Sunday, December 10, 2006

Make No Mistake: EVERYTHING in Iraq is our fault now

Personally, I have been tempted to blame the Iraqis on the inane and murderous sectarian warfare by which they're tearing their own land apart. But, the articulate political journalist, Peter Beinert, brings me to my senses, in this essay published in The New Republic:

We Broke It
by Peter Beinart
Post date: 12.11.06
Issue date: 12.18.06
cross ideological lines, American politicians and pundits are finally coming to a consensus on Iraq: It's the Iraqis' fault. "We gave the Iraqis their freedom," pronounced liberal California Senator Barbara Boxer on November 16. "What are they doing with this freedom? They're killing each other." The next day, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer heartily concurred, writing: "We have given the Iraqis a republic, and they do not appear able to keep it."

It's easy to see why this line of argument appeals to both left and right. For liberals, blaming the Iraqis justifies a U.S. withdrawal: If the Iraqis are incorrigible, then there's nothing U.S. troops can do. For conservatives, it excuses the Bush administration: If the Iraqis are incorrigible, this catastrophe is their fault, not ours.

It's a soothing, self-justifying argument, but it's dead wrong. The United States has not given Iraqis their freedom because freedom requires order, which the United States--from the very beginning--did not provide. And the United States has not given Iraqis a republic because a republic presupposes a state. Max Weber famously defined the state as the institution with a monopoly on legitimate violence, and, by that definition, there has been no Iraqi state since the United States invaded more than three years ago.

Shia and Sunni Iraqis are not turning on one another because of ancient, primordial hatreds. They're turning on one another because when the state fails in its most basic task--keeping you alive--you turn to any entity that can. Imagine you're in prison. The state (embodied by the prison guards) doesn't protect you, and the hallways are controlled by racial gangs. If your survival depends on it, you'll develop a neo-Nazi or Nation of Islam identity awfully fast.

That's what is happening in Baghdad today. For most of the twentieth century, while Kurds mourned the state they were denied after World War I, relations between Iraqi Sunnis and Shia were good and national identity was strong. It's true that Iraq was created from three Ottoman provinces (centered in Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul). But, as Iraqi historian Reidar Visser has observed, those three provinces were not homogenous--each was ethnically diverse even before Iraq was born. And, once it was, in 1921, nationalism overwhelmed Sunni-Shia divisions. As Rutgers University's Eric Davis noted in his book, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, Sunnis and Shia not only rose up jointly against the British in 1920 (along with Iraqi Christians and Jews), they actually prayed at one another's mosques. The original leader of Iraq's Baath Party--now synonymous with Sunni domination--was Shia. And, in the 1980s, 90 percent of the Iraqi troops who fought Shia Iran were--you guessed it--Shia. As Visser notes, in all of Iraqi history, the Shia South has never launched a broad-based movement to secede.

After the disastrous Iran-Iraq war, however, the Iraqi state began to weaken. War bankrupted the country, leaving it unable to maintain the welfare state it had constructed during the oil-rich 1970s. The Gulf war made things worse, as U.S. bombing decimated Iraqi infrastructure. And, in the 1990s, sanctions turned Iraq's proud middle class--the historic bulwark of Iraqi nationalism--into paupers, forced to sell their heirlooms for ration cards while Saddam Hussein built palaces. To sustain themselves, many Iraqis turned to religiously based charitable groups. When Saddam was overthrown, these religious organizations were best positioned to fill the political vacuum.

But, if Iraqi nationalism was weaker on the day we invaded than it had been two decades before, it was still quite strong. As Kenneth Pollack has noted, when the National Democratic Institute asked Iraqi focus groups in the summer of 2003 which identity suited them best, a large majority eschewed Shia, Sunni, or Kurd in favor of Iraqi. "Iraq is not the Balkans," insisted Phebe Marr, author of The Modern History of Iraq, in April 2003. "There really isn't traditional enmity or hostility between Sunni and Shiite communities."

Then the United States overthrew Saddam's weak, brutal state and replaced it with virtually no state at all. In poll after poll, Iraqis said they were happy Saddam was gone but terrified at the lack of security. A Zogby survey in August 2003 found that almost 30 percent of Iraqis had friends or family killed in the war or its anarchic aftermath. Basic services like water and electricity remained scarce as the U.S. reconstruction effort foundered because of corruption and lack of security. Unemployment hit 50 percent.

In this dismal, often Hobbesian environment, those Iraqis who could (the more secular middle class) fled. Among those who remained, sectarian entrepreneurs like Moqtada Al Sadr leveraged their preexisting networks to provide services, jobs, safety, and--increasingly--revenge. As sectarian militias offered the protection that the state could not, sect began replacing nation as the primary identity of many Iraqis. That shouldn't surprise us. Identity is not static, and, in war zones, as anyone who followed Sarajevo in the '90s can attest, it can shift very fast. "Once Iraqis are safely ... settled in Amman," notes Iraqi-born scholar Hala Fattah, "bonds of civility [between Sunni and Shia] reemerge."

It may be too late for the United States to provide the security required for those bonds of civility to return to Iraq. But we should, at least, have the decency to acknowledge that it was Americans (not Iraqis) who bore the responsibility under international law to provide security after Americans (not Iraqis) overthrew Saddam. It was we who failed and then handed Iraqi politicians the poisoned chalice of a government that did not sit atop a state. To be sure, Iraq's elected leaders are an uninspiring bunch. But the state fell, the army was disbanded, chaos reigned, the insurgency began, reconstruction faltered, and the die was cast in 2003-- before Iraqis first went to the polls.

When Donald Rumsfeld said, as looters ransacked Baghdad while U.S. troops watched, that "freedom's untidy," Democrats rightly denounced his comments as an abdication and a disgrace. Now, more than three years later, it is just as disgraceful for Barbara Boxer to echo them. If we need to leave; we need to leave. But let's not pretend the defeat is anyone else's but our own.

Peter Beinart is editor-at-large at The New Republic and the author of The Good Fight: Why Liberals--and Only Liberals--Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (HarperCollins).

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