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I’ve been worrying over Iraq since I saw, on C-SPAN Friday, President Bush answer the question, “What are our plans if civil war breaks out in Iraq?” The president’s response revealed nothing new to me; I gained no special insight; I had no epiphany as I listened to the president’s answer, which was so incomprehensible as to be almost funny, if the subject were not so dire.

Of course, civil war has been an increasing likelihood since well before the December election. The recent blowing-up of the Al-Askariya mosque in Samarra was not an instigation of war so much as it was a fomentation of it. The compromises in October didn’t change the fact that the constitution creates a federal system too weak to maintain social order, and the parliamentary elections in December, made possible by October’s compromises, ensured that Iraqi power would remain divided. There’s no excusing the tyranny of the minority Sunnis of the past; at the same time, as Alexis de Toqueville warned, democracy must safeguard itself against tyranny of the majority as well. The Kurds have shrewdly invested in the constitutional process in order to dissociate themselves of both Shiites and Sunnis. Likely as not, they’ll declare Kurdistan independent from Iraq as soon as they believe they are strong enough to do so. Meanwhile, the Shiites know their future lies in political ties to Iran and in the oil beneath their feet. For them, federalism is the sorry prospect of supporting their Sunni neighbors, so recently their oppressors. The Sunnis were the only ones arguing for federalism, and they lost that argument before they ever presented their case. Hence, civil war: yesterday, car bombs destroyed a market, prompting Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army into the streets.

Where the United States factors into Iraq now is anybody’s guess, although one might think the U.S. would feel somewhat responsible for ensuring the peace. American leaders seem content to quibble about semantics. Donald Rumsfeld last week rejected the name civil war in favor of sectarian violence—although why he believes the latter is not in fact the former is anybody’s guess. But then, Rumsfeld is the great obfuscator: good reporters can still be fooled into believing his saying he has a plan is tantamount to his actually having one. Meanwhile, American generals are squabbling over who first knew that the big fight wouldn’t be with the Iraqi army, but with the insurgency first joined by the Saddam Fedayeen. I see these stories, and I am struck by the horrible indifference they represent. Rumsfeld’s is a cynical, orientalist argument at heart, inverted to seem more palatable. If Iraqis will not unify under a single government, they are beyond us; “sectarian violence” is what they are capable of, and it is a problem for Iraqis alone to face.

The president’s response to the question, “What are our plans if civil war breaks out in Iraq?” is not that different from Rumsfeld’s. The “plans” are not plans at all. They are vague assertions. 1) Make sure there’s no civil war. 2) Offer a platitude about democracy. 2) Mosque destruction represents a test. (After he lost count at 3, he didn’t try to count again.) Remind the Iraqis they want democracy and freedom, because, presumably, so long as they remember they want it, they’ll unify to do something about it. Democracy keeps out terrorists. Iran. World War II. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. Global war on Terror. Pakistan. Al Qaeda. The plan, such as it is, is to chant these mantras over and over, to appeal to democracy and to “unity government” without in fact acknowledging that the democracy is shaky and the government being formed is by design without unity.

The increasing likelihood of civil war in Iraq is a demonstration that peace in Iraq has never been a high priority of American policy there. It’s a horrible conclusion, but it’s a natural conclusion to the most enduring war slogan since 2001 (Afghanistan) and 2003 (Iraq). “We are fighting the terrorists there in Iraq so that we don’t have to fight them here.” By definition the front lines of the global war on terror are arbitrary because the GWOT is arbitrary. So we have set the front lines “over there,” and we will keep them over there because, so long as we can, we can sing with Senator Stevens,

They also don’t talk about the fact that there’s been no 9/11 since we’ve been there. We have preserved our freedom here by taking on the enemy there.

And I think we’re there and we know why we’re there. My people at home know why we’re there. And I know why the young men and women of Alaska have volunteered to go there.

So I do decry the attacks on us for doing our job. And I congratulate all of you for doing the job. I have great admiration for you and for the members of the defense establishment now.

It is clear, and clearly unfortunate for Iraqis, that, if Iraq does indeed want peace, it will get no support for it from the United States government. (Although from others Iraq might very well get support.) American leaders are too invested in the power of war to plan, to act upon what has long been known: war begets more war, more oppression, more violence—not freedom, and definitely not peace.



i have been escaping the reality of these questions by reading…so far i can recommend the kite runner without reservation and reading lolita in tehran with the caution that it needed a more merciless editor to get rid of the repetition and occasional maudlin touches. not that either of these are an escape from middle east conflict…just from the current one. (speaking of which, can anyone recommend a good novel by an iraqi?)

K had a similar criticism Reading Lolita. She also said that it tended toward that regrettable tendency, too prevalent in books about classrooms, to idealize/inflate teacherly influence. But I’ll let her speak to that when she’s of a mind to do so…

Why would we seek an end to this expensive, yet profitable, war? After all, if we’re at war, it makes it that much easier for Joe Scarborough and the rest of the talking heads to cry foul at the merest hint of criticism.

