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

14 June 2014

Iraq: a Western Chimera


In both ancient mythology and modern biology, a “chimera” is an artificial organism created by splicing together parts of two or more different species. Examples are the Sphinx—a combination of man and lion—and Pegasus—a white horse with a swan’s white wings.

Since human imagination is boundless, conceiving chimeras is easy. Making them work is another story entirely.

Most animals of different species don’t mate and can’t reproduce together. Even when produced with the aid of modern surgery and genetic engineering, most chimeras aren’t viable. They live a while and then die prematurely. And even if they live a semblance of a natural life, they don’t reproduce naturally, let alone breed true.

Despite all our pretensions, we of the species Homo sapiens aren’t God. Nor is biology as flexible and adaptable as our fertile imaginations. But still we dream.

And so it is with Iraq. Once ancient Mesopotamia, it lives in a region over which armies of various ethnicities have fought for millennia. For most of four centuries, it was part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, at times with varying degrees of autonomy, but with direct Ottoman control from 1831 until World War I.

The Ottomans fought alongside the Germans in World War I and lost. So the British got control of the region now known as “Iraq.” Then the British Foreign Office invented the Kingdom of Iraq out of whole cloth. It is entirely an artificial country, a chimera.

The Brits, of course, were not stupid. They knew well that the region contained at least three ethnic groups: Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. They knew that these groups had fought each other for millennia, directly or through alliances with various conquerors and other outsiders.

Why did the Brits create their chimera? Did they imagine a thing of art and beauty, like a Sphinx or Pegasus? Did they have the germ of the dream of Duyba, that Iraq would some day become a democracy of sorts, if not exactly like Switzerland?

Not hardly. The Brits made their chimera for the same cynical reason that Caesar had described nearly two millennia before: “divide and conquer.” The people of Iraq, the chimera, would be more docile and easier to control if they were constantly at war with each other, harboring grievances long predating British rule and likely to long survive it. The victorious World War I Allies, who had given the Brits a mandate, went along.

So Iraq was not just a chimera. It was a chimera designed not to survive—at least not to trouble the imperial Brits with claims and challenges for independence.

It was this unviable-by-design chimera that Dubya and Rumsfeld—with the knowledge, insight and understanding of infants—dreamed of invading and converting into an Arabic-Kurdish Switzerland.

It was a nice dream while it lasted. But now reality intervenes. The realistic choices now seem begrudging and costly partition, as in the Balkans, or Syria.

Except perhaps for our own, real nations are not made. Nor are they born. (The Soviet Union is experimental proof of that.) They evolve, slowly and haphazardly, much like species.

Their process of evolution is a social one, not a biological one. So it doesn’t take hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Still it takes decades or centuries. When the process of evolution involves conflict and accommodation among essentially foreign cultures, it is likely to take closer to centuries than decades.

Of all people, we Yanks should have known this. When we abandoned our Articles of Confederation, drafted our Constitution and became a real nation, we tried to meld two different cultures: our industrial, communitarian North and our rural, aristocratic, slave-holding South.

Our two cultures spoke the same language, revered the same Bible, and looked back toward the very same Anglo-American history. They both came from long democratic traditions. They were, indeed, far less foreign to each other than Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq.

Yet after trying to get along for Lincoln’s four score and seven years, they got engaged in the greatest war in our Yankee history. Still, today, our losses in that single war roughly match or exceed our losses from all the other wars in our short national history.

And still today that war continues, politically, without bloodshed. The Tea Party is almost entirely a Southern phenomenon, as are the filibuster and the so-called “Hastert” rule that impose minority rule on Congress. The gridlock in Washington that we see and lament every day is a direct consequence and outgrowth of our Civil War, and of the progress in our dominant culture that allowed a half-“black” man to become president, to the immense chagrin of the South.

And yet we Yanks had the audacity to dream. We thought that what we ourselves couldn’t do in over two centuries the so-called “Iraqis” could do in a mere decade, with our help. Social evolution is indeed faster than biological evolution, but it’s nowhere near that fast.

So the choice we Yanks (and our European allies) face today is stark. We can continue taking extraordinary measures to keep the unviable chimera alive. We can expend our money, put our forces in harm’s way, and risk our national reputations in a conflict among foreign cultures that we have never fully understood. Or we can step back and assist the natural process of partition that is now virtually a fait accompli.

We can’t say we weren’t warned. Throughout our Iraq War, and especially when the earlier civil war there flared up in 2006-2008, there were those of us who advocated partition. They included then Republican Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana (in 2007!), now put to an early retirement by the clueless Tea Party, which could care less about rational foreign policy. The savvy also included Vice President Joe Biden—a fact that bodes well for his foreign-policy judgment and a possible presidential run.

Dreams are not bad things. Some day, we may know how to make viable chimeras. Some day, we may know how to smooth or finesse vast differences in culture without war, civil or otherwise. But neither is so today.

There comes a time when reality must supersede dreams. Partition already exists on the ground and in the hearts of so-called “Iraqis.” Refugees are already on the move, as they have been ever since Dubya and Rumsfeld tried to realize their impossible dream by force. Our Yankee task now is to make the process of partition as bloodless and painless as possible, as in the Balkans, and as unlikely as possible to further disturb the region.

The social-evolutionary process of nation building in the Middle East still has a long way to go. Our quixotic attempt to jump-start it is now a self-evident failure. We must accept that reality, support reasonable and defensible territories for each of the three ethic groups, get out of the way, and let the process of natural evolution resume.

Neither picking sides nor attempting to supervise a clash of cultures about which we know little or nothing is a viable option. Force is seldom the best option, and blind force even less so.

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