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Andrew Clem Archives ~ Trying times in Iraq

January 28, 2005 [LINK]

Trying times in Iraq

With only two more days to go before the elections in Iraq, the forces of tyranny and darkness are mustering all the cunning and resources at their disposal to try to derail the process of pacification and democratization. Wednesday's terrible helicopter crash that killed 31 U.S. Marines was a brutal reminder of how high the cost is in this campaign. (Four of those Marines were from Virginia: Cpl. Jonathan Bowling, Sgt. Jess Strong, Lance Cpl. Karl Kinn, and Cpl. Christopher Weaver.) This tragedy, in turn, reminds us how important it is to keep focused on what we are fighting for. For the last two months we have seen some of the most hideous carnage yet on the streets of Baghdad, Mosul, and smaller cities in Iraq. Just before Christmas, several dozen Iraqi civilians were murdered by presumed former Baath regime loyalists, and a score of Americans, including civilian employees of Halliburton, were killed in a mess tent in Mosul. Over 1,400 American soldiers have died in Iraq thus far, and we must constantly reflect on what their families have suffered.

The fact that such mayhem seems to be getting more dreadfully commonplace every day, in spite of all our efforts, recalls a controversial phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her 1963 report on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann: the banality of evil. (For a discussion of this theme, see Ulrich Baer at To Arendt, "banality" meant that evil could not be understood in rational terms since there was no depth to it. It just was. Perhaps in the same way today, those who strain to comprehend the ultimate political purpose behind the car bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings are just missing the point. A great amount of the killing is probably for the sheer, vicious sake of killing; as Thucydides and Hobbes knew so well, human beings who live in places with no effective government authority are prone to revert to barbarism. Yet, there certainly is some kind of political agenda behind the Baathist-Islamist-terrorist insurgency in Iraq. After all, part of the psychological impact of terrorism is the very absence of any rational basis for the particular act of violence. The more the victims' families wail, "Why?" the more power the terrorists amass.

Generally speaking, political observers should avoid demonizing opponents or casting struggles in stark good-and-evil terms, since self-righteousness can result in blind hubris. What we are facing in Iraq right now, however, is not a normal circumstance. Perhaps we are fortunate that al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi made his purpose crystal clear by declaring that democracy itself was an evil principle, and must be stopped at all costs. This blunt acknowledgment of domineering pretensions may backfire by pushing some nervous, undecided Iraqis into actively supporting the democratic transition. (See and Austin Bay.)

To begin to grasp the nature of our adversaries, we need to look back in history for parallels. By coincidence, yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in southern Poland by the Red Army. Until Nazi Germany was decisively beaten, hardly anyone could have imagined the monstrous extent of evil that was being committed under Hitler. Likewise, Iraqis today have learned much of the awful truth about the depravities of Saddam Hussein's regime. As they prepare to vote, they know that however difficult life is right now, the future in the post-Saddam era offers immeasurably better and happier prospects for the vast majority of Iraqi people.

Causes for trepidation

Granted, there are many well-informed pessimists on the war, such as Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for the first President Bush. He says the elections "have the great potential for deepening the conflict," even leading to a civil war. Furthermore, he sees the continued presence of U.S. troops in the Middle East as compounding the problem of terrorism, in effect playing into the hands of Osama bin Laden. (See Washington Post.) Scowcroft is one of the foreign policy "realists," a school with which I associate myself to a large extent. Realists are usually skeptical about the role of abstract values such as democracy in motivating political action, emphasizing instead the role of concrete interests and believing that craving for power is a universal trait. During the Cold War, such attitudes often prompted U.S. tacit alliances with dictators such as Augusto Pinochet. It seems that times have changed, however. As Secretary of State Condoloeeza Rice reminded U.S. diplomats after being sworn in yesterday of what President Bush said in his inaugural address: "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." I happen to agree with that bold assertion, but I recognize that many realists and others do not. Any invocation of idealistic rhetoric into foreign policy is a risky double-edged sword, and past leaders making similar arguments to justify dubious foreign campaigns have been accused of hypocrisy when they don't follow through 100 percent.