“Can you believe it?!? In a time of war, this professor has the audacity to criticize the Commander if Chief! For shame!”

Or something to that effect.

No, it’s much easier to keep saying “Peace, Peace” when there is no peace, and to keep raking in the dough, under the pretense of liberating the oppressed.

I’m sorry that was so disjointed. I should confine my rants to one point at a time.

I should have used separate comments to point out that:

a) the war makes a great shield for the President.


b) a lot (well, a few) people are getting very, very wealthy on this war

My apologies for polluting this comment stream. Twice.

¡O No You Didn’t! I’ve been remonikered “hermit greg” all over the Web because of you; if you’re gonna comment here, you change your name, GKB! :)

In true reply: I’ve tried to resist believing the war’s all about profiteering, to varying degrees of success, personally. SR & MY warns against the incompetence plea, and I tend to agree with them on that front. ...

It seems I am disjointed, too, and unfortunately, I’ve got to run. I will respond more better later. Pinky swear.

Like Mary, I’ve been more or less disconnected from the Iraq issue for a while. Between the steady drum beat of wire reports of car bombs and Bush platitudes I feel like I can no longer grasp at the reality of what’s going on in the place, if I ever could.

I’m wondering what metric these people will use to declare when our next semantic threshhold has been crossed, and Iraq is officially in “civil war.” (The last one was the “quagmire” thingy.) Will it be the dissolution of the current government? Or a certain number of daily sectarian casualties? With muslims attacking mosques, and a sectarian body count in the 4 digits in the immediate aftermath of the Samarra bombing, could we say that civil war is already underway?

This war seems like it has become an ideological cudgel, a weapon to wield in favor of your pet grievance. From the American right, to the hollywood left, to the global islamist movement, it’s solid gold for nearly everyone not actually in Iraq. I await with a queasy excitement the dénouement of this war. What in God’s name would we do without it?

we would have our paparazzi hounds chase jennifer aniston off a malibu curve. and rather than elton revamping his ballad, we’d have greenday redo their ballad good riddance.

or, we’d hunt down katie and force her to take a paternity test… because we all know that tom’s not the dad.

and, we’d start a war on american soil regarding the use of vegie-diesel.

all of these options are rather quite ugly.

i much prefer the rhetoric of fear.

Henceforth, I shall sign my comments as GKB.

It sounds much more communist, and therefore subversive, that way.


Ha…do you remember when people shouted each other red in the face, as if the fate of the world depended on it, over Bill Clinton’s sex life? What wonderfully frivolous drama that was.

oh, that the inappropriate uses of altoids were all we had to worry about!

re:incompetence, these are the guys who spent the 80’s playing war games and setting up shadow governments, unless, of course, this was just a ruse to go spend time at a hedonism resort.

Blast. Mind’s no good. How do I know? I can’t even bring myself to rejoin J’s TomKat allusion.

Liberally-scattered thoughts: My conclusion above is overblown and not indicative enough. GKB, you'll never be mistaken for a communist—not by anyone who knows the diff, anyway. JH, I decided to write about Iraq precisely because I've been Iraq-fatigued; I hoped writing would help. Now, I'm just fatigued. Re: semantic deviltry, I expect the insurgency to take the “desperate measures” invoked by the state of being in its “last throes” at least one more time before November.

I’m retiring for the night.

GKB asked, “Why would we seek an end to this war?” It’s a good question, with an answer which seems obvious, touched on by GWB himself: peaceful stability in the ME is in U.S. international interests. No one—save the mercenaries, the war profiteers, and the power hungry—gains where there is violent unrest.

But between theories that Iraq should be a giant terrorist electromagnet, slipshod efforts to reconstruct the country’s infrastructure, and vague rhetoric that fails to set any sort of direction for real policy… it seems there’s no real belief that a peaceful Iraq is desirable, even if viable.

I do have doubts that it’s viable, frankly. Iraq’s a smashed together country, like the former Yugoslavia. Why anyone believes it should remain whole, as it was defined by the British empire, is anybody’s guess. Saddam Hussein found it beneficial to him; but since he’s been deposed, it seems we’re mostly tryiing to save cartographers the pains of having to redraw their maps. Turkey certainly doesn’t want Kurdistan to be independent, but it’s almost independent now. If it could be shown that a democratic “unity government” is possible there, it would be a remarkable feat, but there’s been no desire for it among Iraq’s constitutencies, or if there is desire for it, there’s no system yet in place for “the people” to hold its representatives accountable for them.

I wonder why did anyone believe that GWB’s sloganeering represented more comprehensive reconstruction plans behind the scenes? Was it just disbelief that anyone could be so daft? I remember Kerry being ridiculed for having a four-part plan during the 2004 election. But how is it better that GWB can’t count three in 2006?

i’ve often wondered this, as well. why not three relatively stable nations, instead of the anachronism of iraq?

do we dislike the disbanding of iraq because this signals how flimsy nations really are?

or better, what is it about the idea of a nation that makes us balk at the formation of an independent kurdistan?

does size, indeed, matter?

sorry, i thought i had more to say when i began.

