21 March 2008

Whatever, dude

The sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, along with the US election campaign, has focused attention on the merits of going to war in Iraq.

Phillip Coorey makes the point that those who were too enthusiastic for war in 2002 look a little silly now. I have no idea why there wasn't a kind of PunditWatch in force to embarrass Bolt et al much, much earlier.

Then there were Alexander Downer and Christopher Hitchens seeking to quell the sniggers at their cheerleading with a toujours l'audace defence of their respective positions. However well this may or may not work as an exercise in arse-covering, neither Downer nor Hitchens offer much practical help to the citizen in deciding whether more blood and treasure into Iraq.

If Australian troops withdraw from Iraq, Saddam Hussein is not going to spring back to life, and nor will he give back the A$300m that smart Alec gave him.
The most common criticism is that they pursued the de-Baathification policy too zealously. Initially, the Americans wanted a modest de-Baathification process, knowing that many of the people who made Iraq work at all were Baath Party members because it was impossible to hold any position of authority without being in the party.

The Americans only planned to remove from office the top two levels of the bureaucracy — that is, ministers and deputy ministers or their equivalents. Once the Iraqi Interim Government took over, that is a government made up of Iraqis, it addressed the de-Baathification process with much more zeal. Arguably, the Americans should have done more to restrain them from assuming they could.

Why did Americans understand Iraq better than Iraqis? If the people running Iraq are clowns, why should Australians help prop up such a government?
The more serious criticism of the Americans is that they should have sent more troops to Iraq in the first place.

Fine, this criticism may be made of the Americans - but why did Australia send so few troops, and why make such a fuss when it is drawn down?
... decisions have to be made about the future of Iraq. We should all contemplate what we wish for. Personally, I wish for a united Iraq in which the distinctive traditions and beliefs of its diverse peoples are respected through democratic and pluralistic institutions, a country that can develop successfully its natural resources and play a constructive role in dealing with the many difficult, painful and bloody issues of the Middle East.

This is possible, but it will take time. Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told me last June that outsiders had to remember that Iraqi society had been brutalised for decades and it couldn't be stitched back together in a short period. To achieve a decent outcome for Iraq would require the presence of foreign (largely American) forces for quite some time.

The argument here is: decisions have to be made, but by whom? However well-intentioned Downer's professed sentiments for "a decent outcome", he ignores the idea that what is happening in Iraq is what happened throughout the decolonising third world a generation ago: diverse groups will unite to drive out the occupying power, and fracture thereafter.

Always beware people using the passive voice. Hitchens should know better than this:
A much-wanted war criminal was put on public trial.

The Kurdish and Shi'ite majority was rescued from the ever-present threat of a renewed genocide.

A huge, hideous military and party apparatus, directed at internal repression and external aggression was (perhaps overhastily) dismantled.

The largest wetlands in the region, habitat of the historic Marsh Arabs, have been largely recuperated.

Huge fresh oilfields have been found, including in formerly oil-free Sunni provinces, and some important initial investment in them made. Elections have been held, and the outline of a federal system has been proposed as the only alternative to a) a sectarian despotism and b) a sectarian partition and fragmentation. Not unimportantly, a battlefield defeat has been inflicted on al-Qa'ida and its surrogates, who (not without some Baathist collaboration) had hoped to constitute the successor regime in a failed state and an imploded society.

Who decides, who benefits?

Americans should thank both God and Allah that the clowns of Abu Ghraib didn't get to Saddam. Imagine the Chomsky-Pilger axis whipping up sympathy for yet another third-world dictator.
There is, however, one position that nobody can honestly hold but that many people try their best to hold. And that is what I call the Bishop Berkeley theory of Iraq, whereby if a country collapses and succumbs to trauma, and it's not our immediate fault or direct responsibility, then it doesn't count, and we are not involved.

It is inescapable that at some point, Iraqis must govern their country by themselves. The impediment to that has been removed, and at some point the US-led Coalition of non-Iraqi forces must leave. The question is not whether they should leave, but when. When the death rate in al-Anbar province diminishes to that of, say, south-central LA? At what point do you trust Iraqis to manage their own affairs?
A time will come when the Iraqi army and police can handle domestic security alone. At that point there will barely be any need for foreign troops in Iraq.

Surely barely should be replaced with not in Downer's sentence above. The foreign intervention should be judged by the countries that contributed troops against the degree to which they facilitated not just security forces, but a political system in Iraq capable of resolving and minimising conflict. The policies pursued by Downer and others were and are not conducive to this end, and stand condemned.

Hitchens and Downer have implicitly accepted Powell's so-called Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you own it. They stand there with shards in their hands with no clear idea how to impose a fix upon this broken country, nor how to rally the locals to do so themselves. Proponents of the Iraq war should spend less time covering their own backsides and more time helping those in whose name they acted (or cheered) to resolve the conflict that will ensure six millennia of Iraqi history does not vanish in an orgy of violence, but also that the reputations of two plummy-voiced men are not tarnished to the point where they are ignored.

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