Thursday, November 09, 2006

Maliki Didn't Need a Weatherman

Looking at the election results yesterday, the oddest thing was how I suddenly felt the whole situation in Iraq finally clear up. Not clear up, as in get great, but as in become clear (to me at least). In the last half-year or so, the tensions between the US and Iraqi PM Maliki have gotten worse and culminated with his demand for US troops to stop the roadblocks they'd set around Sadr City to try and find the AWOL/kidnapped (the situation is unclear) US Army interpreter. Why this sudden turn to open conflict? And suddenly yesterday I realized, because Maliki could read the polls as well as anyone else and realized that it's time to plan for a post-US future.

The funny thing is, for someone who supported the war, that it doesn't really bother me all that much. Like everyone else, I think the evidence has been in for quite a while that there was a fundamental problem with the US mission in Iraq. But I don't agree with the consensus that its that: the Iraqis aren't taking responsibility for their own country, or that Maliki isn't reining in the partisan militias, or even that Arab countries aren't ready for democracy.

No, the fundamental problem is that the US-Iraqi Shi'ite alliance has proven to be a non-starter, something that doesn't help, but rather prevents the Shi'ites from winning the civil war the only way they can. What the US did in Iraq was jump-start a revolution, the Shi'ite revolution in the eastern Arab world, and revolutions (including our own dear one) as a rule involve civil war, ethnic or political cleansing, and a period of party dictatorship. But we're standing in the way of this revolution's ironsides, Jacobins, and Bolsheviks as they prepare to "settle accounts" (a nice Maoist phrase) with their past and present enemies.

Why can't Americans do anything productive in Iraq? Three reasons

I) Because we think in terms of abstract principles, rules of the game, and revolutions (including our own dear one) always have only one question: "who-whom?": Who will do what to whom? Whose side are you on, people in a revolutionary civil war want to know, and "we're on the side of democracy and human rights" is not an answer; people just think you must have some plan up your sleeve and you don't want to tell them.

Voting and revolutions have an ambiguous relationship (when they aren't, as in the Russian simply bluntly antagonistic): voting establishes majority rule, but it can't cow the minority into peacefully accepting a regime that they still see, understandably, as a result of violence. So the majority votes and the minority fights.* Naturally, the majority fights backs and since revolutionary regimes are by definition not very competent and professional, they have to fight in a way that maximizes their strength (numbers, fear, and hysteria) and minimizes their weaknesses (lack of skills). So instead of a good, clean counter-insurgency (and the cleanest aren't very clean), they adopt the terroristic vigilante, drain the pond approach. After all, if there aren't any Sunnis left in Baghdad, for example, there won't be any environment for Sunni death-squadders to operate in.

This is the civil war and the Americans have made it increasingly clear that not only can't they do it themselves, but that they won't let the Shi'ite regime do it either.

II) Another big problem, of course, is that the forces who are the most anti-Sunni (and hence the best equipped emotionally to wage the counter-insurgency) are also the most anti-American. I'm referring to Moqtada al-Sadr's faction. They are also the ones in it to win the big pot, which in a revolutionary situation is a vital advantage. It is curious how little reported it is, but recall the difference of the al-Hakim faction and the al-Sadr faction on Shi'ite autonomy: Hakim is for it and Sadr is against it. That sounds (and Sadr will certainly spin it that way), like al-Sadr is reasonable and al-Hakim is Shi'ite-sectarian. But of course the opposite is true: what it means is al-Sadr wants Shi'ite power all over the country, and al-Hakim only wants Shi'ite power in part of it. Which is why al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is killing a lot more Sunnis than al-Hakim's Badr Brigade.

The result of this is, that even if we were to win against the Sunni death squads, we'd be just as likely putting in power people who hate us, which is not a good thing. Speaking of hate . . .

III) The general Arab hatred of America proved an unsurmountable problem too. I remember in the run-up to the Iraq war, that the thing that gave me most pause was the existence of a significant anti-American party (something like 15%) in the Kuwait legislature, one willing to conduct, or at least excuse, terrorist attacks on us. They weren't the majority, by any means, but even the existence of such a party, in a country whose bacon had been saved by the US, gave pause. Perhaps the US simply cannot have a positive relationship with any mass-based Arab country. My guess/hope was that the Sunni/Shi'ite divide and the isolation of Iraq under the Ba'athist government would allow mutual self-interest to lay the basis for an alliance with the Shi'ites, but it obviously hasn't worked out.**

So the result was, the last year has made it clear to the Shi'ites that they do not have an ally in the United States, that the US cares about abstractions like democracy and rule of law, not about those pesky who-whom questions. And we have also made it clear that we in the US do not really have what it takes (in money, troops, will, determination) to defeat the Sunnis ourselves. Oh, we can and have prevented them from winning, but we can't restore peace, and stop the terror. So the Shi'ites look up and see, those Americans won't defeat the death-squadders themselves, and they won't let us defeat the death-squadders -- well, time to get a new patron who will let us fight this war the way we know how. And that patron is of course Iran.

