[thinking about iraq]

Topic: Foreign Affairs
The following is a response to an email I received from Eric, who is serving with the Marines in Iraq as a logistics officer. I don’t want to suggest that this is my definitive view — already there’s much in it that I’m uncertain about — but it might be worth a read.

Okay, I want to start to tackle this question — of what we’re doing in Iraq and how we might achieve some kind of success — but it’s a doozy. I know that we come from different political perspectives, so I’ll give you that caveat at the beginning and then say what I have to say. Also, these are my opinions and perspectives, but I’m not an expert — not on the Middle East, not on military strategy, not on counterinsurgency, not on Islam, not on development. But you’ve put the question out there, so I’d like to share my perspective.

I think that the difference in our perspectives may come down simply to whether we consider the problems of Iraq, Palestine, Middle Eastern instability and terrorism to be primarily military in nature. As a Marine, you obviously come at things from a military perspective. But the military, as I’m sure you’d be the first to agree, is not the right tool for fixing all problems.


To take the broad view, I find it nearly inconceivable that radical Islamism will still be a meaningful threat in, say, sixty years, and I believe this is true pretty much regardless of what we do between now and then. Other radical ideologies have come and gone repeatedly through history, and most of them have been far too unstable to sustain themselves for more than a couple of generations.

When is the last time you worried seriously about anarchists or fascists? Around the turn of the 20th century, anarchism was a serious threat, but it never managed to gain much political strength. Communism held sway for about 70 years and then collapsed under its own weight. Fascism, with its cult of cleansing violence, was totally unsustainable, eventually drawing the entire rest of the world into war against it; though it lingered in Spain, its viable run was really no more than a generation.

Radical Islamism, in my opinion, will run a similar course, and for two reasons. First, radical Islamism is part of a much larger global trend toward fundamentalist religion, which I believe is a response to the enormous dislocations and population growth in the latter half of the 20th century, coupled with the post-World War II generation’s need to find some kind of spiritual meaning that was no longer available from mainstream, moderate religious authorities. In the United States, this has led to a number of religious trends, including the growth of Evangelical Christianity, the renewal of Chassidic Judaism, the embrace of Islam by black nationalists, the rapid growth of Mormonism, and the increasing popularity of traditional approaches to Eastern religion. In India it allowed a Hindu fundamentalist party to control the government for a time, despite the fact that until perhaps 30 years ago, there was no such thing as Hindu fundamentalism.

In the Muslim world, this trend has manifested in the form of radical Islamism. Back in the 1970s, when groups like the PLO first emerged, they were not Islamist but socialist, aligned with the Soviet Union. It is only more recently that they have become Islam-based. In part this was because of American support of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and in part it’s because the repressive governments in much of the Middle East (many supported by the US) have managed to repress virtually all political speech *except* the mosques, so they remain the only outlet for discontent. But I also think it’s part of a broader social trend in response to the massive social changes that have affected virtually everyone in the last few decades. With so much change, people seek to recreate an imagined tradition: fundamentalism.

Why do I think that Islamist fundamentalism will run its course as a political force? In the one country that it actually ran, Afghanistan, it managed to inspire widespread hatred. In Iran, where a Shiite theocracy has ruled, the younger generation has grown restless, and there has been a gradual move toward greater individual freedom (though there is still a long way to go). Saudi Arabia, with its uncomfortable marriage of monarchy and Wahabbism, is miserable and teetering. Radical Islamism offers a great deal of criticism of the status quo, but given actual power, its only program is a regressive vision of sharia law, with the absurd utopian fantasy that Islam will again be united under a single caliphate. This is about as likely as all of the workers of the world rising up in brotherhood to throw off the shackles of the bourgeoisie.

Beyond that, I also think that the current popularity of fundamentalist religion, and particularly its admixture with political power, will pass. As new generations grow up, they inevitably wish to do things differently from their parents. And any movement that achieves significant political importance will be compromised by that experience, because the world (as you know) is a sinful place. In Iran, some clerics are arguing that religion needs to retreat from politics not for the sake of a cleaner politics, but for the sake of a cleaner religion. In the US, Christian groups that ally themselves with one or another political camp run the risk of sharing the blame for that camp’s political sins. And political sins are inevitable in this fallen world.

I don’t mean for this to sound like an attack on religion or on fundamentalism; I think both are likely to continue into the future, but I believe that their political role will be radically reduced, primarily from within, by their own adherents, who will wish to extricate their religious faith from the complicated entanglements of politics.


