May 07, 2005

A Brief Note on Iraq

Les Gelb (who just came back from a good ten days in Iraq) remains humble in opining confidently on what the take-aways from his trip are:

I don't know. It is so hard to tell. One of the main conclusions I came away with from the trip was that we hardly know what is going on. I spent 10 very intensive days there. That's far longer than administration leaders who have gone there, like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for half a day, or congressional delegations for half a day. I spent a lot of time talking to Iraqis, listening to them, and I don't feel I know what was going on there.

I know a lot more facts, but I am not sure that I understand the rhythms and trends much better than I did before. And I don't think the Iraqis do, and I don't think the Americans there do, and, for the most part, they are rather humble and careful about this. It's hard to judge. Everybody tries to find some excuse. They say, "Oh, it's because the government wasn't formed." But the people I spoke with there, in the U.S. Embassy, and Iraqis, they couldn't figure out why there had been a lull in violence for the last few months and then an eruption, what was going on with the various insurgent groups, and when it would end, or why it would end. They were guessing, too.

I think we are all guessing right now. I'm just coming off the blogging hiatus and so am particularly out of the loop (I have had no time to follow developments in Iraq as closely as I'd like). But I do know one thing. There has been a very serious uptick in insurgent violence over the past weeks as the insurgency puts pressure on the fledging Iraqi government. And as I've written pre-hiatus contra Matt Yglesias (too snarkily for which I've expressed regret!); this is most assuredly not the time to pull out any U.S. forces.

Back to the Gelb interview:

Q: There is no Sunni leader who can order the insurgents to stop?

Gelb: No. The insurgents are calling the shots. There are two powers in Iraq today: the United States military and the terrorists. The Iraqi political leaders are caught in between. The only power they have is to ask the United States to leave, if they dare. And they don't dare. In fact, even the Muslim Brotherhood people are no longer calling for an immediate American withdrawal. Even they understand that would bring utter chaos to their country. [emphasis added]

It sure would. Which was my point a few weeks back...

P.S. We'll have much more on Iraq in the weeks ahead.

P.P.S. Don't miss this critical snippet from the Gelb interview either:

Anyone who knows the history of insurgencies knows you can't win a military victory over an insurgency; the route to victory is in political legitimacy. You have to have a government and a cause people are willing to fight and die for. I think the people and armed forces would be willing to fight for a whole Iraq where the parts take responsibility for most of their own lives.

One of the things that struck me [in Iraq] was that, for all the frustration and anger there is toward the United States, there is real hatred toward the terrorists and what they are doing to Iraq. And if there is a government that is reasonably democratic, that conducts open politics, that is not too corrupt--corruption is a terrible problem--the vast majority of Iraqis would prefer it to any leadership by these terrorists and insurgents. [emphasis added]

There is real hatred among ordinary Iraqis towards the grotesque, indiscriminate violence stoked daily by Zarqawi and Co., assorted jihadists, varied Saddamites, and so on. And therein, of course, lies a critical opportunity. The tactics of beheadings, massive car bombings, mowing down Iraqi police recruits (is it true that some 1,900 Iraq police have been slaughtered to date!?!)--these are not values that appeal to basic human dignity, hope, fellow-feeling. And Iraqi moderates, if they can somehow regain the kind of relatively secure conditions that prevailed after the January 30th elections (and, make no mistake--it is the U.S. that remains the critical factor on the security front--not nascent Iraqi forces just yet), said moderates must use every opportunity to achieve political legitimacy by, not least, pointing out the nihilistic violence that their opponents are proffering and contrasting it with their vision of a modern, pluralistic Iraq. That is the only long term solution that will serve to beat back a viciously brutish insurgency and the chaos they stoke in the hope that it will engulf the still so nascent democratization effort. The task remains ambitious and challenging in the extreme (not least because of the perils of long repressed potential Shi's revanchism)--but there is no choice but to try to see it through. This is the least we owe the many victims of this difficult war which has caused such discord, bitterness and confusion around the globe. Yes, the goal remains noble. It is about human progress and liberty, about modernity versus medieval fanaticism, about a society ruled by law and basic dignity rather than neo-Stalinist thuggery. And yes, about signaling that U.N. resolutions are meant to be enforced, rather than chattered on about in the halls of Turtle Bay, by nation-states that take international security serously. More soon.

Posted by Gregory at May 7, 2005 01:20 AM | TrackBack (6)
Comments

like most right wingers (and Gelb, apparently) you seem constitutionally unable to differentiate between the Sunni insurgency and the al Qaeda inspired work of Zarqawi and his supporters.

Unfortunately, as noble as the idea that the US must stay the course in Iraq, the reality is that Bushco is simply incapable of make the necessary adjustments in policy that would allow a successful outcome in Iraq.

First clue....the US has to stop its sabre-rattling toward Syria and Iran. As distasteful as you may find those regimes, the simple fact is that for America's Iraqi adventure to be a success it must have the co-operation of neighboring regimes. As long as the US keeps up its imperialistic rhetoric toward Syria and Iran, the leadership of those nations have an incentive to keep American troops tied down in Iraq. If Iraq is "pacified" or "democratized" or however you want to put it, it is clear that Bushco will bring war and death to Iran and/or Syria. Why would either nation want to see a US success in Iraq if it means the overthrow of their own governments?

