While we disagreed with many aspects of his (and my) interpretation of events, there was one valid point he made that deserves a detailed response: that Democrats cannot articulate a path forward that could be reasonably expected to reduce the chances of “the bloodshed and chaos” that is so ominously predicted in so many quarters.
My goal today is to reach way outside the conventional thinking to offer such a path.
So let’s get right to it, shall we?
Before I can offer a set of specific proposals, I need to take a minute to frame the discussion that is to follow.
I will do this through the use of a set of hypotheses.
--I would suggest we are fundamentally wrong to view the events in Iraq since more or less the 1960s as a series of actions that are motivated solely by the desire of one religious group to dominate another
--We view the conflict that is evident today as a battle against terrorism that is directed at us...or some vague notion of Islamofascism; when in fact much of the violence in Iraq is in no way related to the struggle between extremist elements in Islamic countries and the US.
--I submit that we can get better results by viewing the troubles in Iraq as fundamentally an economic and political power struggle, where various groups are seeking to fill the vacuum left by the removal of the Al-Tikriti clan from power.
--Unemployment and corruption combined with a “failure of hope” for the future are our biggest enemies. A functioning economy and a Government perceived as honest wouldn’t fix all the problems in Iraq; but if we were perceived as the ones who helped Iraq get back to work, it might well keep things from getting worse-and when you’re in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging.
Our first hypothesis states that the events in Iraq are not solely related to the desire of one religious group to dominate another.
Is that correct?
Consider a few facts:
His name was not just Saddam. A more correct representation of his name would be Saddam Hussayn Al-Tikriti. Why does this matter? Because, as with many Iraqi names, the Al-Tikriti refers to the person’s tribe.
Remember the “Playing Cards”?
Look at the names...it’s Al-Tikriti all over the deck.
This fact alone tells us that a major portion of the Iraqi governing apparatus was tribally related-and when you combine this with the fact that the Baath Party was more or less a secular organization you can quickly see that Hussein’s was mostly a “capitalist” oppression, and not so much a religious one.
How did the Baath Party rule?
Not as a theocracy.
By Islamic standards, before 2003 Iraq was a middle of the road country. Women had more freedom of movement and options in public life than today. There was not a movement to establish a strict Sharia Law, nor an effort to “export Islam”.
Despite the claims of certain parties, there was no synergy between the Baath Party apparatus and Al Qaeda.
The economy was the real interest of Hussein’s-and the management of the “Oil for Food” program is an indication of how entrenched the culture of distributing opportunity to your friends for a piece of the action had become.
Political oppression? Plenty of it, indeed-but I submit that oppression, and the attacks on the Kurds and Shi’a were motivated more by a desire to remain in absolute power, facing no opposition, then they were a product of religious animosity.
Evidence to support this proposition is found in the fact that both Kurdish communities in northern Iraq (who are predominantly Sunni) and Shi’a communities were attacked on orders from Hussein, who of course was Sunni.
If the attacks were solely intended to send a religious message, why were fellow Sunnis in the north targeted?
It is important to keep in mind, as we evaluate all of this, that the area from more or less the Tigris River west to the Syrian border (the historically Sunni Arab area, which includes Tikrit, Falluja, and Hadithah) is the one portion of Iraq with the least oil resources; and that at the time of the gassings of the Kurds and Shi’a both were considering nationalist movements-funded by the oil beneath their lands. This would leave the Al-Tikritis with no real source of income. (Do you know what Iraq’s biggest export is after oil? I don’t either...and that’s not good if you’re running what’s left after the Iraqis with all the oil have broken away.)
In that context, the use of gas against Hussein’s own countrymen seems more logical-he did whatever he had to do to keep control of the cash register...and he was perfectly willing to send the most brutal of messages to anyone seeking to diminish that control.
We have advanced a second proposition in this discussion: that the violence in Iraq is not primarily a function of Al Qaeda exporting “Islamofascism” to a new “central front in the War on Terror”.
Sure enough, there are facts available that support this analysis. For example, we are told that “foreign fighters” are responsible for a rather small proportion of attacks in the country. Conversely, we are told that local combatants are the parties responsible for the great majority of attacks...both against US forces, and other Iraqis, as well.
