40 years ago, the US invasion of South Vietnam was in its fourth year and the surge of that day was about to add another 100,000 troops to the 175,000 already there, while South Vietnam was being bombed at triple the level of the bombing of the north and the war was expanding to the rest of Indochina. Still, the war would not go well, so the hawks were shifting towards doubts, among them the distinguished historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger. He and Kennedy -other Kennedy liberals had already begun - reluctantly began to shift from a dedication to victory to a more dovish position.
Schlesinger explained the reasons. I’ll quote him now:
“Of course, we all pray that the hawks are right in thinking that the surge of that day will work. And if it does, we may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government in winning a victory in a land that we have turned to wreck and ruin. But the surge probably won’t work, at an acceptable cost to us, so perhaps strategy should be rethought.”
Well, the reasoning and the underlying attitudes carry over with almost no change to the critical commentary on the US invasion of Iraq today. And it is a land of wreck and ruin. The British polling agency, Opinion Research Business, has recently updated its estimate of deaths. Their new estimate is 1.3 million, excluding two of the most violent provinces, Karbala and Anbar. On the side, it’s kind of intriguing to observe the ferocity of the debate over the actual number of deaths. There’s an assumption on the part of hawks that if we only killed a couple hundred thousand people, it might not be so bad, so we shouldn’t accept the higher estimates. You can go along with that if you like.
Uncontroversially, there are over two million displaced within Iraq. Thanks to Jordan and Syria, the millions of refugees who have fled the wreckage of Iraq aren’t totally wiped out. That includes most of the professional classes. But that welcome is fading, because Jordan and Syria receive no support from Washington and London, and therefore they cannot accept that huge burden for very long. It’s going to leave those two-and-a-half million refugees who fled in even more desperate straits.
The post-invasion sectarian warfare has devastated the country, as you know. Much of the country has been subjected to rather brutal ethnic cleansing and left in the hands of warlords and militias. That’s the primary thrust of the current counterinsurgency strategy that’s developed by Petraeus. He won considerable fame pacifying Mosul a couple of years ago. It’s now, perhaps only coincidentally so, the scene of some of the most extreme violence in the country.
A bleeding-heart journalist immersed in the ongoing messiness, Nir Rosen, recently wrote an epitaph entitled “The Death of Iraq” [5-page pdf]in the somewhat mainstream-ish journal Current History . He writes that “Iraq has been killed, never to rise again. The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols, who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century,” which has been the perception of many Iraqis, as well. “Only fools talk of ‘solutions’ now,” he went on. “There is no solution. The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained.” This is what I hear from my friends in place - they don't speak of winning, they speak of how now to administrate a failure.
But Iraq is, in fact, now a marginal(ized) issue, and the reasons are the traditional ones, the traditional reasoning and attitudes of the liberal doves who all pray now, as they did forty years ago, that the hawks will be right and that the US will win a victory in this land of wreck and ruin. And they’re either encouraged or silenced by the good news about Iraq.
And there is good news. The Multi-National Force–Iraq, (I think three Poles are still battling it out in there somewhere) carries out extensive studies of popular attitudes. It’s an important part of counterinsurgency or any form of domination - you want to know what your subjects are thinking. It released a report last December. It was a study of focus groups, and it was uncharacteristically upbeat. The report concluded—I’ll quote it—that the survey of focus groups “provides very strong evidence” that national reconciliation is possible and anticipated, contrary to what’s being claimed. The survey found that a sense of “optimistic possibility permeated all focus groups…and far more commonalities than differences are found among these seemingly diverse groups of Iraqis” from all over the country and all walks of life. This discovery of “shared beliefs” among Iraqis throughout the country is “good news, according to a military analysis of the results," Karen de Young reported in the Washington Post.
Well, the “shared beliefs” are identified in the report. I’ll quote de Young: "Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the US military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of [what they call] ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation.” So those are the “shared beliefs.” According to the Iraqis then, there’s hope of national reconciliation if the invaders, who are responsible for the internal violence and the other atrocities, withdraw and leave Iraq to Iraqis. That’s pretty much the same as what’s been found in earlier polls, so it’s not all that surprising. Well, that’s the good news: “shared beliefs.”