At one level at stake is a definition of nation-state. When you allow geopolitical boundaries to become ethnopolitical boundaries, you are on the one hand admitting that unity in difference is not a goal worth the trouble and time, and on the other hand allowing that ethnicity is a viable reason for political division. So far as the Kurds are concerned, Turkey cares, since Kurds make up a significant minority of their population. Allow Iraq’s Kurds independence, and Turkish Kurds might want to join them—and take Turkish land with them, which the Turks wouldn’t like, and would probably fight for. That’s just Kurdistan—think about what would happen if Iran got into that mix with Turkey, or if the Iraqi Shia said, “Hey! Let us join you, and you can have our oil wells!” Lots of people would be upset about that…

Well, anyway, those are the lines I’d be thinking if I were in a position of power and had to consider the implications of my foreign policy actions.

The question might be, then, when is it better for geopolitical lines to overlay ethnopolitical lines, and when is it better for them to diverge?

right, i was going to say something about turkey but i’m in such a pre-flight, not packed, feverishly writing my conclusion state of mind that i forgot that i was going to say somehting about turkey…which is right next to greece…do you think that deeped fried holiday birds actually come from that area of the globe?

but, when thinking about the turkish kurds… then you have to deal with the genocide… what price do ethinic minorijorities have to pay in order for a nation to exist?

i’ll be quiet now.

Ben Franklin argued the turkey should be U.S. national bird—it was a native species, and it was better suited to represent a civilization than the carrion-eating eagle. We know where that went.

you know, had that actually come to pass… calling someone a turkey would mean something totally different.

do you think that our hawkish ways would be different if we were a bunch of turkeys?

i am done with my paper…see yous on the flip side of puerto rico!

Have a good trip! Try not to think of the students waiting outside your office door…

More on public works, and public opinion: from Robert Kaplan’s essay, “The Coming Normalcy?” in the March issue of The Atlantic. Kaplan spent several weeks in Mosul between October and December of 2005. Kaplan’s thesis is that Mosul might represent the best success story of the war. With emphasis on the might, and some doubt about what “success” means.

A Sunni Arab shopkeeper said to me: “when American troops patrol the streets with the Iraqi army, it is so awful and humiliating for us, because we know those Iraqi soldiers are really Kurds. Your occupation has strengthened our enemies.” This young man, the son of a former general in Saddam Hussein’s army, engaged me in conversation for more than half an hour. I liked him. He turned out to be uncannily objective in his own way. He had just come back from Syria, upon which he heaped praise. “Syria now is so much better than Iraq,” he said. “It is under tight control, so people there feel safe and can go about their livs with dignity. you Americans think you have brought freedom; you have just allowed the thugs from the villages to kill and rob from the educated people whom Saddam had protected.”

“Your father liked Saddam?” I probed.

“My father hated Saddam,” he replied. “He spit on him—in the home, that is. As long as you obeyed the rules by not criticizing the regime outside of your home, you were fine. With Saddam, there were clear rules; now there are none. Now we are caught between the Americans and the insurgents. Everybody hates terrorism, but we’re more vulnerable than you.”

“Should the Americans leave?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “that would only make things worse.” He told me that hew as impressed with the American military, as long as it was alone and not with the Iraqi army. But he admitted that the Iraqi police had improved, and that Mosul was no longer the battle zone it had been the year before. “Your soldiers are disciplined. They don’t scare people by shooting their guns in the air, like ours.”

“But that discipline,” I argued, “is an indirect effect of a free society, which allows the military to constantly criticize itself.”

“No, no,” he said. “What good is voting if the Shiites and Kurds will vote, too? Elections are useless without water, sewage, electricity, and safety.”

“So you won’t vote on December 15?”

“Maybe I will vote. What else is there to do?”

He was a mass of understandable contradictions.

Later, Kaplan continues…

The U.S. military was attempting to plug a dike holding back an ocean of potential unrest, and was deeply handicapped by the fact that it had no visible large-scale public-works projects to soak up crime and mass unemployment. Only such projects could show Sunni Arabs—politically weaker than ever in Iraq—the tangible benefits of democracy. Indeed, as I went out on at least on patrol a day for three weeks, riding air guard, my upper body sticking out of the top of the Stryker, the typical scenery was of bullet-marked and half-finished buildings, gray and rust-colored, a shot-to-hell cityscape in which every object—sign, streetlight, telephone pole—was bent or broken. Garbage filled every available lot. The only bustling commerce I saw, in the markets near the old city, was of the subsistence kind that does not create employment.

Iraq is a nightmare that our leaders did not anticipate.

Bobby Valentine

(You’ve been reading long and long into the archives, BV! Stop now, lest ye become lost in the halls!)