That’s not surprising, if you think about it.
The most basic reality that US planners should have anticipated in 2003 is that no one really appreciates being invaded...no matter how “enlightened” the motives of the invader might seem.
The US itself is no exception. There is no question that the US Constitution is under wholesale assault by this Administration to a degree never experienced outside of a period of declared war. So try to imagine Gordon Brown announcing to Parliament that the UK feels the need for “regime change” in this country because the current Administration has become controlled by extremists and possesses “weapons of mass destruction”.
Imagine Mr. Brown announcing that British troops have landed on US shores, and will be marching on Washington...and then inviting us to “greet them as liberators”.
Despite the best intentions of the UK forces, the greeting would probably look something more like the biggest hunting season you ever saw, with militia members finally getting to use those stashed antitank rockets that are probably buried in back yards all over this country.
And so it is in Iraq.
Obviously the fact that enormous quantities of munitions were left laying around and unguarded makes it even easier to not “greet us as liberators”; and facts suggest that something like the process I’ve just described is taking place.
Of course, violence in Iraq is not just directed at the “coalition of the willing”-a major portion of the violence is between the Iraqis themselves.
Our third proposition addresses that violence, and suggests that majority of the violence is not predicated on religious struggle, but economic.
As we previously discussed, control of a lot of oil has suddenly changed hands, and conventional thinking might lead us to believe that this asset will be divided along sectarian lines.
The fact that the Mahdi Army, led by Al-Sadr is fighting the government of Al-Maliki, and that both are Shi’a...and the fact that Shi’a sects have begun to violently engage with each other in the Basra region as UK troops withdraw should tell you two things...
...it’s not all about sect, and... .
...despite what Joe Biden might think about the wisdom of such a plan, dividing the country into three parts along sectarian lines will not stop the Shi’a on Shi’a struggle; which is a major component of the troubles today, and likely to be a greater portion of the troubles in the future.
The history of Iraq, for most of those alive today, is the 35 years that the Baath Party has held power-and total control of the economy...and all that oil money, and the oppression and fighting with Iran that accompanied those years....and of course, the 12 years between the Gulf Wars when the US operated the “no-fly” zones, and led the charge for the sanctions that so affected average Iraqi’s lives, and the 5 years that have followed.
And all of a sudden, the lid of the “pressure cooker” that had suppressed all other political aspirations has been removed. The internal power struggles, and the perception that Al-Sadr represents Iraq’s Shi’a poor (and that the Iraqi Government doesn’t) have come to the front, as has Iran’s interest in a more theocratic-and Shi’a dominated-Iraq.
Al-Sadr also seems to benefit from a reputation of being less corrupt than Al-Maliki’s allies in Government.
All of this said, we should realize that religious considerations are to varying degrees important to the players; and that appears to be particularly true in the south.
Which brings us to solutions...
Of course, before we can discuss what to do, we need to define what we are trying to do.
With all respect to Congressman Reichert and those who share his perspective, there seems little probability that the surge will develop conditions that achieve the political reconciliation he seeks.
To put it another way, Iraq is not gonna be a “thousand points of light” anytime soon.
My goals are much more modest:
--Success would be to stop creating conditions that engender resentment towards the US.
--Success would be finding ways to help put Iraqis to work.
--Success would be working with institutions inside and outside of Government to improve the professionalism of Government; with the goal of reducing the perception that corruption is the normal way of doing business.
--Any success we might attain in “engaging” leaders and future leaders (religious, tribal, business, and political...who are often the same people) to whom we currently have no direct connection would be a greater victory that we have today.
Bill Richardson aptly points out that when it comes to engendering resentment, the presence of US troops is making things worse, not better.
So the first thing that should be done, Congressman, is to get the troops out of the business of policing a civil war.
I suspect if we were sitting together having this conversation you would tell me that we cannot withdraw troops because of the potential for bloodshed and chaos once we leave. To which I would respond...
...we are incapable of continuing the surge past this spring. We just don’t have the troops. If the surge was required for “victory”, and we can no longer continue the surge, how are we to achieve the “more stable, self-sufficient Iraq” you were hoping for in January?
