Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A short course in terror

So another SOTU is behind us... and again Bush laid out what we're fighting and what we're fighting for in Iraq:

In the mind of the terrorist [sic], this war began well before September the 11th, and will not end until their radical vision is fulfilled. And these past five years have given us a much clearer view of the nature of this enemy. Al Qaeda and its followers are Sunni extremists, possessed by hatred and commanded by a harsh and narrow ideology. Take almost any principle of civilization, and their goal is the opposite. They preach with threats, instruct with bullets and bombs, and promise paradise for the murder of the innocent.

Our enemies are quite explicit about their intentions. They want to overthrow moderate governments, and establish safe havens from which to plan and carry out new attacks on our country. By killing and terrorizing Americans, they want to force our country to retreat from the world and abandon the cause of liberty. They would then be free to impose their will and spread their totalitarian ideology. Listen to this warning from the late terrorist Zarqawi: "We will sacrifice our blood and bodies to put an end to your dreams, and what is coming is even worse." Osama bin Laden declared: "Death is better than living on this Earth with the unbelievers among us."

These men are not given to idle words, and they are just one camp in the Islamist radical movement.

But here, as the President was speaking about the 2006 response of terrorists to our military and diplomatic successes in 2005, is the passage I believe most important:

In Iraq, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists blew up one of the most sacred places in Shia Islam -- the Golden Mosque of Samarra. This atrocity, directed at a Muslim house of prayer, was designed to provoke retaliation from Iraqi Shia -- and it succeeded. Radical Shia elements, some of whom receive support from Iran, formed death squads. The result was a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal that continues to this day.

This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in.

I'm not a fool, and nor (in spite of claims to the contrary) is Bush. Sectarian strife existed in Iraq long before Saddam Hussein and was bound to be problematic in a post-Saddam Iraq whose central government had not yet consolidated its power and authority. But for a while it appeared manageable - disruptive and sometimes tragic, but not rising to the level of an existential threat. Heck, sectarian or ethnic violence has existed and does exist in many nations not considered failed states. Actions like the destruction of the Golden Mosque, which incited a degree of violence that hadn't yet been seen from the Shia majority, were instrumental in bringing us, and Iraq, to this point, and it's vital to realize these actions for what they were and are: a tactic in an overall strategy.

The strategy: to weaken Iraqi support for a moderate government and to sap the American will sufficiently to undermine our efforts to uphold that duly elected government. The tactic succeeded in bringing strongly Shia-sectarian elements in that government into ascendancy, which in turn gave cover to Shia militias, first perceived as "protectors" but eventually functioning as lawless pseudo-vigilantes, their every action undermining the Iraqi government's necessary monopoly on armed force.

Enough, says Bush - and I hope al-Maliki is speaking the truth when he echoes that declaration. Because if al-Maliki is ready to back up the word with the commitment, Baghdad can be a real capital city of a real democratic nation.

This whole exercise - a live-fire exercise with no do-overs - is a fascinating study in what we've taken for granted. We in the West, I mean. Take that monopoly on force: in the United States, the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear arms, and the debate rages (to coin a phrase) over whether the founders meant that each individual ought to be able to own a gun, or whether the intent was to arm a national guard. (Where I stand should be obvious.) In neither case is there any implied threat to a government monopoly on the use of force. When militias have arisen in the United States, post-Revolution, they've been widely decried as - at least - bordering on extra-legal. (Yes, some American militias have achieved a regional and ephemeral celebrity.)

But in Iraq, such groups actually had, and for some Iraqis no doubt still have, a tacit claim on legitimacy. Middle Eastern society has skipped too many steps. The nations with oil have been able to pole-vault from the Middle Ages to the new millenium without passing through an Enlightenment. A math analogy: in my freshman calculus class, about half the students had taken calculus as seniors in high school, and, smug, shouted out, "3x2!" as soon as the instructor wrote "x3" on the board. The prof, determined to get us to understand what we were doing, rolled her eyes and, in her lovely Texan drawl, asked them, "Why?"

In other words... Iraq can do this. There is nothing intrinsically lacking from, or different about, Iraq in terms of its ability and even its desire for civil liberties such as we take for granted. (Side note: we take them so much for granted that recently I saw a button in a novelty store that said, "Oh well, I wasn't using my civil liberties anyway." The irony inherent in that button's even existing must have escaped both its manufacturers and the store.) All it lacks is time to get up the learning curve. We can give Iraq that time - and it's obvious to the Administration and me, among others, that it is in our national and moral interests to do so. Unfortunately not everyone seems to agree.

Two more years.

1 comment:

2164th said...

...All it lacks is time to get up the learning curve. We can give Iraq that time - and it's obvious to the Administration and me, among others, that it is in our national and moral interests to do so. Unfortunately not everyone seems to agree.

Pity that Americans don't do patience well.

I enjoyed looking at your site. Stop by The Elephant Bar some time and say hello. - Deuce