There was a recent poll which found that 75 percent of Americans believe that US foreign policy is driving the dissatisfaction with America abroad, and more than 60 percent believe that dislike of American values and of the American people are also to blame. Dissatisfaction is a kind of an understatement. The United States has become increasingly the most feared and often hated country in the world. Well, that perception is in fact incorrect. It’s fed by propaganda. There’s very little dislike of Americans in the world, shown by repeated polls, and the dissatisfaction—that is, the hatred and the anger—they come from acceptance of American values, not a rejection of them, and recognition that they’re perceived to be rejected by the US government, which does indeed seem to rile some fickle folks up.
There’s other good news that was reported by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker during the extravaganza staged last September 11th. ("September 11th?", you might ask. "Why that timing?" ;) ) Petraeus and Crocker provided figures to explain the good news. The figures they provided showed that the Iraqi government was greatly accelerating spending on reconstruction, which is good news indeed and remained so until it was investigated by the Government Accountability Office [17-page pdf], which found that the actual figure was one-sixth of what Petraeus and Crocker reported and, in fact, a 50 percent decline from the previous year.
Well, more good news is the decline in sectarian violence; that’s attributable in part to the ethnic cleansing that Iraqis blame on the invasion. There are fewer people to kill, so sectarian violence declines. It’s also attributable to the new counterinsurgency doctrine, Washington’s decision to support the tribal groups that had already organized to drive out Iraqi al-Qaeda, to an increase in US troops, and to the decision of the Sadr’s Mahdi army to consolidate its gains to stop direct fighting. (That’s what the press calls “halting aggression” by the Mahdi army.)
Well, it’s possible that Petraeus’s strategy may approach the success of the Russians in Chechnya, where—I’ll quote the New York Times from last September — Chechnya, the fighting is now “limited and sporadic, and Grozny is in the midst of a building boom” after having been reduced to rubble by the Russian attack. Well, maybe some day Baghdad and Fallujah also will enjoy, to continue the quote, “electricity restored in many neighborhoods, new businesses opening and the city’s main streets repaved,” as in booming Grozny. Possible, but dubious, in the light of the likely consequence of creating warlord armies that may be the seeds of even greater sectarian violence. Well, if Russians share the beliefs and attitudes of elite liberal intellectuals in the West, then they must be praising Putin’s “wisdom and statesmanship” for his achievements in Chechnya. "High five, Putin!"
Washington has expectations for Iraq, and they’re explicit. They're outlined in a Declaration of Principles that was agreed upon between the United States and that Iraqi government we installed under our occupation. These two parties issued the Declaration of Principles. It allows US forces to remain indefinitely in Iraq in order to “deter foreign aggression”—and also to facilitate and encourage “the flow of foreign investments [to] Iraq, especially American investments.” I’m quoting. Not exactly an unbrazen expression of intent.
Such expectations were bulwark'd when POTUS issued a signing statement declaring that he will reject crucial provisions of congressional legislation that he had just signed, including the provision that forbids spending taxpayer money—I’m quoting—“to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of [United States] Armed Forces in Iraq” or “to exercise [United States] control of the oil resources of Iraq." OK? Shortly after, the New York Times reported that Washington “insists that the Baghdad government give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations,” a demand that “faces a potential buzz saw of opposition from Iraq, with its…deep sensitivities about being seen as a dependent state.” It’s supposed to be more third world irrationality.
So, in brief, the United States is now insisting that Iraq must agree to allow permanent US military installations, provide the United - whoops, grant the United States the right to conduct combat operations freely, and to guarantee US control over the oil resources of Iraq. OK? It’s all very explicit, on the table. It’s kind of interesting that these reports do not elicit any reflection on the reasons why we invaded Iraq. You’ve heard those reasons offered, but they were dismissed with ridicule. Now they’re openly conceded to be accurate, but not eliciting any retraction or even any reflection.
Well, there’s a lot more to say about good news when I should just shut up and revere our Lord of COIN so I will just say that thinking about these things perhaps gives some insight into the famous “clash of civilizations” and its actual substance, topics that ought occasionally to be foremost in the minds of those serious about wanting to win this effing bastard of a thing.