President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have been harshly criticized for the conduct of the war, and as I have written, some of that criticism is well founded. In a Washington Post interview last week, President Bush responded to the National Intelligence Council's conclusion that Iraq has become a "terrorist breeding ground." He stood by his conviction that elections will constitute a major setback for the Salafist Muslim extremists who gravitate toward Osama bin Laden. His firm determination to stay the course is, in and of itself, a valuable, even indispensible strategic asset, but reluctance to to admit mistakes remains a worrisome sign that the U.S. military campaign in Iraq may lack the tactical flexibility needed to win. Retired military blogger Donald Sensing weighed in on the various criticisms of Rumsfeld. Like me, he is no fan of Rummy. He quotes from a National Review piece by Mackubin Thomas Owens, who compares Rumsfeld's attempted restructuring at the Pentagon the Eisenhower's "New Look" slimmed-down military force posture in the 1950s. Such reforms always provoke fierce bureaucratic infighting, and I've long been sympathetic to Rumsfeld on that issue. Sensing also brought up Frederick W. Kagan's essay in the Weekly Standard, "Fighting the Wrong War." Kagan makes the point, with which few would disagree these days, that Rumsfeld stubbornly refused to increase U.S. armed forces to meet the requirements of subduing the resistance and pacifying Iraq. On that count, I think Rumsfeld is guilty as charged. In sum, the Bush policy of understaffing the war effort and downplaying the need for sacrifice raises the possibility that the American people may lose their will to prevail, the vital element upon which our armed forces depend to go on risking their lives.

Another reason for caution with regard to success or failure in the war is that the civic culture of a post-totalitarian society such as post-Saddam Iraq is prone to fear and mutual distrust. Romania and Russia are perhaps the classic cases where democracy's progress has been stalled by the old mental habits that inhibit the free expression of ideas. It took Germany and Japan several years to become meaningfully democratic after World War II. Hannah Arendt captured the confused combination of gullibility and cynicism that prevails in societies that fall under the grip of totalitarian movements such as the Nazi Party and the Soviet Communist Party:

The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fanstastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuse in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness. {SOURCE: Origins of Totalitarianism (1973), p. 382}

This certainly applies to the Baathist Party and Islamo-fascist groups such as al Qaeda in today's world, hence the preposterous yet widespread belief in Muslim countries that the 9/11 attacks were plotted by Jews. (Is it possible that such deranged thinking exists even in our own country today? Absolutely.) The world will not be safe as long as such grotesque delusions persist, and democracy will certainly not take root. Curing such mass psychosis will not be accomplished via transparently propagandistic, heavy-handed "public diplomacy" campaigns by the State Department or hired P.R. firms. It will, instead, require patient, devoted attention by civic activists from various countries.

Keeping hope alive

Amidst the relentless drumbeat of discouraging televised images from Iraq, we need to keep things in perspective and remember that a full picture of reality cannot be conveyed through a narrow video screen, or even a wide one. Frankly, I don't think most Americans have the faintest idea about the tremendously liberating effect that a free press in Iraq has had. There are literally hundreds of newspapers and several dozen political parties, giving people in Iraq a range of choice they never had before. In that sense, progress toward a new culture of democracy there has been much more rapid than it was in Germany and Japan after World War II. Is civil war possible, as Scowcroft believes? Yes. Does that mean we will have "failed"? Certainly not. We are creating the conditions for a new Iraq, and thereby assume some responsibility for the ultimate outcome, but the final product is mostly up to Iraqi leaders and people. Many Iraqis will be intimidated from voting this time, unfortunately, and if too few of the once-dominant Sunnis show up, Iraq may well break apart as the Shiites and Kurds decide to make law and order in their own respective regions. In any case, the tiny minority whom the terrorists represent cannot impose their will on the majority as long as the United States and its allies press on with their mission: giving freedom -- and therefore peace -- a chance.

Is such a corny sentiment just whistling in the dark? It depends who you ask. As Iraqi exiles living in the United States begin to vote, I have in my mind the shy face of a bright young Kurdish woman from Iraq who was in one of my classes at JMU last year. Even though her family suffered terrible brutality under Saddam, thus having every reason to want revenge, she expressed great hope for her country's future. Freedom for her is not some corny sentiment or abstract ideal, it is a wonderful tangible reality. The energy and devotion of people of good will who are exposed to freedom for the first time after decades of oppression simply cannot be overestimated. Let freedom ring!

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 28 Jan 2005, 6: 12 PM

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