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September 18, 2005 [LINK]

Almost hell in Iraq

Even though most of Iraq is rebuilding and moving forward, the key cities where most of the television cameras are deployed are steadily descending toward a version of Dante's Inferno. With hundreds more dead in car bomb attacks in recent days, Americans and Iraqis alike wonder how much longer can this go on?

One thing is certain about terrorists, they usually don't bother to conceal their unstated but all-too-obvious political aims. In the March 2004 Madrid attacks, they successfully induced Spanish voters to opt for a government less inclined to confront Islamo-fascism head on. In the July 2005 London attacks, they tried but failed to create a split in the British electorate that would have caused the downfall of Tony Blair's government. In Baghdad this month, likewise, they are transparently striving to torpedo the negotiations over the drafting of a new constitution. What the Western media generally fail to report, however, is the fact that virtually all of those attacks are being perpetrated by Sunni Muslims, who comprise the majority of Muslims worldwide but only about 30 percent of the population in Iraq. Many if not most Sunnis in Iraq have apparently come to the conclusion that the potential benefits of engaging in an all-out war against the Shi'ites and the Kurds (first one, then the other) outweigh the risk that they will lose everything under a democratic regime. (One sign of the persistent distorted mindset in Iraq, one consequence of three decades of totalitarian rule under the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, is that most [Sunnis in Iraq] refuse to believe that they really are in the minority.) Another way to interpret the carnage in Baghdad and other cities is that they are part of a bargaining posture aimed at intimidating other factions into submission.

So why haven't the Shi'ites and Kurds responded more forcefully to Sunni provocations thus far? It appears that they are biding their time, busily mustering a more capable militia army before they engage in a direct confrontation with the Sunni-based Baath regime holdouts. Some Iraqi police and army units appear to have been infilitrated with Shi'ites and Kurds who are prepared to stage mutinies if the central government in Baghdad cannot maintain control. (See Washington Post, August 21.) President Jalal Talabani, who was recently given a warm welcom by President Bush in Washington, openly praised Shi'ite militias back in June, infuriating the Sunni leaders. Determined support by the United States and Coalition partners is now more important than ever, which is why the rising defeatist sentiment orchestrated by Democrat leaders in the United States (think Cindy Sheehan) just might tip the balance in the wrong direction. However bad Iraq looks right now, it would look an awful lot worse if the United States retreated at a moment when the enemy has the strategic initiative. If in spite of our best efforts, full-scale civil war does break out, Iraq would then become a genuine nightmarish hell, making Yugoslavia or Somalia pale in comparison.

All too aware of this risk, President Bush will no doubt "stay the course" for the short term, but if the United States is to prevail in this historic challenge, his national security staff (Condoleeza Rice, Philip Zelikow) must come up with a daring plan to regain the initiative. That would involve a temporary increase in military commitment coupled with novel diplomatic approaches and a deadly serious ultimatum for the political factions in Iraq to reach an accord. Doing so would indeed risk getting entangled in the potential civil war among the ethnic-religious groups in Iraq, which is why we must be prepared to follow through on our threat to scale back our military deployment if the needed cooperation does not materialize. Such a posture does not signify retreat but would be a cold, hard calcuation of strategic risks and benefits, acknowledging the brutal reality that our means and ends are finite. One clear lesson from Vietnam that applies now is that fierce shows of resolve by leaders are not sufficient to persuade the enemy to back down, and prolonging such displays for the sake of prestige or credibility can backfire badly. If it becomes evident that Iraqi civilian leaders cannot resolve their differences peacefully, meaning that the U.S. military presence would become pointless, Democrats and leftist critics of Bush would no doubt rejoice in what they would consider a vindication of their position. I for one would not want to be in the position of taking cheer from the success of mass murderers. From a longer-term perspective, this is all a part of the century-long three-way debate between gloomy isolationist "American firsters," giddiliy optimistic missionary proselytizers (both Wilsonians and Neoconservatives), and sober realists who have a firm grasp of both the strengths and limitations of American values when applied to the world arena. Oddly, many critics of the U.S. war effort seem to hold the contradictory beliefs that we are both too good to sully ourselves with foreign entanglements and not worthy to uphold the (neoimperialist?) burden of defending Western civilization. The bottom line is that if we as a nation cannot agree to oppose and punish barbarous thugs in a part of the world where we have clear interests at stake, then we will have lost our moral standing in the world, thereby squandering our enormous influence over the course of global trends.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 19 Sep 2005, 1: 58 AM

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