Fighting Words

The Iraq Jinx

How Bush is blowing our last chance.

Proposed flag of Iraq

Of the raft of books about the calamitous mismanagement of the intervention in Iraq, Patrick Cockburn’s little volume The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq is probably the most readable and certainly the only one that—even if only in the driest possible way—manages to be amusing. Cockburn has been covering Iraq for three decades, knows most of the players, provided several exposés of the Saddam regime, and displays exemplary courage in continuing to travel the country despite his polio (the subject of another excellent book of his in the shape of a memoir: The Broken Boy). Turning his pages, I got the feeling that I have sometimes had before: the slightly ridiculous but unshakeable sensation that there is some kind of jinx at work. One strives, in other words, to think of a blunder that could have been made and was not. Cockburn instances the farcical yet tragic case, in April 2004, of the new Iraqi flag.

It looked, he thought, like a beach umbrella: white with two parallel blue stripes, a yellow band, and a blue crescent. The blue stripes immediately reminded people in the street of the Israeli flag, and they were not mollified to be told that these supposedly represented the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Moreover, “hundreds of thousands of young Iraqi men had fought and died under the flag in the Iran-Iraq war. I had often seen it used as a shroud to cover their cheap wooden coffins.” True, for the Kurds it was a flag representing massacre and oppression, but their solution was not to fly it and instead to display their own. But for much of the rest of the population, an arbitrary decision to scrap and replace the national emblem was profoundly hurtful and insulting and had been made, moreover, without any consultation. It then turned out that the unappealing new design was the result of nepotism: One member of the Paul Bremer-installed Iraqi Governing Council had called his brother, an artist living in London, and told him to dream up a fresh flag. Nothing has been heard of the new banner since 2004, but many Iraqi insurgent groups can and do now wave the old one with additional patriotic zest.

An all-round foul-up, in fact, where the micro elements take on a macro proportion. This is why the callously bungled execution of Saddam Hussein was and is so important and why I rubbed my eyes on Monday when I read that the hangmen had been at it again and this time had managed to decapitate Saddam Hussein’s hellish half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti. During the long campaign to abolish the gallows in England in the 1960s, I learned (from a brilliant book by Arthur Koestler) more than you want to know about how the expression “hanged by the neck until dead” can conceal a number of horrors. A clean, long drop with the noose adjusted under the left ear and jaw can ensure an almost instant death. Incompetence or lack of professionalism will lead either to slow strangulation or to the distressing tearing off of the victim’s head. Barzan al-Tikriti’s head was wrenched off, ergo Nouri al-Maliki’s eager Shiite noose artists have bungled it again, and (who knows?) perhaps deliberately.

The critical thing about the much-bruited surge is that it, too, belongs in the all-important realm of the symbolic. A few thousand extra troops in Baghdad and in Anbar are of scant use in themselves, unless they in some way represent a commitment to stick to Iraq no matter what. And if the Iraq to which they stick is in fact symbolized by Maliki’s surly confessional regime, then the United States is not baby-sitting a civil war so much as deciding to take part in it. The president conceded as much when he said that new patrols in Baghdad would not be determined by sectarian calculations: Such an assurance would not be necessary if the contingency itself—or the symbolic perception of it—was not so strongly present in people’s minds. In these conditions, it’s almost perfect that the Democrats have been discussing a symbolic vote against the surge (you cannot beat these people for moral courage), while our new secretary of defense seems to believe that what the surge really symbolizes is a renewed determination to hand over to the Iraqis and start drawing down—as near to a flat contradiction in terms as you could wish.

During the war in Kosovo, I shared a flagon of slivovitzwith an especially triumphalist Kosovar Albanian who exulted at what he was seeing. Decades of being pushed around and ground down by the Serbian supremacists and then, suddenly, “Guess what? We get to f— the Serbs and to do it with Clinton’s dick!” (That twice-repulsive image took up a horrible tenancy in the trashy attic of my mind, where it is still lodged.) Matters in Kosovo had been allowed to decay to the point where one either had to watch the cleansing of the whole province by Slobodan Milosevic or, yes, allow NATO and the U.S. Air Force to become, in effect, the air force of the Kosovo Liberation Army. On balance, the latter option was better, while the geographical and demographic scale of the problem was more manageable. Matters in Iraq have degenerated much faster and much more radically than that; now the Shiite majority wants to screw the Sunnis with Bush’s (more monogamous, for what that’s worth) member. The picture is hardly a prettier one.

A few months ago, I wrote here that the coalition potentially acted as a militia for those who didn’t have a militia. I got quite good feedback for that formulation from American soldiers and from Iraqis, too. In large parts of Iraq, still, there are people who dread what might happen in the event of our withdrawal—people to whom in some sense we remain pledged. A surge of any size will be worse than useless if it loses us that moral advantage. In all the recent ignorant burbling about another Vietnam, it ought to have been stressed that there is just one historical parallel worth noting: the early identification of the Kennedy brothers with the Catholic faction in Saigon over the Buddhist one. This is one mistake that we can and must avoid repeating, and Maliki’s regime, with its Dawa and Sadrist allies, should be made to know it.