Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 January 2006

After the Iraqi Elections: Our Choice Now


The aftermath of the Iraqi election has sown fear and doubt. Huge Sunni demonstrations claiming election fraud crushed the hopeful euphoria created by high voter turnout among Sunni. Now we see over a hundred Shiites blown to bits in a single day.

These events can evoke despair, but paradoxically they are also cause for hope. For we now know with certainty exactly who runs the insurgency. That knowledge suggests a more effective strategy, if only we can accept it.

Events of the past several weeks leave no doubt that Sunni extremists control the insurgency. They turned it off like a tap during the elections, when a lull in violence suited their objectives. Later, when they didn’t like the elections’ preliminary results, they turned it on again. The dead giveaway is the toll of Iraqi victims---virtually all Shiites.

If Al Zarqawi and his human bombs had really been in charge, the carnage would have continued unabated throughout the elections, for Zarqawi has sworn eternal enmity to every form of democracy. Furthermore, if Zarqawi and his ilk were really devout Muslims, as they profess, they would at least murder with equal opportunity, killing “infidels” and “collaborators” regardless of their ethnicity. Yet their Iraqi victims have virtually all been Shiites. The conclusion is inescapable that Zarqawi and his thugs are cannon fodder working loosely for Sunni extremists.

This is not to say that Iraqi Sunni give Zarqawi and his crew day-to-day marching orders. The terrorists have their own agenda. If the widely publicized letter from Al-Zawahiri is real, they are unruly and dislike taking orders from anyone.

Yet one thing is crystal clear. Zarqawi’s butchers depend upon Sunni for their day-to-day survival. They are a miniscule minority in a large and complex nation in which ethnic, family and tribal ties are matters of life and death. They have no local roots or tribal or ethnic ties. Their foreign accents give them away. They need supplies, food, weapons, explosives and housing from the local communities in which they hide. They certainly don’t depend upon their Shiite victims to meet these needs. If their Sunni harborers ever tired of them, they could exterminate them literally overnight. That, above all, is the reason for the lull in violence during the elections.

So why do the same Sunni who eagerly vote harbor and tolerate these merciless killers? For the same reason that Saddam released 10,000 hardened criminals from Iraq’s prisons just as the Coalition began its invasion. For thirty years the Sunni Baathist formula for governance has been clear and consistent: kill to rule. Releasing mayhem and murder in a complex modern society sows terror. It makes people acquiesce in, if not yearn for, a strong hand brutal and ruthless enough to restore civic order. It also makes people understand the high stakes of resisting Baathist rule, which Shiites have been paying in increasing numbers as voters, recruits and simple civilians. Random mayhem is a crude means of coercing people to accept undemocratic rule, but it has worked for Sunni in the past. It appears to be all that certain Sunni know.

Now that we understand who controls the insurgency, the proper strategy for beating it is clear. We can find the hidden Sunni leaders and kill them or imprison them. Or we can convince them that “kill to rule” is an outmoded and counterproductive strategy and that democracy is their best and only choice. The first option is a nearly impossible task---rooting out leaders with widespread respect, support and sympathy (not to mention ethnic and tribal ties) in their own communities. It took us eight months to find Saddam alone, although more than half the nation had a grudge against him. Therefore the best strategy is to convince the Sunni that democracy is their only option.

Doing that, however, requires a toughness that we have not yet shown. If the cold civil war that the Sunni are now running ever breaks out into open combat, the Coalition and its Shiite and Kurdish allies hold all the cards. There is virtually no indigenous arms production in Sunniland, and the Coalition’s air power can make short work of any that still exists. The Coalition and its allies have a virtual monopoly of air power, heavy weaponry, advanced communication, modern industrial supplies, and even small arms and body armor. Except for Syria, Iraqi Sunniland is surrounded by enemies---Iran to the East, Iraqi Shiites to the south, well-armed Kurds to the north, and Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the west. Close off the long border with Syria, and Iraqi Sunniland is not only contained; it is practically under siege.

So why haven’t we at least reminded Sunni leaders forcefully and continually of their untenable position? Despite their history of brutal tyranny and now-obvious leadership of the insurgency, we’ve given them a big bag of carrots. We’ve encouraged them to participate in free elections. We’ve cajoled the Shia and Kurds, to the point of nagging, to give the Sunni a bigger piece of the pie. We’ve decried the Shia’s mistreatment of Sunni prisoners---a pale shadow of Saddam’s butchery---and promised to rectify it, by force if necessary.

These carrots have been helpful politically, but where’s the stick? Why hasn’t the Coalition used, or at least threatened to use, its military predominance, its geographic advantages, and the weight of numbers of its closest allies, the Shia and Kurds, who together comprise about four-fifths of Iraq’s population? Why do we sit and hope the Sunni intransigents will “play nice”? Why haven’t we gotten tough---at least tough enough to convince the Sunni how hopeless their position would be if it ever came to full-scale civil war?

