War Complicates Everything

It’s not easy to focus on a port deal when events in Iraq suggest the civil war that almost all realists had feared and that to some extent has been simmering just barely beneath the surface for months might have broken out in earnest. And the bombing of the Shia Askiriya shrine, also called the Golden Mosque, in Samarra north of Baghdad, followed by a surge of violence that included more than 100 deaths and the ravaging of dozens of Sunni mosques, requires some comment.

"One can date the beginning of a civil war only in retrospect," Marina Ottaway told me by telephone. She’s head of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and coauthor of a recent book on democracy in the Middle East. "But when we see deliberate attacks on members of one community just because of who they are," she continued, "and retaliatory attacks on members of another community, it is not a good sign."

No kidding.

While U.S. leaders talk hopefully of creating a nonsectarian "national unity" government in Iraq, the lines between Sunni and Shia Muslims seem to be hardening. A recent New York Times story notes that marriages between young lovers of the two sects are declining. Ms. Ottaway says that it isn’t only at the level of "the street" that Iraq is becoming more divided. The positions of the major political parties are hardening and becoming more closely identified with religious identity rather than with a vision of a unified and peaceful Iraq.

So far no group has claimed "credit" for bombing the mosque in Samarra, and many think it was the work of Musab al-Zarqawi of the local al-Qaeda group, seeking to exacerbate Sunni-Shia hostility. Unfortunately, if this is so, the match fell into a pool of ethnic gasoline.

Ethnic Realities

As we have had occasion to note previously, Iraq is a construct of Western imperialism, cobbled together after the demise of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, rather than being a country formed logically from its own history and ethnic/religious composition. The Sunni Muslims dominated the region for most of its history, including under Saddam (though that was perhaps more tribal than religious), but Shia Muslims are the majority and the majority in the recently elected parliament.

The Sunnis resent not being the top dogs and fear what the Shia might do once thoroughly ensconced in power. The presence of the Kurds in the north, who gained virtual autonomy through much bloodshed and stubbornness even after Saddam tried to decimate them, complicates matters further. The fact that there are no developed oil fields in the predominantly Sunni region – and that the sects are intermixed enough that a clean partition would be unlikely to create stability – complicates matters further. The fact that U.S. officials seem to show little sign of recognizing the implications of these religious/ethnic divisions makes a decent outcome even more unlikely.

An especially troubling sign this week is that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shia leader – who for three years has helped to tamp down violence by urging Shia Iraqis to be peaceful and patient – may be on the verge of unleashing well-armed Shia militias. If the unsteady Iraqi government is unable to protect shrines and mosques, he said, "the faithful are able to do that by the will and blessings of God."

No-Win Situation

From the perspective of the United States, this is precisely the kind of no-win situation that becomes almost inevitable when one undertakes an enterprise so ill-advised as the invasion of Iraq. Sure, it’s nice that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, and it’s unlikely that many Iraqis outside his family and tribe regret the ouster seriously. But the U.S. not only didn’t anticipate the insurgency, but befuddled by visions of cheering Iraqis strewing flowers and spontaneously creating a democracy, it didn’t plan seriously for the aftermath of the initial military invasion, even though there were plans on the shelf in the State Department.

When things started to go badly, a strictly cold-blooded calculation might have suggested getting out as quickly as possible. But both because the Bush administration is populated by human beings and because it is headed by a particular person with a particular approach to things, the U.S. government is in a tough situation. Past rhetoric will make leaving in the face of difficulty look like "cutting and running."

To begin a serious draw-down of U.S. troops from Iraq – which everybody from the military to GOP congresscritters concerned about reelection to maybe even Karl Rove wants – will require evidence of success, in order for the war whoopers to save face. But having gone in on the basis of wishful thinking rather than hard intelligence or any particular knowledge of the country being invaded, the U.S. has created a situation in which evidences of success are few and far between, and likely to get fewer.

It might have been possible for a few weeks after the election in December, and the administration was spinning madly, but things got more confusing rather quickly. And now this. Since there’s little evidence that anybody at a decision-making level in the administration is very close to being in touch with reality on the ground in Iraq, it’s unlikely the U.S. will be making decisions that will improve matters sufficiently to declare victory and get out.

It is difficult to see what constructive action the United States might take. But a good start would be to recognize that the Western-influenced idea of a nonpartisan, nonsectarian government under which everybody can be happy and peaceful is extremely unlikely. Instead, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and other U.S. leaders should recognize that sectarian partisanship is a fact of life in today’s Iraq and optimistic statements will not change the facts.

Acknowledging that fact could be the first step toward offering advice on how to cobble together a structure that offers Shia, Sunni and Kurds substantial autonomy under a loose federation that shares oil revenues fairly. That won’t be easy, and it is unlikely to be ideal. But it would be preferable to pretending that a strong "national unity" government is still possible amid evidence of a budding civil war.