Returning now to Iraq and the Middle East of today, I agree that the regimes are going to need to change. Either they will adjust gradually or they will be overthrown, either by their own people or by frustrated outside powers. The current recipe of dictatorial power that diverts discontent toward the US and Israel is unsustainable.

I also agree that there’s not much John Kerry could do differently in terms of actual war-fighting in Iraq. More troops wouldn’t fix our problems, nor would changing the flag on the sleeve. However, I don’t think the problems we face in Iraq at this point are fundamentally military problems. If they were, we would solve them in a week. Overthrowing the Baathist regime was a military problem, and we managed it handily. Nation-building is a much more complex task that involves not only the military, but also NGOs, other countries, independent contractors, UN organs, diplomats, and local and regional actors. And here is where I think John Kerry can make a meaningful difference.

I know that the soundbytes Kerry produces in the debates are somewhat inane — a summit is hardly a solution — but then, the nature of our politics at the moment is that they tend toward inane soundbytes, and all four of the candidates have produced their share. However, I think the Kerry approach of broadening the issue is the right one, even if it’s not well articulated in two-minute segments.

The Iraqis, and the Muslim world more generally, have experienced Western “liberation” before, and it’s usually meant long-term occupation. (An article I just read quotes Donald Rumsfeld as saying to our boys in Baghdad, “Unlike many armies in the world, you came not to conquer, not to occupy, but to liberate, and the Iraqis know this.” It then goes on to quote British General Stanley Maude in 1907: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” And Napoleon in Alexandria in 1798: “Oh Egyptians, I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of the oppressors.”) Kerry is right to suggest that Iraqis have noticed that we defended the Oil Ministry from looting, and that we’re busily building bases, and that this is the cause of much discontent. If we are to convince the Iraqis to lay down their arms, we must make them feel secure — and the one power they fear, far more than Baathist remnants or foreign terrorists, is us. By bringing in a wide range of partners, the US can make it clear that no one party is planning to maintain control of Iraq — that we are planning on going home. I do not believe that the Bush administration can take this approach for two reasons: 1) they have too far alienated the potential partners, and 2) they do not in fact plan to pull out of Iraq, but intend to maintain it as a strategic client state and oil source.

I don’t think that we can achieve military victory in Iraq. However, I think we can achieve *political* victory through a combination of development, aid, diplomacy and vigorous use of force against those elements that continue to destabilize the country. Without the additional elements, however, the fight in Iraq will be a fight against a hydra: for every insurgent we cut off, two new ones will grow. This is what happened to us and the French in Vietnam and to the French in Algeria, and it is what is happening to the Israelis now.


The broader question remains of why the Islamic world, or elements within it, is so angry with us. There are a number of theories out there, ranging from an epochal clash of civilizations, to Arab humiliation, to fury over the existence of Israel.

My own views put the emphasis on American policies in the Middle East. There are three elements that together have shaped Islamist anti-Americanism: support for Israel, support for dictatorial regimes, and support of jihad in Afghanistan.

That we have supported Israel time and again was always a bone of contention, but when it was Israel being attacked by the vastly larger Arab states, we could at least say that we were supporting the underdog. The Palestinian uprising has changed the dynamic of that debate, so that now, instead of defending a small, weak country against a vast array of enemies surrounding it, we are seen to be supporting a relatively strong power in its repression of an Arab minority. Never mind that the Jordanians had no problem massacring their own Palestinians, or that Palestinians are unpopular throughout the Arab world: the sight of caucasian pilots in helicopter gunships firing on Arab villages does not go down well.

We have also hurt ourselves by supporting repressive, dictatorial regimes across the Muslim world. We supported the Shah in Iran, having installed our own repressive prime minister in a coup. Then we sold weapons to Saddam Hussein as he was gassing Iranians on the battlefield and Kurds in their villages. We are allies with Egypt, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. (This last, a known proliferator of nuclear weapons, makes our WMD arguments ring hollow in the Middle East.) We have supported these countries even as they have maintained control over their people by blaming all that is wrong on America and Israel. We have not brought significant pressure on them to change their political rhetoric or to liberalize.

Lastly, there is the beast we created in Afghanistan. We encouraged jihad there against the Soviets, and the jihadists won. Not only were the Soviets driven from Afghanistan, but the most powerful nation in the world (to their eyes) subsequently collapsed. Osama bin Laden and his allies — at the time, they were our allies too — believed that they had caused the fall of the Soviet Union by sapping its resolve and resources with a long, bloody guerrilla war in Afghanistan.

