The Smartest Thing Ever Written About Iraq

Lawrence Kaplan in The New Republic:

Robertson’s dispatch points to a revolting truth about the war in Iraq–one that American officers discovered long ago, but which has yet to penetrate fully the imaginations of theoreticians writing from a distant remove. The fact is, there is very little that we can do to dampen the sectarian rage and pathologies tearing Iraq apart at the seams. Did the Army make a mistake when it banished “counterinsurgency” from the lexicon of military affairs? Absolutely. Does it matter in Iraq? Probably not. How can you win over the heart and mind of someone who sews a dog’s head on a girl? Would more U.S. troops alter Iraq’s homicidal dynamic? Not really, given that, on the question of sectarian rage, America is now largely beside the point. True, U.S. troops can be–and have been–a vital buffer between Iraq’s warring sects. But they cannot reprogram their coarsened and brittle cultures. Even if America had arrived in Iraq with a detailed post-war plan, twice the number of troops, and all the counterinsurgency expertise in the world, my guess is that we would have found ourselves in exactly the same spot. The Iraqis, after all, still would have had the final say.

The dispatch that Kaplan points true is truly sickening – when Saddam Hussein unleashed thousands of criminals from Iraq jails – including serial murderers, rapists, and thugs, he unleashed a torrent of evil onto the street of Iraq that will take years to correct. If every jail in America were emptied and our economy had been battered by decades of war and systematic oppression, would the streets of Detroit or LA look all that much different from Baghdad? What we’re seeing in Iraq is indeed the result of a society that had been pummeled nearly into dirt.

Iraqi civil society was destroyed under Saddam Hussein. I’ve long remarked on how important culture is to the daily functioning of a society – Iraq shows what happens when a nation’s culture is supplanted with a state personality cult for 30 years. Recovering from that atrocity will perhaps take decades, and require Iraqi civil society to reform from the ground up. Fortunately that is happening, but progress will be slow.

I’m not entirely sure that more troops wouldn’t have helped, especially in the early stages of the post-war period when the insurgency was beginning to form. However, more troops means more of presenting the face of occupation rather than liberation. It would have meant more vulnerable supply lines, more cost, and more casualties. It may have reduced the power of the insurgency, but it wouldn’t have prevented it. The insurgency is the result of years of Ba’athist oppression causing repressed hatreds of ethnic tension to explode to the surface and Saddam’s decision to empty Iraq’s jails of hardened criminals.

What many critics of the war forget is that our current predicament is by no means the worst that could have happen. Had the Ba’athist regime collapsed organically the death toll would have made the current casualty list seem like nothing. As regional powers picked away at the bones of the Hussein regime a combination of complex humanitarian emergency and rampant terrorism could have destabilized the entire region in a way we can scarcely imagine.

Even the more optimistic conclusions of the Duelfer Report – that the sanctions regime was collapsing and Saddam had every intent of restarting his WMD programs is hardly a tenable scenario. Imagine the results of a nuclear exchange between Iraq and Iran – oil would be hundreds of dollars per barrel and a good portion of the Middle East would be rendered into a radioactive wasteland. If Tehran had the bomb, how long before Baghdad would have demanded their own? If the world couldn’t stop Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran from obtaining nuclear technology, what in the world makes anyone think it could have been done in Iraq?

Kaplan is right. The situation in Iraq is dire, and the reality is that only the Iraqis have the long-term solution. We can’t stay in Iraq forever in force, and the best we can do is try our utmost to keep the monsters at bay while the Iraqis develop enough strength to fight on their own. We need to do all we can to support them in this time of trial. Allowing Iraq to become another Somalia is not a viable option, and it remains deeply irresponsible to advocate such a position.

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