...even if we had the troops to continue the surge forever, there is no political will to create the reconciliation the surge was supposed to engender. All knowledgeable observers, including General Petraeus, agree that the only way to success of any kind is through the political process-and that, as the General says, the process needs to include our opponents as well as our friends.
...the surge does not reduce the pent up pressures that have developed between tribal and religious groups over these past 35 years, and more and more it seems evident that we are merely delaying any retribution that might occur-and losing troops to do it.
Another source of resentment: the state of the economy. As we discussed above, unemployment is the enemy, and we should more or less hire every Iraqi we can find to rebuild whatever local communities request that is reasonable.
The Defense Department has discretionary funds available for commanders, and we need to do the same thing on a much larger scale through the auspices of the State Department. Many more Provincial Reconstruction Teams resources are needed and local “Sub Teams” should be established. This will require the presence of troops for some time to come, for the purposes of security. But there’s no reason for 130,000 troops and another 150,000 or so contractors...and probably not 30,000, either.
My next idea for the Congressman will involve some looking at the neighbors for inspiration-particularly Syria and Jordan.
If we are to create a more professional governing community, we should aggressively start the process of educating those future leaders...even those who come from groups we might not today support.
Iranians and Iraqis attended US schools in the past, along with citizens from many other countries. Do these contacts matter? I would invite the Congressman to consider these words:
“The relationships that are formed between individuals from different countries, as part of international education programs and exchanges ...foster goodwill that develops into vibrant, mutually beneficial partnerships among nations."
Who said that?
Our current President, that’s who.
To get a sense of what impact this can have, here’s a list of foreign leaders who attended school in the US-and the list literally goes from Afghanistan to Zambia.
Training in the US is a good idea...but what can be accomplished locally? That’s where Jordan comes in.
The Talal Abu-Ghazaleh College of Business in Amman, Jordan is an excellent example of what we have not yet been successful in creating in Iraq-a genuine professional school that can operate with reasonable security.
Schools like this can be created in Iraq-if we make the schools either inclusive...or we help the various groups on the ground set up schools that meet their own needs...always trying to emphasize the positive effect on Iraqi citizens from knowing how to operate and maintain the infrastructure they are building.
This needs to go both ways...until we have schools that teach Americans how to understand this part of the world, our actions are as likely to fail as they are to succeed.
The mistrust that currently exists between the US and the Iraqi communities suggests we may have to accept a limited degree of control and oversight in order to create the perception that we aren’t ramming these schools down anyone’s throats.
This is like drilling wells for African villages-you build the facilities based on what the communities and the US can arrange...but then you let the locals run the show, and you hope they like you the better for it. That process, repeated a thousand times or so, is not only cheaper than today’s combat operations...it gets better results. As a matter of fact, it’s the exact same process we are using in places as disparate as the Philippines and Angola and Somalia-and Baghram.
The faster the US is perceived as the country that builds things for poor people the faster we will find real National Security-because those folks will have less reason to hate us.
It sounds simplistic, but if it’s already our policy in the rest of the world...why not Iraq?
Along the same lines, we need to get credit into the local economy-and the Syrians, who are attempting to adopt a “social market economy” model, are trying to move ahead with a brand of capitalism that both connects their economy to the larger world economy and capital flows; and does it while being empathetic with Islamic economic sensibilities.
We could learn much from an Islamist approach to economic reconstruction as we try to redevelop the economy of the next-door country.
Finally: we have to get to know the people we want to persuade them to see our point of view.
Advertisers the world over know that the first step in any communications effort is to know your target market-and if there’s one thing we don’t know enough about, it’s Iraq.
We don’t speak the language, we don’t understand the culture, and we have limited personal relationships with local leaders. To make matters worse, we transfer out our troops just as soon as they get to know the local leaders, and we replace them with a new set of troops who have to develop the relationships all over again.
This is another State Department and Intelligence Community problem, and we need to have greater Defense/State Department integration so that these relationships can be developed and nurtured over longer periods of time.
To paraphrase George Patton, why take the same real estate twice?
So Congressman Reichert, there you have it: a strategy that is far more likely to work than what the President has proposed to this point, a strategy that will stop us from digging our proverbial hole deeper, and a strategy that will, in the end, save lives-ours and theirs.
And here’s the best part-this same strategy would also go a long way towards fixing our Iran problem.