After that conflict ended, we pulled up stakes and left Afghanistan to its own devices. Having fought for us, the jihadis expected support, but received none. This, coupled with our support of Israel and of dictatorial regimes in the Islamic world, fueled anti-American anger. And based on their experience of the anti-Soviet war, the jihadis sincerely believe that they can bring down the US in the same way. (They are probably not up on the latest economic theory, which would explain why the Soviets were ready to topple and we’re not.) Thus the Iraq war is a dream come true for jihadis who fantasize about doing the same thing to us that they did to the Soviets. This, too, shall pass. We will go on for some time in Iraq, successfully or not, and the US will not topple.


I don’t think our situation in Iraq is hopeless. Far from it. But I do think we’ll have to swallow some hard truths if we’re to succeed. First of all, we have to let go of the notion that when we democratize a country, we then get to choose what sort of leadership it has. We don’t, they do: that’s democracy. If the Iraqis elect a regime that is hostile to the US, will we heed its wishes? Now that Iraq is sovereign, we are (in theory) on its soil by invitation, and its sovereign government has the right to send us home. If it does, will we go?

For all our talk of spreading democracy, we’ve been uncomfortable with genuine pluralism and open debate in the Middle East. For example, Al Jazeera’s people have been banned from Iraq because we don’t like their perspective. But there is a very strong anti-American constituency in the Middle East. If we want democracy, we must allow that constituency the same freedoms and the same possibility of getting elected as any other group. In the near term, this is a scary proposition: it puts our oil at risk and threatens to unleash a tremendous reserve of anger at us. In the long run, however, I believe that it will be necessary to let the America-haters speak their piece, even have their turns in office. Once their people elect them and see that they have nothing to offer, they will be voted out again, replaced by leaders with a different perspective. And if anti-American regimes are in power, it will be far harder for non-state terrorists to justify their efforts, because they can no longer claim that the Middle East is ruled by American puppets. (And I believe that it is the non-state actors like Al Qaeda, not the rogue states like Iraq and North Korea, that have attacked the West repeatedly and continue to pose a real threat. This is one way in which I disagree with the Bush administration, which is still focused on traditional state power, to the extent that a victory over the Taliban was seen as equivalent to a victory over the Al Qaeda forces it permitted to operate in Afghanistan.)

In Iraq, there are a number of people with political power: Al Sadr, Al Sistani, the Kurdish leadership. So far, we’ve treated them largely like military enemies, and this, I think, is a mistake. They are the ones with the power to lead the Iraqis, and we should work with them, bringing them to our side and allowing them to help us.

In the long run, I believe that the solutions to our problems in the Middle East are cell phones, TVs, motor scooters and colleges — in other words, development. If you’ve got a job to go to, enough to eat, and the prospect of an improved future for your children, you’re much less likely to want to blow yourself up. To encourage development, we will have to bring our soft power to bear, nudging regimes toward the necessary liberalizations. There are those who hoped Iraq would be a shining light to the rest of the Middle East, inspiring democracy movements throughout. That doesn’t seem likely at the moment.

Meanwhile, though, Turkey is moving toward joining the European Union. To do so, it’s had to resolve longstanding human rights issues, liberalize its economy, sell off state industries and improve the standard of living for its people. My hope is that Turkey can be an example for the Middle East.

If Iraq is to go the same route, then shooting insurgents is less important than turning on the lights and keeping them on. Shooting an insurgent kills an insurgent, but the problem is that insurgents melt back into the local population all too easily. What must happen is that the Iraqis must feel that they are better off, and more likely to rule themselves, without the insurgents than with them. In large parts of the country, militias are the only police, and they also deliver social services. If the Iraqi government takes on that role, people’s loyalties will shift. Maintaining a steady water supply and lifting curfews and providing an administrative and judicial infrastructure to resolve basic problems will be vastly more effective than any military operation in turning the population against the insurgents.

Again, I think the military has a vital role to play in this effort, and I think that hunting down the insurgents is vital. But I strongly believe that for you guys to be successful — for your efforts to make any sense at all — you need the full backing of a multipronged effort at nation-building.

Whew! Okay, I hope I haven’t offended you by telling you what I think. I’m not an expert, and I come at this from my own political perspective. These issues are contentious — people fight wars over them — but I am open to other perspectives, and to the possibility that I’m wrong. This is just what I think.

And I also want to say, loud and clear, that I support the US military, and especially the soldiers on the ground. You guys are doing exactly as you should, which is carrying out the will of the commander-in-chief. I may disagree with the commander-in-chief politically, and that’s my democratic right as an American, but he’s still the commander-in-chief. I know that you guys are out there working just as hard as you can, at considerable risk, to achieve the tasks that the leadership has set, and I appreciate that enormously.