Posted November 14, 2003


IRAQ: I Told You So, Dammit
by John Carroll


Back on March 19th I wrote on this site that we were making a big mistake going into Iraq, that the people would want us out quickly, and that realizing the cost of staying to occupy the country, we'd set up a government favorable to ourselves as quickly as possible and do our best to rule it from a distance. I thought we'd use the old puppet regime trick we'd used in Iran and in Central America. Not a very nice thing to do to the puppets, but tolerable from the American point of view -- profitable, even. I was overly optimistic. The resistance is stronger than I'd expected, which takes away any notion of setting up a profitable puppet regime. We'll have to find another way.

On September 14th I wrote that we'd best arm the Shiite majority, continue protecting the Kurds in the North, and bail out of the rest of Iraq as quickly as we could. But Mr. Bush apparently isn't reading my commentaries. I suppose Cheney and Rice and their subordinates take care of whatever reading goes on in the White House. In fact, looking at my web logs, I see no evidence that anybody high in the administration is reading my stuff. Shame on them. ;-) Last time I saw him on TV, our president was resolutely insisting we wouldn't be deterred by terrorists and we'd finish what we started in Iraq. That's what he says in public, but in private, if he has any sense, and I think he does, he has to be worrying mightily, not about you or me, and certainly not about the people of Iraq, but about what might happen comes election day. Today his man in Iraq, Mr. Bremer, was back in Washington, apparently for conferences about how to make the U.S. appointed Iraqi Governing Council write a new constitution faster. Even Mr. Bush wants to leave quick, though he's not ready to put it in quite those words. He's even grabbing a new plan to get that silly Iraqi Governing Council to write a piece of paper that will allow us to escape with honor and success.

Pipedreams again. The administration seems to think a constititution is the most important thing needed to bring order to the country, and that if they can get one, even maybe a flawed one, they can have an election and then bring the troops home, and re-elect Mr. Bush. It ain't gonna happen that way. The American Constitution works pretty well, but it wouldn't work at all if most of us didn't belong to the same American tribe. Sorry, Mr. Bush, Ms. Rice, and Mr. Bremer. The Iraqis aren't one tribe. They're three major tribes, Kurds in the North, Sunnis in the middle, and Shiites in the South. We can write constitutions till the cows come home, but it won't make an Iraqi government work. The Shiites are the majority, but the Sunni minority has controlled Iraq since its beginnings. Why would the Sunnis want to give that up under any circumstances? And since they have an unpleasant history of mistreating the Shiites, wouldn't they be a bit leery about an Iraq controlled by Shiites? Of course they would. So they'll do whatever they can to make it somewhere between difficult and impossible for any Shiites to rule all of Iraq. All the sensitivity training in the world isn't going to make those two groups love each other.

The Americans are slowly figuring that out and looking now for a quick escape. Gotta write a constitution and hold an election and get the hell out of there. Sure. We have to get out of there, and we won't be missed. But if we hope to avoid as much of the bloodbath as we can, we also have to make sure one tribe is overwhelmingly powerful so it can control the country when we're gone. And our best chance lies with annointing the biggest tribe to do that, whether we like them or not. We have to prepare the Shiites to take power. Blow up as many weapons in the Sunni part of Iraq as we can, and make sure the Shiites have plenty of weapons. Then get the hell out and let the Shiites have a go at ruling central and southern Iraq, while we continue to protect the Kurds both from other Iraqis and from Turkey, and also protect Turkey from Kurds. That obviously won't get us out completely, but it will get most of our troops out and relieve us of the responsibility for what goes on inside the southern two-thirds of the country.

The government of Iraq isn't going to be a Western-style democracy any time soon. Despite the administration's rosy scenarios, that's not an option. The best we can do is try to leave behind an oil-rich nation we can deal with, even if it is an undemocratic theocracy. We do no good for ourselves or anybody else by staying longer than it takes to make sure one tribe wields the power. Life will be nasty there when we leave. So what else is new? It was nasty under Saddam, it's nasty under the U.S. occupation, and it was nasty when the British and French invented it. The only reason there was a semblance of order under Saddam was that he wasn't squeamish about killing and torturing enemies or suspected enemies in any quantity necessary. The Iraqi people are just like us, which is to say they're tribal. They're as doggedly out to get resources for their own tribes as the people of Azerbaijan and Armenia, or the Americans are. But we can't gain resources in Iraq. Biology tells us the longer we stay there, the worse it will be for us and the less treasure we'll have. We'll spend billions and we'll lose soldiers, and we'll have the kind of divisions at home that we had in Vietnam. In the end, we took the only way out we could in Vietnam. We packed up and got out, and bad things happened to those who'd helped us. This time at least, we can support the tribe that will win.

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