Fighting Words

Appointment in Mesopotamia

Iraq’s problems existed long before 2003.

Replying to Fareed Zakaria’s observation in Newsweek, about Iraq and the Iraqis—that “We did not give them a republic. We gave them a civil war.”—Charles Krauthammer, in our common sister paper the Washington Post, expressed a fine contempt:

Did Britain “give” India the Hindu-Muslim war of 1947-48 that killed a million souls and ethnically cleansed 12 million more? The Jewish-Arab wars in Palestine?

Alas, the answer to the above sarcastic questions is “yes.” (In the first instance by staying several decades too long and then compounding the mistake by leaving much too fast—even unilaterally advancing the date of independence so as to speed up the scuttle—and by capitulating to Muslim League demands for partition; and in the second instance by promising Palestine at different times to both the Zionist and Arab nationalist movements.) However, this unpleasant historical fact—which has its own implications for Iraq—does not acquit Zakaria’s remark of the charge of being morally idle. In many other people’s minds, too, there is the unspoken assumption that what the United States does in Iraq is a fully determined action, whereas what other people do is simply a consequence of that action, with no independent or autonomous “agency” of its own. This mentality was perfectly expressed, under the byline of Marc Santora, in the New York Times of Jan. 31. Santora explained the background of the murderous attacks on the Shiite festival of Ashura: “At Ashura, Shiites commemorate what is for them the most formative event of their faith, a celebration that had been banned under Saddam Hussein. In recent years, Sunni militants, caught up in a renewed sectarian split, have attacked worshippers on the holiday.” (My italics.)

I suppose that might be one way of putting it. But a factually neutral way of phrasing the same point would be to say that three years ago, the leader of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia wrote to his guru Osama Bin Laden, saying that there was a real danger of the electoral process succeeding in Iraq and of “suffocating” the true Islamist cause. The only way of preventing this triumph of the democratic heresy, wrote Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was to make life so unbearable for the heretical Shiites that they would respond in kind. The ensuing conflict would ruin all the plans of the Crusader-Zionist alliance. I can still remember the chill that went through me when I read this document and realized that it combined extreme radical evil with a high degree of intelligence. Santora’s reportage is not alone in slightly declining the responsibility for facing this central truth.

If there is a sectarian war in Iraq today, or perhaps several sectarian wars, we have to understand that this was latent in the country, and in the state, and in the society all along. It was not the only possible outcome, because it had to be willed and organized, but it was certainly high on the list of probabilities. (The Saddam Hussein regime, which thrived on the worst form of “divide and rule,” certainly represented a standing invitation to run this risk.)

In other words, those who now deplore and decry the “civil war” (or the “civil wars”) must, in order to be serious, admit that they would have deplored such an outcome just as much if it had not happened on America’s watch or had (like Rwanda) been something that we could have pretended to watch as disinterested or—even worse—uninterested spectators.

The habit of viewing Iraq as a crisis that only began in 2003—a lazy habit that is conditioned by the needs of the impending 2008 election—is an obstacle to understanding. Everybody has their own favorite alternative scenario of how things might have evolved differently or better. In some weak moments, I can picture taking the alternative advice from the European Union and the United Nations in 2003—let’s just see how Iraq develops if left alone as a private fiefdom of the Saddam Hussein dynasty—and only then deciding that things have deteriorated to the point where an international intervention is necessitated. That would have been much less upsetting and demanding than the direct assumption of responsibility, and could have been triggered by the more familiar images of unbearable suffering and carnage, and could have summoned the Darfur-like emotions of guilt and shame, but it would perforce have been begun very much later—and perhaps too late altogether.

Iraq was in our future. The specter, not just of a failed state, but of a failed society, was already before us in what we saw from the consequences of sanctions and the consequences of aggressive Sunni fascism at the center of the state. Nobody has ever even tried to make a case for doing nothing about Iraq: Even those who foresaw sectarian strife were going by a road map that was already valid and had been traveled before. Thus it seems to me quite futile to be arguing about whether to blame the Iraqis—or indeed whether to blame the coalition. Until recently, no Iraqi was allowed to have any opinion about the future of his or her country. How long did we imagine that such a status quo would have remained “stable”? Charles Krauthammer might be wrong about his specific historical comparisons, but he is quite right to lay stress on the point that—absent a complete evacuation of Iraq and the region—there was a rendezvous in Mesopotamia that could not have been averted. A general refusal to confront this fact is actively revealed by the use of the passive voice.