraq war.

During our astonishingly fast dash to Baghdad, taking the capital within 21 days, the chorus of naysayers was already calling Iraq a quagmire on Day 8!

This is nonsense, of course. There was no "chorus of naysayers." What there was were multiple reports and commentaries by journalists and military analysts, often working for media sources that had either endorsed the war or been highly supportive, about unexpectedly fierce localized opposition that raised the perfectly natural question of whether Rumsfeld's lean troop levels, deployed according to an expectation of rapid progress to Baghdad, would prove adequate to subdue the Iraqi nation.

From this non-sequitur, Mr. K moves to this one: the assurance that Iraq was not Vietnam then, and continues not to be, now.

Next we're given a few differences. In Iraq, we didn't inherit a "failed French colonialism," we overthrew "a deeply reviled tyrant." Yes, there were those few who prospered under Saddam, like the entire city of Fallujah for instance, i.e., their resistance is the equivalent of Saddam's tyranny, and must be dispatched with the same thoroughness. And since Sunni Arabs are only 1/6th of the population of Iraq, "a fraction of a fraction," no problem.

Next up, the Shiia, a majority of the Iraqi population. Not to worry. Saddam's frequent victims, the Shiia are glad we invaded; they have been truly liberated. Yes, they "chafe" at being occupied, but the Shiia clerics realize we must stay, lest our leaving leave the Shiia vulnerable to "the sway of either the Saddamites, foreign Sunni (al Qaeda) terrorists, or the runt Shiite usurper, Moqtada Sadr."

Al Sadr, Krauthammer will allow, represents something of a "crises," but look how the Shiia are helping us by negotiating with Al Sadr. Ditto for the Governing Council, working with us in Fallujah. All to the good, because these leaders "have far more legitimacy than Sadr's grandiloquent Mahdi army or the jihaadists of Fallujah." Whether they have more legitimacy than did the various governments that ruled South Vietnam Mr. K doesn't tell us. Nor does he comment on which if any of our "allies" might have more legitimacy than the other. Or whether any of them have sufficient legitimacy to offset our presence as occupiers of Iraq.

Then again, why should Krauthammer bother with such comparisons, or such analysis?

Iraq is Vietnam not on the ground, but in our heads. The troubles of the last few weeks were immediately interpreted as a national uprising, Iraq's Tet Offensive, and created a momentary panic. The panic overlooked two facts: First, Tet was infinitely larger and deadlier in effect and in scale. And second, Tet was a devastating military defeat for the Viet Cong. They never recovered. Unfortunately, neither did we, psychologically. Walter Cronkite, speaking for the establishment, declared the war lost. Once said, it was.

Who would have thought that Charles Krauthammer had a secret, inner "Lovin' Spoonful," but he does seem to believe in "magic." Certainly, nothing about those last two sentences could be interpreted as history.

And now to the "other" big difference between Iraq and Vietnam, according to the gospel of Kraut: in Vietnam we faced "a decades-old, centralized nationalist (communist) movement," and nothing like that exists in Iraq. Well, that's a relief. In fact, in Iraq what we confront is a country "highly factionalized along lines of ethnicity and religion."

Now we get to the heart of darkness Krauthammer's argument.

The gist: We have been responsding to this factionalism as if it is a problem, when perhaps it is the solution. Our motivation, the goal of "a united, pluralistic, democratic Iraq, in which the factions negotiate their differences the way we do in the West, " has turned out to be problematic, not because of any error in the policy, or its implementation, but because of the Iraqiis themselves.

It is a noble goal. It would be a great achievement for the Middle East. But it may be a bridge too far. That may happen in the future, when Iraq has had time to develop the habits of democracy and rebuild civil society, razed to the ground by Saddam.

But until then, expecting Iraqis to fight with us on behalf of a new abstract Iraq may be unrealistic. Some Iraqi police and militia did fight with us in the last few weeks. But many did not. That is not hard to understand. There is no de Gaulle. There is no organizing anti-Saddam resistance myth. There is as yet no legitimate Iraqi leadership to fight and die for.

