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

29 January 2007

Why Hawks Should Cheer the Antiwar Left


On Sunday there was a huge antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C. I don’t support a quick withdrawal from Iraq, but I did and do support the demonstration. So should most thinking Americans. Here’s why.

Although hard to solve, the big problem in Iraq now is easy to state. Shiites and Sunnis are indiscriminately slaughtering each other in Baghdad, making reconciliation, reconstruction and political compromise impossible. Question number one is how to stop the slaughter.

We can’t do much with the Sunni extremists and Al-Qaeda because we have no leverage over them. The Sunni extremists hate us as much as they hate the Shiites. They think we stole their power and gave it to the Shiites. Al-Qaeda is our sworn enemy. It believes that the slaughter of civilians in Baghdad is a rational tactic in its long, openly declared war against Shiite “heretics” and us. There is no way, short of a convincing demonstration of overwhelming force, to get the Sunni or Al-Qaedi extremists in Iraq to stand down. The most we can do is kill or defeat them.

The Shiites are different. The owe us and they need us. We deposed Saddam, killed his two vile suns, and gave the Shiites Iraq’s governance on a democratic platter. We are in the process of arming and training them. Furthermore, that process is far from complete, and they know it.

Before we came on the scene, Shiites were better at praying for deliverance from oppression than fighting for it. Many, if not most, of them still are. They are just beginning to learn to defend their majority and their rights on the battlefield and in their legislature.

What most of us fail to understand is the fear that still remains. Sunni dominated Shiites in Iraq for most of the last millennium. The extreme depravity and brutality of Saddam’s rule are well known. His slaughter of the Marsh Arabs, with our acquiescence, is barely fifteen years old and still fresh in memory. During all that time, the Shiites were the praying sheep, and the Sunni the preying wolves. Sheep do not lose their fear of wolves overnight; it takes decades.

The best—if imperfect—analogue in our own history is Emancipation. There may be some African-Americans alive today who know what their ancestors felt upon emancipation. The fear did not go away with the Proclamation, with the end of the Civil War, or with Reconstruction. It lasted for generations and still has residues today. While it may be unfair to compare even Iraqi Shiites’ oppression with slavery, the basic fact remains: fear derived from generational oppression does not vanish overnight.

And so we have the Shiite response to Sunni and Al-Qaeda provocations. True, Shiites in Iraq outnumber Sunnis three to one. True, we are arming Shiites and not Sunnis. True, the Shiites are training to become soldiers and learning more every day. True, all the air power and heavy weapons (ours) are at the Shiites’ backs. True, any rational assessment of who would win an all-out civil war in Iraq would have to name the Shiites. And yet still the Shiites act, collectively, like a frightened boy.

Take Muqtada al-Sadr, for example. Saddam’s assassins killed his father, uncle and two brothers. Then he watched helplessly as Saddam slaughtered his compatriots, the Marsh Arabs, with our acquiescence after Gulf I. Can anyone blame him for wanting a personal militia?

The trouble with Sadr’s Mahdi Army is that it is not really a militia. It is a poorly trained, undisciplined and largely uncontrollable rabble. If it had been an effective fighting force, it might have tracked down and neutralized the Sunni death squads wreaking havoc in Sadr City. But the best it could do was retaliate in kind, killing Sunni civilians indiscriminately in an orgy of vengeance. Even Sadr himself appears willing to confess that some elements of his militia need to be controlled.

But before we dismiss both Shiites and Sunni as “uncivilized,” we should remember Dresden, Warsaw, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next to the “civilized” world’s slaughter of innocent civilians, the Iraqi Arabs’ is small potatoes. Instead of deriding Iraq’s people as hopelessly uncivilized, we should figure out how to stop the slaughter, using what leverage we have.

And that’s where our antiwar protestors come in. Iraqi Shiites fear their Sunni oppressors and enemies far more than they fear anything else. They also fear their own weakness, which they are just beginning to overcome. So the only real leverage we have over them is the threat to withdraw our help. As that threat becomes more imminent it—like the hangman’s noose—focuses Shiites’ attention.

And that’s precisely the problem. Iraqis may not have the latest technology, but they are good judges of character. They know our president. They understand his emotional commitment to this war, and they know that his legacy depends upon it. They believe him when he says he would drive himself, his wife Laura and his dog Barney into the maelstrom even if no one else followed. So when the president’s minions gently warn that “our commitment in Iraq is not open-ended,” what leverage does that give them? Absolutely none.

What gives us leverage over Iraqi Shiites is our domestic antiwar movement. The Iraqis can read our newspapers. They know that 70% of Americans don’t support the war. They know that Congress is getting perilously close to cutting off funds for further military action in Iraq, and possibly for the arms and equipment that the Shiites still desperately need. And every antiwar demonstration here at home drives the Shiites fear of a cutoff deeper. That’s real leverage.

And so we have the most hopeful signs in Iraqi politics in years. The politicians are working on dividing the oil wealth and federal power fairly. Efforts to induce Sunni sheikhs to join the effort for political reconciliation are growing. And—most important of all—al-Sadr appears to be standing down his militia in Baghdad, allowing the better-trained Coalition “surge” troops and Iraqi forces to root out Sunni and al-Qaeda killers.

Would all this have happened without an antiwar movement in the United States? Not a chance. The antiwar movement is the “bad cop” in negotiations with Iraq’s Shiite leaders—a role that no one in the Administration has the least credibility to play. If it were not for our own antiwar movement, our “surge” troops would be marching into Baghdad to meet Shiite death squads with Shiite sympathizers and al-Sadr’s militia at their backs.

That is one of many reasons why disparaging antiwar advocates is wrong and counterproductive. The great strength of this nation has always been debate and dissent. Honest debate perfects our policies, strategies and tactics far better than blind allegiance to any leader or any policy, no matter how well conceived. And God knows, no policy of ours in Iraq has yet been well conceived.

In the end, the antiwar protestors may be right. The Iraqi Shiite leaders may simply be incapable of meeting the military and political challenges needed to keep Iraq whole. Partitioning Iraq and coming home as quickly as possible may be the best thing our troops could do. But even if the protesters are wrong, their dissent has served a valuable purpose: bringing the frightened and confused Shiites to their senses.

If nothing else, this story corroborates a basic value of our nation. Honest dissent is useful and valuable. We should never confuse it with weakness or disloyalty. And we should cherish our antiwar movement, even as we support our “surge” troops, for keeping the pressure on al-Maliki and al-Sadr.



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