Saturday, October 08, 2005

Iraq Isn't Vietnam, It's Reconstruction

The debate about Iraq has swirled around the search for an analogy. Vietnam is of course the favorite for those against the war: a war against an insurgency that we cannot win (let's leave aside the fact that the Vietnam War as actually won by the regular army of North Vietnam in a conventional assault on the South). Others might say, the Central American wars in the 1980s. This analogy has been used to emphasize that US-allied governments were able to defeat guerrillas on the ground and then incorporate into a democratic political process. Others point to the widespread massacres and killings that accompanied this victory and use the analogy to excoriate the whole idea of counter-insurgency.

What both of these analogies lack is the ethnic divide situation so obvious in Iraq. In Iraq, Anglo-American goals have, willy-nilly, come to be associated with defending an ethnic revolution in Iraq, one in which the formerly despised Shiites are assuming their position as the leaders. Meanwhile the Kurds in the mountains are poised between two strategies: separation or exercising power in the center. At the same time, having already seen their favored regime turned into a watchword of brutal tyranny (at least in some circles), the Sunni Arabs fighting the new Iraqi government are very cagey about what it is they are actually fighting for.

The Union's attempt at Reconstruction in the South is a powerful analogy with our current situation in Iraq. In both cases,

1) the United States military successfully toppled a government whose very existence was seen as incompatible with our security. This war was, however, highly controversial from the beginning and had a large block of domestic opposition.
2) Our war goals had both a security slogan (union, terrorism/WMD's) and an idealistic slogan (emancipation, democracy), but while it was being fought little thought was given to how the relations between the newly emancipated community (Afro-American slaves, Shiites) and their former rulers (White Southerners, Sunni Arabs) would work out. Even among supporters of the war, more than a few assumed the old ruling group would just hold power in a somewhat more moderate, humane way.
3) Meanwhile, up in the mountains, a separate community (Appalachians, Kurds) formed the hard core of support for the US, but also proposed a problem with their desire to political break away entirely from the lowland troubles (West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky Unionism), something which would raise all kinds of constitutional problems and also make them useless in the pacification of the lowland.
4) Also, the ethnic group supporting the toppled government had lost militarily, but were ideologically undefeated. Opposition to the US war effort had been widespread, including famous humanitarian and religious figures such as the Pope, and casual denigration of the old subject group was widespread as well.
5) At first the US government simply assumed the formerly dominant ethnic group was whipped and would acquiesce in our victory. Early examples of civil violence and the high-profile infiltrating of new post-war governments by those supporting the old regime in spirit led to a reversal of policy and a hardening of policy toward the defeated ruling group.
6) In the mountains, the post-war situation was simple in terms of security, but complicated constitutionally, and eventually a kind of separation was granted (West Virginia, Kurdish autonomous zone).
7) In the lowlands, the turning point came when the US military authorities realized they had to face a choice: either really enfranchise the group liberated by the war (Afro-Americans, Shiites) and bring on a social revolution they could hardly control or else face the possibility that the old rulers would come back. The issue was joined over the exclusion of fighters for the old regimes (Confederate officials and officers/Ba'athist party members), and in the end the categorical refusal of the old group to admit defeat and play according to the new (anti-slavery, democracy) rules forced the US administration toward the revolutionary alternative.
8) Once the old oppressed group was put in power, then the nightmare of the ruling group was complete, and that completion called forth the demand to resist. Since government was in the hands of the US and their domestic allies, resistance had to take the form of anti-government terrorism (Ku Klux Klan, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia), not the legal, state-enforced rule that had worked previously. The terrorists were well aware, however, that their ragged bands had no chance of defeating the US army that had previously crushed them in their prime. Their aim was to create chaos, sow terror, and so block the ability of the new local governments to function. The US military could guard polling places and courthouses, but if the terrorists could kill enough of the newly emancipated people, they would refuse to exercise their rights. The old ruling race (White Southerners, Sunni Arabs) was making it clear to the US that they were fully prepared to ruin, if they could not rule, any government in their homeland.
9) The old ruling race also realized that without regaining control over their former subjects, their chief resource (cotton, oil) would pass out of their hands, leaving them not only humiliated but plunged into permanent economic ruin. [NB: the oil in Iraq is all in Shiite or Kurdish territory, which is at the root of the Sunni Arabs' hostility to any form of federalism; they need to keep control over those revenues].
10) Not surprisingly, the governments formed from people who had never ruled for centuries proved to be fairly inexperienced and ineffective. Much "hand-holding" by the US military governors was necessary to get them to really function effectively. This incompetence only increased the confidence of the old "Bourbons" that if US troops were withdrawn, their uppity opponents could easily be terrorized into submission.
11) Meanwhile, opponents of the war in the first place looked at the chaos and violence and said, truthfully enough, "There wasn't any terrorism and racial/ethnic conflict before this war. Al-Qaida/the Ku Klux Klan simply didn't exist in Iraq/the South under Saddam/slavery. We should admit that it was our ill-conceived intervention that created this chaos, and pull out our troops." Few admitted, even to themselves, that the result of withdrawal would mark the wholesale return of mono-racial/religious rule. And they never asked the simple question, do the freely elected leaders of the emancipated communities actually support our continued military presence? Because of course the answer was always, yes, desperately.

Of course there are many differences. Sunni rule was never as wholesale and extreme in Iraq as slavery and white supremacy was in the South. On the other hand, the Shiites are an actual majority in lowland Iraq, so the social revolution involved in giving them equality is all the more dramatic. The Union officers understood the Southern terrain much better than Anglo-American commanders do the Iraqi terrain. Foreign support (as opposed to mere sympathy) for the defeated regime was non-existent in the South, but widespread for the old Sunni rule in Iraq.

But there is one big similarity: withdrawal from the South discredited racial equality as a public policy all over the nation. Withdrawal occurred because people didn't care that much about it and they certainly weren't going to stand up to terrorists to enforce it. It was an unequivocal strategic defeat for the idea that had animated much (if not all) of the Union effort. Similarly, retreat from Iraq will thoroughly discredit "changing Islam" as a public policy all over the world. The argument of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq is simple: we are the true Muslims, and we are Arabs so we should rule, even if we're only 15% of the people: we cannot and will not accept a rafidi ("rejecters", i.e. Shiites) infidel or a non-Arab in our state as an equal. Do we accept that? Do we believe that religiously-based minority rule is as offensive as racially-based minority rule? Withdrawal means one thing: yes, Sunni Arabs cannot not be asked to treat people of other religions and ethnic groups as equals, at least not in the Middle East.

And anyone who thinks that we can accept that principle and still fight radical Islam is dreaming.
(Reference: This article by Fouad Ajami is a must read).