The sad fact is, however, that a decision to go to war without having much of an idea of what the real objectives are, what strategy will achieve them and how success can be measured with any semblance of accuracy creates a situation in which almost all the alternatives are bad. War makes intelligent decision-making even more difficult than it is in less troubled times.

Complicating Commerce

The flap over whether to allow a company owned by the government (such as it is) of Dubai to purchase a British company that now has the contract to operate six major U.S. ports demonstrates something similar about how war undermines rational decision-making. Thinking and talking in terms of war encourages people to think and speak about "the enemy" in broad-brush terms.

While most U.S. officials and even most supporters of the vague and all-too-undefined "war on terror" at least give lip service to the idea that "the enemy" is not all Muslims or even most Muslims, but a radical jihadist fringe, the message all too many war-supporting Americans seem to have gotten is that, indeed, all Muslims, or perhaps all Arabs, are the enemy in this conflict and not to be trusted.

Thus a decision that in all likelihood makes reasonable commercial sense – and perhaps should have been none of the U.S. government’s business anyway – looks just as South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham described it: "unbelievably tone-deaf politically."

So the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS), a government interagency panel, signs off on allowing a company owned by the government of Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, to buy the company that handles operations at six U.S. ports? In this post-9/11 era, do we want an Arab-owned company running port terminals in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, and New Orleans?

A side note. Just having a government committee decide whether or not a foreign company can invest in this country shows that the United States is nowhere near the pure free-market haven friend and foe alike sometimes like to think of it being. In fact, this is a highly centrally planned economy, and the most prominent complaints we hear from most Americans relating to that fact are that the central planners were not activist enough in their intervention into this particular essentially private transaction.

One can argue, of course, that ports by their very nature are not suited to be run as completely private operations, since they can be entry points for dangerous and deadly stuff and people. So there may be legitimate reasons for concern, and reasons for some government supervision. But rejecting this arrangement because an Arab government owns the company should not be automatic, especially if anybody in the U.S. is even moderately serious about avoiding calamity in a clash with jihadist Islamists.

Promoting Broad Brushes

Let’s assume the "war on terror" is a worthy cause. Let’s stipulate that the jihadists are a fringe within the Muslim world. If they are ever to be neutralized, most of the heavy lifting is going to have to come from other Muslims. Since terrorism is the tactic of the weak and can be done with low-tech means, it can be sustained virtually indefinitely. The U.S. can’t wipe out the threat militarily. To make any progress will require cooperation with the vast majority of Muslims who are not terrorists or jihadists. To get cooperation will require treating them like human beings most of the time rather than lumping them in with the terrorists and gratuitously insulting them, pushing moderates toward more extreme positions.

At the very least, that should mean approaching the idea of having a Dubai-based company take over contracts from a British-based company as one that shouldn’t be rejected out of hand.

It is worth noting that beyond following rules laid down by government agencies, Dubai Ports World, the company seeking to buy the contracts to handle operations at these six ports, would not be handling security if this deal goes through. Security, for better or worse (it’s some of both) is handled by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs. That won’t change.

The company now operating the ports, P&O Ports, is a British company, so we’ve had foreign ownership for a while. Most of those who actually work at the ports are U.S. citizens, and that would probably not change. And you can be sure the relevant unions will not only look after workers but keep an eye out for problems. And it may be that much of the complaining from congresscritters has more to do with staying on the good side of the relevant unions than with anything resembling a legitimate concern over national security.

Now a case can be made that this instance could have been handled differently. Given the existence of the CFIUS, one can understand the need for closed meetings to review many proposed transactions that involve proprietary information. But U.S. ports are different from, for example, ball bearing factories or malls.

Congressional hearings or a longer process are likely now. We should remember, however, that Dubai is in many ways an example of what the administration says it wants to encourage – a moderate, mostly secular Arab regime that has opened up its economy, achieved a degree of prosperity and stability, is trying to diversify its economy beyond reliance on oil, and has mostly cooperated (for better and worse) with the U.S. since 9/11. The fact that terrorists and some arms dealers have used its banks has for the most part not been an intentional government policy, but a result of the fact that the banking system is reasonably open and driven more by the desire to make money than by overt political impulses.

In some ways, then, aside from not being remotely democratic in its governance, Dubai is the kind of Muslim regime the United States would like to see become more predominant. To reject its purchase could, as Cato Institute trade scholar Dan Griswold told us, "send some dispiriting signals to the Arab world," essentially telling people in the region that the fact of being Arab will always override evidence of trying to be a good little ally of the United States.

There’s always a bit of bigotry and willingness to paint with a broad brush even among the best of people at the best of times. But declaring "war," especially a vague war whose objectives and adversaries are ill-defined, encourages such thinking, encourages people to see enemies everywhere, to be suspicious of people who are different even more than is part of "normal" existence. So Bush’s decisions, in what looks like a classic case of the "second term blues," are coming back to haunt him. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving fellow, you may say. Too bad the American people, more than he, will pay the price for his blunders, miscalculations, and mistakes.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange
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(Putnam-Berkley, 1995).