Tuesday, April 08, 2008

When You Start With A Fiction....


David Brooks writes,
The U.S. brought no shortage of misconceptions into Iraq, but surely the longest lasting has been what you might call: Founding Fatherism. This is the belief that peace will come to the country when the nation’s political elites gather at a convention hall and make a series of grand compromises involving power-sharing and a new constitution.

The Bush administration has been pushing the Iraqis to make this sort of grand compromise for years — to little effect.
What the Bush Administration was hoping for in Iraq was Ahmed Chalabi. Basically, an acceptable strongman who would, as necessary, bludgeon the rest of the country into following a central government.
America’s big mistake, Chalabi maintains, was in failing to step out of the way after Hussein’s downfall and let the Iraqis take charge. The Iraqis, not the Americans, should have been allowed to take over immediately - the people who knew the country, who spoke the language and, most important, who could take responsibility for the chaos that was unfolding in the streets. An Iraqi government could have acted harshly, even brutally, to regain control of the place, and the Iraqis would have been without a foreigner to blame. They would have appreciated the firm hand. There would have been no guerrilla insurgency or, if there was, a small one that the new Iraqi government could have ferreted out and crushed on its own. An Iraqi leadership would have brought Moktada al-Sadr, the populist cleric, into the government and house-trained him.
Once the Chalabi gambit failed, the Bush Administration had no suitable alternate plan in place. But its ideas for the reform of Iraq into a flat-taxed laissez-faire economy, a playground for foreign investors, depended upon their being a central government that could approve the necessary legislation. So here we are.

The search for a council of wise founding fathers who would create a constitution for Iraq and hold its fragments together? That was always a fiction. If you believed that, it's excusable - why should you know the intricacies of Iraq, or look deeply into realities being openly denied by the U.S. government? If Brooks believed it? Well, that is culpable, as he feigns some degree of expertise. If we take today's column at face value, he suggests that he never believed that the Bush Administration's plan was feasible. But what's his excuse for waiting five years to point out the obvious?

The idea of building democracy starting at the local level has some potential, but the Bush Administration has never been interested in that approach. That's not what it's doing now and, contrary to Brooks' suggestion, the hobbling together of a "truce" between independent armed factions and militias is not a recipe for stability. That's what Petraus is testifying about right now - the escalation qua "surge" must continue indefinitely as even the downturn in violence is precarious, and there has been no meaningful political progress.

Brooks pretends to be arguing in support of "bottom up" progress, but he's not. He's advocating what he admits are "fragile truces" between "local clans". He pretends on the one hand that "the Iraqi people are sick of war and are punishing those leaders and forces that perpetrate it". I don't dispute that the people of Iraq are sick of war. I do question the idea that they will "punish" their local militia leaders for engaging in war, likely to be depicted as defensive or preemptive, but even if it is offensive. What does Brooks imagine that they will do?
These groups have created a fluid network of fragile truces. They squabble over money, power, ideology and sectarian issues. But they have incentives to keep the peace. Sunni leaders have come to realize that they can’t win a civil war against the Shiites. Shiite militia leaders recognize their own prestige and power drops the more they fight.
Really? Sunni militia leaders have reconciled themselves to living under Shiite rule? Forever? And Shiite militia leaders find that their power drops when they fight - so Brooks believes that Muqtada Al-Sadr has been weakened by his recent conflict with the central government?
The surge didn’t create the network of truces, but the truces couldn’t have happened without the surge. More than 70,000 local council members are paid by the Americans. They rely on the U.S. military to enforce bargains and deter truce-breaking. Thanks to these arrangements, ethno-sectarian violence dropped by 90 percent between June 2007 and March 2008. That’s the result of political progress, not just counterinsurgency techniques.
So Brooks believes that we have truces that exist only because the U.S. pays bribes to tribal leaders, and which are enforceable only by the U.S. - this, Brooks tells us, represents political progress? By what conceivable definition of the word?
It has become common to belittle these truces. After all, they are not written by legislators on parchment. And indeed there’s a significant chance that they will indeed collapse and the country will devolve into anarchy.

But in certain societies, this is the way order is established, through what Salzman calls “balanced opposition.” As long as the network of truces holds, then the next president (Democrat or Republican) will have an overwhelming incentive to nurture the fragile peace.
Belittle, nothing. You have to recognize the truces for what they are. And you have to recognize our role for what it is. Right now we are the paymaster and enforcer. If we are to escape that role, we either need genuine political progress or we need somebody else to take over as paymaster and enforcer. The recent conflict between the Iraqi central government and the al-Sadr Brigades indicates that the current Iraqi government is a long way from ready to take over, and in fact it may never be ready. (Incredibly, Brooks dismisses the recent armed conflict between al-Sadr and the central government as a "flare-up". That was the best the central government could muster against a militia of the same sect - and without U.S. backup for the central government, it would probably have turned into a full-scale civil war.)

Then you have to face the reality of ethnic conflict. Yes, you can use various techniques to put a lid on it - Marshall Tito did so quite effectively in Yugoslavia. But upon his death, the lid blew off the pressure cooker. The break-up of Czechoslovakia similarly indicates how even when peacefully resolved, ethnic tensions run deep and long - with no obvious solution. Brooks doesn't even pretend to have a solution to Iraq's ethnic conflicts, and seems to be pretending that we don't need one. So who does Brooks propose will take over the central government with a firm enough hand to keep the lid in place, but with a pleasant face to present to the West? (And why do I suspect it might be Ahmed Chalabi?)

On the same note, have you noticed how the hardcore backers of the war have stopped telling us we can expect progress in Iraq within a number of months? I guess after five years of promising that progress is "six months away", that argument is no longer credible with any portion of the population. So now we get the new line - we're seeing progress so we must stay in Iraq... but we won't know whether our efforts are succeeding for many years. I suppose this is easier for a shallow pundit, who will no longer have to explain why his many projections of progress have every time proved wrong. But can we be honest? Unless the next President wraps this up, we'll see a repeat of what has happened under G.W. - repeated denials of reality, with the President ultimately punting the problem onto the next administration.

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