Is a Democratic Iraq Still Attainable?
Here are two interesting proposals on how to create a multiethnic Iraq.
- "Our Only Hope" by Eliot A. Cohen, Bing West: "We prefer an offensive strategy based on three ironclad principles: take the offense immediately against the death squads in Sadr City, who are now unsettled; arrest and imprison on a scale equal to the horrific situation (or at least equal to New York City!); and insist on a joint say in the appointment of army and police leaders. If the Iraqi government refuses, we should be willing to disengage completely, and soon."
- The Consequences of Failure in Iraq -- failure can still be averted by Reuel Marc Gerecht "Post-Saddam Iraq has become for us and the Iraqis an act of tenacity. It is overwhelmingly the story of one community, the Shia, endeavoring to adopt a democratic political arrangement while being bombarded by Sunni Arab insurgents and holy warriors, and dismissed as disloyal Arab Muslims by the Middle East's Sunni Arab intellectual and religious classes." Gerecht argues that a Shi'a based democracy is still possible, but only if the US crushes the Sunni insurgency instead of passively leaving the job to militias.
Bing West is his literate, clear thinking self. It is superfluous to add to his exposition and the reader is best served by Reading the Whole Thing. Gerecht's argument is less straightforward, expressed in a rich but somewhat academic manner, compounded in equal parts of history and policy analysis. But the key idea is that America's only hope lies in the Shia commitment to democracy, which is real for all of its defects. And therefore America must build on it and not allow Shi'a radical elements to hijack the process.
A Shiite dictatorship, the only other possible outcome in Iraq, is still a verboten subject among the Shia. By comparison, it's not hard to find Sunni Arabs pining for the return of a Sunni strongman; since its early love affair with Ayad Allawi, much of Washington would have gladly compromised democratic principle for dictatorial strength. ... The Iraqi Shia still seem to know that they cannot go down the dictatorial road without provoking internecine strife. As Sistani and his followers have tried to point out, democracy for the Shia is first a matter of communal survival. And as long as this conviction holds, the compromises necessary to keep the Shiites together offer Iraq's Sunni Arabs a way out of insurgency and holy war.
Recent experience is discouraging but Gerect thinks there is the still a possibility that the Sunnis will lay down their arms. But the key is Baghdad.
There are, fortunately, still many places in Iraq where Shiite and Sunni Arabs are not killing each other. In Baghdad, this is less the case precisely because Baghdad is the center of power. The Iraqi Sunni identity as it has developed since the fall of the Ottoman Empire is in many ways all about Baghdad. The centripetal eminence of the city for them is far greater than for the Shiites--even for the Shiites of the "Sadr City" ghetto, who have provided the manpower for the worst of the capital's Shiite militias. The Sunni insurgency and holy war have always been more about maintaining Sunni power than about repelling infidel invaders. They stand in sharp contrast to the great Shiite rebellion of 1920, which was a reaction against the religiously intolerable dominion of the British in Mesopotamia, not a Shiite assertion of power among the Arab denizens of what soon became Iraq.
Breaking the back of the Sunni insurgency has always meant denying the rejectionist Sunni Arab camp (possibly a pretty large slice of the city's Sunni population) any hope of dominating Baghdad and thus the country. If the Americans undertake this task, the Sunni Arab population, especially those who don't back the insurgents and the holy warriors, will sustain relatively little damage. We know how to clear Sunni neighborhoods in the capital--we've just never had the American manpower to hold what we've cleared. However, if the Shiites end up doing this (and it will be the Shiite militias that do it, not the Iraqi army, which would likely fall apart pretty quickly once U.S. military forces started withdrawing from the capital), the Sunni Arab population of Baghdad is going to get pulverized. The Sunni and Shiite migration we've so far seen from Baghdad is just a trickle compared with the exodus when these two communities battle en masse for the city and the country's new identity.
But the key is to take the lead away from the Shi'ite militias by establishing an American controlled process of crushing the Sunni insurgents in Baghdad the "right way"; that is to say, without resorting to wholesale massacre and outrage. In any event, Gerecht thinks America really has no choice. Retreating to Kurdistan is a foolish strategy: withdrawing North while letting the fires rage in the south is like a fire victim moving to the unit next door while his condo is burning.
If we leave Iraq any time soon, the battle for Baghdad will probably lead to a conflagration that consumes all of Arab Iraq, and quite possibly Kurdistan, too. Once the Shia become both badly bloodied and victorious, raw nationalist and religious passions will grow. A horrific fight with the Sunni Arabs will inevitably draw in support from the ferociously anti-Shiite Sunni religious establishments in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and on the Shiite side from Iran. It will probably destroy most of central Iraq and whet the appetite of Shiite Arab warlords, who will by then dominate their community, for a conflict with the Kurds. If the Americans stabilize Arab Iraq, which means occupying the Sunni triangle, this won't happen.
In both West's and Gerecht's expositions the key missing ingredient in Iraq is not so much more force -- though that is needed -- but strategic clarity. The problem both these proposals face is that while the path they trace out may be right, perhaps neither has a political constituency which will adopt it. In Gerecht's view President Bush's key strength was that he never quit trying to win; though unfortunately he never figured out how to do it. And given that track record, his latest efforts may turn out to be similarly ineffectual. On the other side of the aisle the situation is bleaker. The Democrats are not only equally clueless about how to win, they have no interest in learning how to win at all. In the end all these wonderful strategic proposals based on experience America has gathered over the last three years of war may be thrown on the pile marked "unsold". Never was a nation so profligate with lessons so dearly learned.
Yet, however things turn out, it's encouraging to see the level of understanding about the threats facing the world rise steadily in quality since September 11. In those early days both the pro and antiwar positions were distinguished by their outlooks but united in their ignorance. Today the level of discourage not only about the Middle East but of radical Islam has risen dramatically. For example, Deputy Assistant to the President Peter Wehner wrote primer on radical Islam which is remarkably level-headed and informative. (Hat tip: Hugh Hewitt) It would be hard to imagine any official writing such a document on September 12, let alone finding a public to read it. Yet despite its erudition, Wehner's precis still manages to convey the essential truth, also born of long experience: that the current world crisis is neither avoidable nor optional, whether in Iraq or the rest of the world.
It is the fate of the West, and in particular the United States, to have to deal with the combined threat of Shia and Sunni extremists. ... The war against global jihadism will be long, and we will experience success and setbacks along the way. The temptation of the West will be to grow impatient and, in the face of this long struggle, to grow weary. Some will demand a quick victory and, absent that, they will want to withdraw from the battle. But this is a war from which we cannot withdraw. As we saw on September 11th, there are no safe harbors in which to hide. Our enemies have declared war on us, and their hatreds cannot be sated. We will either defeat them, or they will come after us with the unsheathed sword.
"We will either defeat them, or they will come after us with the unsheathed sword." That concisely expresses why the current debate over a "surge" or a withdrawal will never be the final word on the subject. The conflict is a condition of history, from which there is no escape.