Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Neocon Who Can't See Color in Iraq

Thanks to Glenn Greenwald for pointing out the attached article as a classic example of black and white thinking. William Stuntz of the Weekly Standard is incapable of seeing color and misses large chunks of reality as a result.

Stuntz is arguing the need for us to stay the course in Iraq. He points out, and who would dispute, that the enemies we fight are evil. From there he leaps to the absurd conclusion that all the forces of evil are in league and that our side is necessarily good. Grudgingly, he admits that there have been exceptions in the past. In Vietnam, he acknowledges, the war was between two sets of thugs, only their thugs had more popular support than our thugs. But there is nothing thuggish about the Iraqi government today. Why?

Our side in Iraq holds elections. The other side kills people who stand in line to vote. America's military is fighting not to protect one set of thugs from another, but to allow a democratically elected government to establish itself in a society a majority of whose members want it to do so. It's hard to imagine a more morally worthy goal.


I will not go into all the details needed to refute this. See my previous post about the folly of making a fetish out of elections. Suffice it to say here that in Vietnam we held elections, too, to prove our moral superiority, but it did no good. An elected thug is still a thug. But there is one difference between this war and the Vietnam War. In Iraq our thugs really do have more popular support. To repeat the long familiar demographics, Iraq consists of 20% Sunni Arabs and 60% Shiite Arabs. Sunnis lead the insurgency; Shiites lead the government. But this does not make the government any less thuggish.

Stuntz then lays out his absurdly black and white view of the war:

We are fighting all three enemies in Iraq today: Baathist insurgents under the leadership of dead-end Saddamites, bin Ladenesque insurgents under the leadership of Zarqawi's successors, and Shiite death squads under the leadership of Sadr and his associates. Each of those groups loses big if a democratic regime is successfully established in Iraq. Baathist Syria will be less stable if Iraq is more so. A stable Iraq will show that Sunnis and Shiites can live together peacefully without a Sunni autocrat's boot, a terrible message for Sunni jihadists. And Shiite jihadism loses the most of all. Iran, now the biggest danger to American interests in the region, is potentially our most valuable friend, because Iran's population is more pro-American than any other Muslim people save the Kurds. A moderate Shiite-led democracy in Iraq would offer the Iranian people a picture of the alternative the mullahs and madmen who rule Tehran have denied them. That might mean the end of the current Iranian regime, in the not too distant future.


So, what's wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, it implies (admittedly without actually saying) that these three evil forces are allies. True enough for the Baathists and the Sunni jihadists, who have formed a tactical alliance. But the Shiite death squads are their mortal enemy. Indeed, most of the fighting in Iraq today is a cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation between Baathist and jihadist insurgents and the Shiite death squads. Stuntz identifies Shiite death squads with Muqtada Sadr and his Madhi Army, and with Iran, both of which are true. But this account, though true, leaves out some critical facts. For instance Sadr and his movement, though hostile to us, are members of the ruling coalition. Furthermore, the leaders of this coalition, which we support, are the Supreme Counsel of Revolution in Iraq (SCRI) and the Dawa Party, both of which are associated with their own death squads, the Badr Brigades, which commit atrocities similar to the Madhi Army. It may very well be, though, that the Madhi Army commits its atrocities on a greater scale and is therefore worse that the Badr Brigades. It is certainly true that the Sadrists, although members of the ruling coalition that we support, oppose our presence in Iraq, unlike the more moderate SCRI, which supports it. On the other hand, our SCRI allies have much closer ties to Iran than our (sort of) enemies, the Sadrists. Given the ongoing sectarian strife in Iraq, Stuntz' hope for a "moderate Shiite led democracy" is a pipe dream. (He also neglects to mention that Baathist Syria and Baathist Iraq were deadly enemies, which they were).

Warning of the dire consequences of withdrawal, Stuntz warns:

On the other hand, if American forces were to leave Iraq now, the likely result would be an escalating civil war that would radicalize Iraq's Shiites, leaving Sadr and his ilk in control of either the whole country or its Shiite-majority region--along with most of its oil. That would give Ahmadinejad's Iran a chain of likeminded governments stretching from Afghanistan's western border to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. A jihadist Shiite superpower with nuclear capability at the head of such an alliance is a truly terrible outcome, comparable in world-historical terms to Hitlerite rule over Europe. It is well worth fighting to prevent this--indeed, it is worth fighting harder than America has fought to date.


Staying, on the other hand, appears to be leading to an escalating civil war that is radicalizing Iraq's Shiites and increasing the power of Sadr and his ilk. Indeed, it seems increasing likely that our enemy, the independent Shiite jihadist, will ultimately eclipse our ally, SCRI, the pro-Iranian Shiite jihadists. Either way, Iran's influence is expending.

Such are the perils of black and white thinking and oversimplied divisions into good and evil. I acknowledge that understanding subtle complexities of this kind can be frustrating, especially when they appear to defy logic. The analogy the cherries in a tree is a flawed one. Cherries, after all, are something people pluck because they are good to eat. There are no such tasty morsels in the Iraqi tree. But I nonetheless maintain that setting policy based on such failure to comprehend reality is as foolish as asking a color blind person which trees have cherries.

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