It probably didn't help that both the Democrats, and frustrated hawks, have made it clear that they view Maliki and the whole Shi'ite regime with contempt as our puppets, to be pushed around or replaced at will. Well like Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, whom Soviet advisers viewed the same way, Third-World "puppets" have a way of getting the next-to-last last laugh on their puppet-masters. (Of course Mao got the last laugh on both Chiang and the Russians).

So my prediction will be that in the next half-year or so the whole US-Iraqi Shi'ite alliance will unravel. The US will put more and more pressure on the Shi'ite regime to do this and do that, backed up by gormless Democrats who can't believe that some Bush puppet will actually say "no" to them when they just defeated Bush in an election. (They made their opinion clear when Maliki visited Washington.) The Shi'ite regime will push back and eventually there will be a break -- whether the Shi'ite regime will publicly kick the US out and invite Iran in, or whether we will withdraw on our own first is not really too important, but I hope we manage to do it in a way that is not too humiliating for us. The result will be a final solution, with Iranian help, to the Sunni problem along the lines of how the Tsarist "statesmen" hope to solve the Jewish question: one third will die, one third will emigrate, and the remaining third will give up and convert. OK, probably not exactly those percentages, but you get the idea.***

In the long run, I'm actually not too pessimistic about results. Al-Qaeda not only won't win, they'll lose much harder than they will if we were doing the fighting. That it's at the hands of fellow America-hating Arabs will make it especially painful -- which is all to the good. Of course it's tough on the Sunnis, but having done their best to bring this on themselves, I have very little sympathy for their tears.

Iran will be riding high for a while, but Iran will three problems:
1) they are the only regime in all the Middle East (except Israel and Turkey) that is actually vulnerable to peacefully expressed political opinion of its citizens – not very, but in increasing measure;
2) the Iranians are a "proud and sensitive" people, which translated means when they go abroad, they are arrogant, didactic, and bullying (an interesting look at how Iranians are pushing their influence in Syria is here.)
3) what they are selling -- the Islamic Republic model -- is, like Communism, great for winning civil wars in conditions of almost utter destitution and savage cruelty (think Dr. Zhivago, only in the desert, not Siberia), but gets less and less satisfactory as society gets more and more normal.

I think the Iraqis will soon be put in mind of Ho Chi Minh's old saying "Better to eat French s***t for fifteen years, than Chinese s***t for a thousand years." As the Canadians will tell us, neighbors make the worst possible allies.

The Kurds and the secular Iraqis are the ones I really feel bad about; like anyone between Israel and South Korea who has ever trusted the Americans, they will suffer big time. (This statement here is, to my great grief and sorrow, probably right on the money.) The Kurds maybe not, but they will have to do some very fancy footwork to maintain their lives and position in the new Iraq -- not impossible, as long as they are at least half as contemptuous of their given word as Americans are.

But in the end, I think, following out the China analogy here, that the Americans, like the Russians did in China, will find that supporting a genuine majority-rule revolution will pay long-term strategic dividends. Chiang Kai-shek turned against the Soviet Union, but when Japan invaded China, Chiang fought the Japanese, accepted Soviet help, and tied down the Japanese at great cost to China. Then Mao came to power and for ten crucial years kept US soldiers far away from the Russian border. The Sino-Soviet split was bad, but a China with US troops in it would have been worse for Russia; and today, China and Russia are once again finding each other's support convenient.

By jump-starting the Shi'ite revolution, the US has permanently detached Iraq from the pan-Arab coalition, and from the kind of crazy pan-Arab adventures endemic to Sunni Iraq. For a while they will turn to Iranian help. But I think the Iranians have far too long a tradition of dominating Iraq for them to be comfortable allies for any Iraqi Arab. The result will be that just as Russian aid to the Chinese revolution created not a satellite, but a genuine new actor in international affairs, so the Iraqi Shi'ite revolution in the end will create not a US model democracy or an Iranian puppet, but a real country with a real separate identity, for the first time. (Revolutions -- if they're successful -- always do that, too.)

*The fact that in this case the world as a whole, and the Arab world in particular, was explicitly on the side of the ci-devant minority regime's cause of course didn't help.

**Had the Sunnis, like white South Africans, accepted the revolution peacefully, things might have been very different. Well, the Sunnis will pay a much higher price in blood for their mistaken indulgence in spite than the Americans will, so that is a crime that will carry its own punishment. (One could say that the only thing more dangerous than trusting Americans is trusting "the international human rights community".)

***This will be the much-feared "full-blown civil war," but as long as US troops are not in Iraq, I can't see how or why it could ever get past page A17 of the Washington Post or the New York Times, and why any American will blame the Democrats for it. That’s another reason of course, why Iran is a better ally for a country in a civil war than the US.