Now he tells us. It was rather a different story we were told prior to the invasion. In fact, just last Tuesday during his press conference, the President was still sticking up for the democratic instincts of our brown-skinned brothers, and sisters, of course.

And it dawned on me that had we blown the peace in World War II, that perhaps this conversation would not have been taking place. It also dawned on me then that when we get it right in Iraq, at some point in time an American President will be sitting down with a duly-elected Iraqi leader talking about how to bring security to what has been a troubled part of the world.

The legacy that our troops are going to leave behind is a legacy of lasting importance, as far as I'm concerned. It's a legacy that really is based upon our deep belief that people want to be free and that free societies are peaceful societies.

Some of the debate really center around the fact that people don't believe Iraq can be free; that if you're Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can't be self-governing and free. I strongly disagree with that. I reject that, because I believe that freedom is the deepest need of every human soul, and, if given a chance, the Iraqi people will be not only self-governing, but a stable and free society.

That moment made me cringe, not because I don't believe it to be true, I do. But because nothing that this administration has done in prosecuting its Iraq policy of invasion and occupation suggests that their belief is anything other than rhetorical.

For Krauthammer, as for David Brooks et al, that is sufficient.

True national greatness, after all, requires we be tough-minded, as well as just plain tough, if not with ourselves, with all others, including our allies, including those who have been the object of our liberating invasion of their country. And Krauthammer, ready to move those goalposts, need only help us understand what truly motivates Iraqiis and the wheels will do the rest.

What there is to fight and die for is tribe and faith. Which is why we should lower our ambitions and see Iraqi factionalization as a useful tool


This is no time for despair. We must put down the two rebellions -- Fallujah's and Sadr's -- to demonstrate our seriousness, then transfer power as quickly as we can to those who will inherit it anyway, the Shiite majority with its long history of religious quietism and wariness of Iran. And antagonism toward their former Sunni oppressors. If the Sunnis continue to resist and carry on a civil war, it will then be up to the Shiites to fight it, not for Americans to do it on their behalf.

Hardly the best of all possible worlds. But it is a world we could live with.

I had to read that last paragraph several times before I could be sure that Krauthammer wasn't actually proposing an early withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, or at least committment to some kind of timeline. Instead, I think the point of what he is suggesting is to accept the Shiia as the rightful rulers of Iraq in service of the larger goal of making them our proxy when it comes to putting down jihadist violence.

There is so much dumbness contained in this single column, it's hard to know where to begin.

There are divisions between Shia and Sunni, but there are also profound connections, not the least being that they are all Iraqis, as attested to by the high rate of intermarriage between the two groups. Sunnis were involved in Saddam's oppression of the Shiia, but it was this country which had an army resident in a nearby desert during the brutal suppression of the Shia uprising at the end of the Gulf War and did nothing to stop it. Why would the Shiia be willing to engage in a civil war with Sunni Iraq on our behalf? The problems we are facing in Iraq range beyond Fallujah and Najaf, and include the complicated matter of an Iraqi constitution. Bremer has come down so hard on the side of "indivdual rights," that he/we helped to create the problem of Shiia rejection of the constitution, because they rightly saw that giving the Kurds veto power undermined the central concept of any democratic society, majority rule; what kind of majority rule can be vetoed, not by contitutional guarantees of individual liberties, which Sistanni has made clear he understands, but instead, by constitutional fiat handed to the Kurds; a Shiia government may be able to propose, but minority Kurds, but not the minority Sunnis, would retain the power to depose whatever doesn't please them.

Then there's this unaddressed difficulty inherent in Krauhammer's revised vision; what makes him think, based on the last two weeks, that the means by which we will have to put down the current "two rebellions," won't have created a permanent resistence to any American presence in Iraq?

But I guess that's just all too detailed for those big-picture guys.

corrente SBL - New Location
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The Washington Chestnut
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