The answer goes back to our own ambivalence, now at least two decades old. Once we supported Saddam diplomatically, financially, and militarily. Why? Because we were afraid of the Shiites in Iran. We still are. That fear has translated mindlessly into fear of the very different Shiites in Iraq. We won’t take the obvious step of pushing the Sunni hard because we’re afraid that, if we do, the democracy that emerges in Iraq will be more Islamist than we’d like. We’re afraid a truly democratic Iraq might become a formidable enemy of Israel and an ally of Iran.

So if anyone asks why our “job” in Iraq is taking so long, the answer is ultimately our own ambivalence. We’d like “democracy” in Iraq as long as it combines Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s love of peace with Saddam’s secular disregard of Islam. If we wait for that unlikely combination to emerge spontaneously, we’ll be there a long, long time.

By making crystal clear who’s behind the insurgency, the recent elections have made our own choice clearer. If we are serious about democracy in Iraq, we are going to have to whip the secular Sunni extremists to the democratic table, by every means possible, and let the democratic chips fall where they may.

As we contemplate the tradeoff between a mildly Islamist democracy and full-scale civil war in Iraq, there are three things we should consider. First, despite its brutal recent past, Iraq is probably the best candidate for democracy among Arabic nations in the Middle East. Compare the Iraqi “street” to the long-suppressed people of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan, for example. Consider relative levels of education, numbers of people with secular views, numbers of émigrés with direct exposure to democracy, and general worldliness. Is there any doubt that Iraq, with its large fractions of secular Kurds and Sunni, not to mention important secular Shia and a moderate and highly respected Grand Ayatollah, is likely to be less extreme? If we really want a demonstration of the power of democracy in Arabic lands, Iraq is going to be our last, best chance for the foreseeable future.

Second, time is not on the side of religious tolerance and secularism. Insecurity and violence always increase human resort to religion, particularly fundamentalist religion. The longer the war goes on, and the more Shiites are blown to bits, the more surviving Shiites will take succor in extreme Islam, and the more extreme their faith will become. Moreover, Grand Ayatollah Sistani---the chief force for reason and moderation in Shiite Iraq---is already an old man. He will not live forever. If he dies or is assassinated while conflict still rages, all bets for a stable and democratic Iraq---let alone moderate Islam in Iraq---are off. If necessary, we must beat the Sunni leaders of the insurgency into sullen submission while he’s still alive to urge peace and moderation from the Shia.

Third and most important, the whole Islamic world is watching. Any Muslim with enough education to read a newspaper knows that Zarqawi is no Muslim. Muslims don’t blow up other Muslims at Islamic weddings and funerals. Muslims don’t murder devout Muslims in large numbers, often just outside of mosques, while holding their fire from irreligious Arabs whose sole goal is secular power. And Muslims don’t persist in action whose only foreseeable consequence is not driving “infidels” from Iraq, but turning Muslim against Muslim in a bloody civil war. Like the recent protesters in Amman, educated Muslims will be indifferent to Zarqawi’s fate.

Iraq’s Shia are another story. Theirs is a tale of almost biblical suffering and patience. For thirty years Saddam butchered them indiscriminately. At the end of Gulf I he slaughtered them in huge numbers, due to our failure to support the Marsh Arabs’ uprising. Yet, under Ayatollah Sistani’s wise guidance, Iraqi Shiites have shown remarkable patience and forbearance as they seek democratic power in proportion to their numbers, mostly by peaceful means.

You don’t have to be a Muslim to sympathize with their plight, or to admire their forbearance. If they are shortchanged, or if their dream of rightful democratic power is denied because the Coalition’s coddling of Sunni extremists leads to civil war, the whole Muslim world will understandably wonder whether the United States means what it says when it speaks of democracy.

In their election, Iraqis made their choice. Vast majorities of every ethnic group---including Sunnis---voted for democracy. In cynical and brutal maintenance of their “kill to rule” strategy, an unknown number of intransigent Sunnis has resumed the insurgency. They are a tough bunch, and carrots alone will not change their behavior.

So the choice is ours. We can let nascent civil war spiral out of control, or we can get tough. Commanders on the ground, particularly Shiite commanders, will know what to do. An effective strategy might mean more air raids on Sunni towns suspected of harboring terrorists, with less concern about collateral damage. It might mean arming Shiites to the teeth---even Shiite militia---and looking the other way for a few weeks or months. It should include a full-court propaganda press, to convince recalcitrant Sunni of the reality of their position as a small minority disfavored by numbers, industrial and military strength, and geography. It might even include a good census, under international or Arab-league oversight, to convince the Sunni, who apparently doubt it, that they are indeed a small minority.

Of course an effective strategy is a matter of some delicacy. Apply too much force, and the Sunni-led insurgency will grow. Apply too little, and the Sunni minority will see their brutal campaign of murder as just another political tool in their thirty-year history of killing to rule. But it seems clear now that the Coalition has erred on the side of leniency. Somehow, it must make recalcitrant Sunnis an offer of democracy they cannot refuse. It can begin by showing them graphically, by word and deed, that a civil war is something they can never hope to win.


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