Iraq is currently poised for civil war, with the US in the middle of the whole mess. The patience of the Shiite majority is coming apart at the seams, and we are likely to see more incidents of retaliation against Sunnis -- and once that happens, all bets are off.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 7, 2005 08:27 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The minute that lukasiak implied that Leslie Gelb was a "right winger", I knew it was safe to ignore the rest of his pablum.

Please post when you know what the hell you're talking about, which you don't. And remember, lukasiak, Bush IS Hitler!

Posted by: Section9 at May 7, 2005 12:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The recent upsurge has coincided with a general election involving the second senior leader of the Coalition, who was widely regarded as being vulnerable on the issue of the Iraq war. Headlines on the BBC up to (and including) election day related to the "chaos" in Iraq.

I don't suppose that is the only cause, but I'd bet it is (was) a major factor. If things now quieten down for no particular reason, then we'll know.

Posted by: PJF at May 7, 2005 01:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The minute that lukasiak implied that Leslie Gelb was a "right winger", I knew it was safe to ignore the rest of his pablum. Please post when you know what the hell you're talking about, which you don't.

please take a course in English usage. The word "and" means "in addition to", not "including". When you actually understand English, please feel free to post a response.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 7, 2005 06:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The term "Bushco" was where I stopped reading. Then I noticed the byline, which I have seen elsewhere, and wished all blogs would put the byline at the top.

Anyone who knows the history of insurgencies knows you can't win a military victory over an insurgency

This is where sloppy terminology is going to kill us. It's at least vaguely arguable that the Baathists now being supported by Syria can be counted as insurgents, since in some ways they fit the classic pattern (ideologues native to the country being supported by ideological cohorts in neighboring countries), but they're only one aspect of the conflict and probably not the important one. The proxy war being fought by Iran against us isn't an "insurgency". Neither is the jihad being fought by foreign Arabs.

Calling this an insurgency leads us to believe that our opponents are Iraqis, and mostly they're not. It leads us to begin burbling about "hearts and minds" and to mistrust the Iraqis, when the fact is that they are targets precisely because, as they progress in democracy, they're becoming our defacto allies. It may yet lead us to "reach out to Iraq's neighbors" when those very neighbors are belligerents. It's fully as absurd as "reaching out to France's German neighbors for help in the conflict in France" would have been in 1944. If we try to apply lessons about actual insurgent movements to this war we are, most likely, doomed.

Of course, I've believed we were doomed before and been wrong. I do tend toward pessimism.

Posted by: jaed at May 7, 2005 08:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Calling this an insurgency leads us to believe that our opponents are Iraqis, and mostly they're not"

Actually, they are, as noted by General Abizaid and other top military leaders on numerous occassions.

Carry on.

Posted by: praktike at May 7, 2005 10:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The proxy war being fought by Iran against us isn't an "insurgency". Neither is the jihad being fought by foreign Arabs.

there is precious little evidence that the Iran is in any fashion involved with the current insurgency (it may have been involved indirectly when the Sadrists were attacking the US well over a year ago....). At worst, Iran "involvement" in anti-US attacks consists of a "hands off" policy toward the Zarqawi aligned terrorists.

Calling this an insurgency leads us to believe that our opponents are Iraqis, and mostly they're not.

no serious observer believes this to be the case.


Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 7, 2005 10:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I agree that a political solution is ultimately necessary to end an "insurgency." But it isn't sufficient. You still have to arrest, kill, or deter all the people who cannot thrive in a stable, democratic Iraq. In the long run, the political solution (if achieved) reduces the number of people who fall into these categories. But Saddam's Iraq produced a whole lot of enforcer types for whom the honest life of a tradesman or bureaucrat is not psychologically possible.

I suspect that a successful Iraqi government will see the insurgency mutate over time into organized crime pure and simple. (The IRA, interestingly, appears to be going the Mafia route as well.) The endemic corruption of Iraqi society, perversely, may speed up this process as the criminals are able to form a symbiosis with corrupt officials and so come to terms with the new Iraq.

Posted by: steve at May 8, 2005 12:59 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I seem to have been unforgiveably sloppy in my wording: by "mostly they're not" I meant to say that most Iraqis are not our enemies, the larger point being again that conceptualizing the fighting as "an Iraqi insurgency" tends to conceal this fact. Thinking of the Iraqis as "the enemy" is utterly counterproductive and talking about "the insurgency" encourages doing so.

Posted by: jaed at May 8, 2005 07:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm glad the Iraqis think things will work out for them.

However, Bush is running for President of the United States, not Iraq. All this stuff about helping Iraqis is besides the point. Since when do Republicans go in for foreign aid?

The problem with the Kerry campaign is that they're too politically correct to really make this an issue. They've taken an occasional swipe at Bush over this, but fundamentally, they're too "decent" to push the sort of xenophobic buttons that a Jesse Helms or Pat Buchanan would.

Posted by: Hann at May 23, 2005 03:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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