Posted 2/23/06

Iraq Goes to Hell in a Handbasket
by John Carroll

So somebody went into one of the holiest Shiite mosques and blew its golden dome to smithereens. Naturally, the Shiites responded by attacking Sunni mosques. Some say the civil war has finally started; others say there may yet be a chance to stave it off and build an effective government based on what we in the West think of as law. In fact, humans being what they are, there was never such a chance.

It had been obvious all along that the Shiites and the Sunnis weren't at all interested in Mr. Bush's happy, constitutional, preferably secular society. Fact is, they hated one another. I'd published a column to that effect the night before the war started. But toward the end of the year, it should have been obvious to all concerned that the administration's plans and postures had something of the pipedream to them, and very little of reality. Let me quote myself from a column I published on November 14, 2003.

The administration seems to think a constitution 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.

Consider how the American Tribe responded to the 9/11 attacks. Americans from every part of the country, people who couldn't stand one another, pulled together against the invaders. Do you suppose we could somehow have been talked into forming a cooperative government with bin Laden's fundamentalists? Of course not. They were an alien tribe. Osama bin Ladin had attacked us. We were more powerful than they were, at least in terms of firepower. We didn't want a peaceful settlement. We wanted blood. That's how tribes work. You hurt us, we'll hurt you. And if you're weak and its to our advantage, we'll hurt you even if you talk nice to us.

In the book I've been working on for decades, Biology and Politics, I argue that when you put more than one tribe into a single territory, you're asking for trouble. If one tribe thinks it can suppress the others, by whatever means, it will. That's what happened in Rwanda and Burundi. Well, folks, we've got three major tribes in Iraq, and the only way for it to be internally stable is for one of those tribes to suppress the others. Early on I wrote that the best we could do was make sure the Shiites were heavily armed, and then get the hell out. The result, I predicted, would be a theocracy that we certainly wouldn't want to live in. It would be a horrible outcome for Iraq and for the U.S. And now we approach the end of the road. Some Shiite-controlled government will take control and ask us to leave. And believe me, we'll leave as fast as our little Hummers can carry us. Perhaps we'll wring our hands and say we tried to give them a better life. Or maybe we'll claim we actually did give them a better life. But we'll leave, and it will be a long time till we're ready to try that kind of adventure again.

And what did we get out of it? Well, we got Saddam out of power, at least for now, and we pushed Iraq closer to Iran, and we made life good for al Qaeda and others like them. And we killed a lot of their people and lost thousands of our own. Congratulations, Mr. Bush.

Return to Home Page