Saturday, April 22, 2006

"Pulling a Chiang Kai-shek"?

I haven't blogged on Iraq for a while (it doesn't seem to breed a whole lot of reader comments), but there's enough interesting stuff out there recently that I just can't resist.

First check out Matthew Yglesias on why we shouldn't bomb Iran. Apart from the annoying intro and concluding paragraphs to establish that he's a lefty, he makes pretty much all the points I made here, just a month or two later and with less sophistication. Sad to say, he doesn't cite me. (Let me also lodge a preemptive protest to his absurd claim that Iranian terrorism has never killed Americans. Has he forgotten the Khobar Towers?)
(HT: David Frum; and see also on his recommendation the very well-informed analysis of Edward Luttwak here).

Second there's an excellent micro-level Iraq analysis here. Basically, the Sadr family and al-Hakim family represent two opposite political lines -- and before we get all "Oh, its so insane to try to democratize those primitive Iraqis" think of Clintons and Bushes, or Kennedies and Rockefellers or Roosevelts and Tafts. Yes, it's a lot more violent than them. But the take home point is that the al-Sadrs are anti-American and more violent, the al-Hakims are pro-American and less violent, and as we see today, the bad guys couldn't get their way.

On a larger level, it's a bit late to announce it here, but Wretchard (at Belmont Club -- see here and again here) is of course right that the war we all hear about in Iraq, you know, the insurgency, is over: the insurgency, the mooj, whatever, have lost, which is good news for the United States. Al Qaeda's allies in Iraq won't be establishing a Caliphate. Oh, they can still cause some carnage, but basically, they're kaput.

The real issue then is, what's going to be the political orientation of the new regime. The phrase you want to be familiar with is "pulling a Chiang Kai-shek." In the mid-1920s, Chiang Kai-shek was the "Red General of Canton," whose dissident army invading northern China from the south was being funded by the Soviet Union to the tune of $1 million a month (the fact that the Soviet Union had diplomatic relations with the northern government in Beijing at the time was a mere detail). Anyway, Red Canton was under a coalition of the Kuomintang and the Communists, with the Kuomintang as the senior partner in theory, but the Communists as the ones with the real oomph in practice.

The Soviet Union's main interest from her first advances to China in 1921 had been strategic -- to make China, like Iran and Turkey before her, adopt an attitude of benevolent neutrality toward the Soviet Union and refuse to allow her territory to be used by the hostile Versailles powers (esp. Britain and Japan) to threaten the Soviet Union. But as the Canton armies moved north, the revolution became more radical and the Kuomintang began to be more and more nervous. Soviet operatives began to get greedy and think China might really have a revolution, just like theirs, and KMT leaders like Chiang Kai-shek began to feel the same thing. In the end, Chiang, after he took Shanghai, rounded up all the Communists he could find and shot them, deported all the Soviet advisers in his army and went over to the other side, becoming an ally first of Fascist Italy and Weimar Germany, and then of the Britain and the USA. It is this type of action which I call "pulling a Chiang Kai-shek" -- using the money and forces of a powerful ally to get control of your country, and then deserting that powerful ally and crushing that ally's more uppity internal followers.

Another example is how after the Soviets had sunk millions (probably billions in today's money) into Nasser's Egypt, Sadat threw them over and allied with the USA.

So this is now a much more likely scenario now than the insurgency actually winning, or even the much balleyhooed "civil war" between Sunnis and Shi'ites. How can we prevent this from happening? First, remember why Chiang Kai-shek did it in the first place: not because he hated the Soviet Union or Russians, but because he became convinced the Soviet Union was planning to replace him with the Communists. In other words, impatient pushing of the Soviet Union's ultimate "transformation" agenda drove the KMT leaders into hostility to their patron. So far there looks like two issues which might push Shi'ite leaders to abandon the USA as their patron: either pushing secularization too fast (which the USA certainly hasn't done), or pushing the Shi'ites to make too many concessions to the Kurds and Sunni Arabs (which some might say the USA has done).

And here's where Iran comes back in. A Shi'ite leader looking for a new patron will naturally turn to Shi'ite (but ethnically not Arab-speaking but Persian-speaking) Iran: what other choice does he have? And Iran is certainly desperately anxious to turn Iraq into a satellite: this would be the culmination of decades, indeed centuries, of geopolitical planning. This is why the talk about "We need to get out of Iraq, so we can concentrate on deterring Iran's nuclear ambitions" is so truly and utterly numb-skulled. Iran's mullahs wants a nuclear bomb, sure, but not nearly as much as they want to take Iraq under their wing. Unlike some Americans, they don't fixate on technology, they focus on building up a stable of loyal allies, whom they back to the hilt. (The mullahs may be unpleasant, the worst kind of blood-stained Pharisees, but they are quite shrewd.)

So far, the al-Sadr family and Mookie have clearly been Iran's favored party in Iraq. By all accounts, despite their long residence in Iran, the al-Hakim family has been America's favored party. So are all the pieces in place for a "pulling a Chiang Kai-shek"? The USA pushes the Shi'ites to be nice to the Kurds and Sunni Arabs, they don't want to, and so they turn to Iran which is happy to bankroll a program of savage vengeance against the old Sunni oppressors? Well, I wouldn't rule it out, but this scenario doesn't seem likely. Why not?

The main reason is that al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army for all their general belligerence can't quite stay focused on who their enemy is. Muqtada al-Sadr ("Mookie" for short) is politically committed to Sunni-Shi'ite alliance against the Americans, alliance of all Iraq against the Crusaders etc., etc. When the big golden dome in Samarra was blown up, Mookie was in Beirut at a big meeting of all the usual anti-American suspects (Sunni Muslim Brotherhood types, Shi'ite Hizbullah, etc.), saying the same.

But back at home who responded instantly to the bombing with the most violent attacks on ordinary Sunni Arabs? The Mahdi Army, of course.

Here's his problem: the Mahdi Army, as far as I can see, is not an army and has no intention of being an army. Rather it is an undisciplined mob of racketeers (unfortunately not unlike the al-Hakim family's Badr Brigade). As an undisciplined mob, the Mahdi Army simply cannot be used to deliver violence according to a sophisticated political program. While Mookie is politically committed to a program of alliance with the remnants of the Sunni insurgency to fight the USA (probably because he knows his own "army" couldn't defeat any of his enemies on its own), his troops are committed to being the nastiest they can be to their local rivals -- who are in many places the Sunni Arabs. So Mookie can't keep the Mahdi Army on track about who the blind violence is to be directed at in any given time.

So will anyone in Iraq "pull a Chiang Kai-shek"? It's hard to say in the future, but it's pretty clear no figure in Iraq has the wherewithal to do it now. But one thing we can say, keeping the Iraqi Shi'ites "on board" (if not completely happy) with the American-led "War on Terror" and our (de facto) coalition of Middle Eastern minority peoples is far more important for deterring Iran than anything we could do about her nukes.