Democracy, Iraq-Style

I love the president. President Vladimir Putin.

At the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, “our” president, George W. Bush, observed, apparently without irony:

“I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq where there’s a free press and free religion, and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same thing.”

Not that Russia should look like America, President Bush allowed. Russia should look like Iraq. Apparently the latter is the new democratic model for the world.

President Putin seemed taken aback by this rather astonishing assertion. He responded,”We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly.”

Well, “just wait,” replied George Bush.

Uh, yeah.

The two presidents talked on a Saturday. More than 100 people died in Baghdad in the previous Sunday through Tuesday.

And on the succeeding Monday, reported The Washington Post,

“Masked attackers with heavy machine guns mounted on pickup trucks slaughtered at least 40 people in a crowded market area south of Baghdad on Monday, hurling grenades to blow up merchants at their counters and shooting down mothers as they fled with their children, witnesses and authorities said.”

The next day, according to the Associated Press,

“A suicide car bomber detonated explosives in a crowd of laborers gathered across the street from a major Shi’ite shrine in southern Iraq Tuesday, killing at least 53 people and wounding 105, officials and witnesses said. The attacker drove a minivan to where Shi’ite laborers gather daily to look for work in Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad. He offered them jobs, loaded the minivan with volunteers, and then detonated the vehicle.”

Democracy at work, Iraq-style. We would all be blessed to live in such a place.

Of course, there are those fundamental freedoms President Bush cited. Iraq has a free press – though Iraqi journalists are liable to be kidnapped or assassinated by insurgents or criminals. Some also end up dead inadvertently at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

And there is freedom of religious expression, in the sense that the government does not persecute. But it doesn’t have to. Private vigilantes handle the religious persecution beat. Under Saddam Hussein, the Christian community was largely unmolested, but no longer. As a result of a wave of kidnappings and murders, at least 40,000 Christians have fled to Damascus, a member of Washington’s axis of near-evil.

Still, war advocates constantly complain that all of Iraq’s good news is being overlooked. Schools are opened, harbors are dredged, elections are held, trash is collected. The administration even cited, and I am not making this up, “an explosion of cell phones” (apparently unrelated to their use in car bombings). However positive these trends, none justify going to war.

Moreover, the administration has been effective in, to put it politely, downplaying the problems in Iraq. The pro-war Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) recently returned from a trip to Iraq declaring: “All of the information we receive sometimes from the Pentagon and the State Department isn’t always true.”

Administration officials manipulate coverage as well as dissemble. Observes Rod Nordland, Newsweek’s Baghdad bureau chief, “It’s a lot worse over here than is reported. The administration does a great job of managing the news.” In his view, “the country is on the verge of civil war.”

There’s been a lot of debate – meaning strong resistance from the administration and its pro-war acolytes – about whether Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. However one defines “civil war,” it’s impossible to avoid concluding that Iraq is being consumed by what U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad calls “significant sectarian strife.”

Forget analogies to Vietnam. Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that Iraq is different from Vietnam in its very nature, since the latter reflected two competing regimes claiming to represent all of the people. That’s not the case in Iraq.

Writes Biddle:

“Communal civil wars, in contrast, feature opposing subnational groups divided along ethnic or sectarian lines; they are not about universal class interests or nationalist passions. In such situations, even the government is typically an instrument of one communal group, and its opponents champion the rights of their subgroup over those of others. These conflicts do not revolve around ideas, because no pool of uncommitted citizens is waiting to be swayed by ideology. (Albanian Kosovars, Bosnian Muslims, and Rwandan Tutsis knew whose side they were on.) The fight is about group survival, not about the superiority of one party’s ideology or one side’s ability to deliver better governance.”

This kind of conflict is particularly hard to defuse. For instance, rapid democratization may intensify violence, since dominant groups usually seize state power and are disinclined to compromise.

Creating “national” security forces also may exacerbate conflict, since it often upgrades one faction’s fighting force. Notes Biddle, “Considerable anecdotal evidence suggests that the troops are dominated by Shi’ites and Kurds and that the Sunnis’ very perception that this is so, accurate or not, helps fuel the conflict.”

The result is horror on the streets. In June, 1,595 bodies were delivered to the morgue in Baghdad alone, up 16 percent from May – and almost double the number last June. The United Nations figures that 100 Iraqis died on average every day in June, compared with about 60 a day in January. Estimates of total civilian dead in the war and occupation now approach 50,000.

The consequences of the violence go beyond casualty lists. Increasing numbers of Iraqis cannot live a normal life. Back in June someone leaked a memo from Ambassador Khalilzad that, shall we say, cast some doubt on the administration view of Iraq’s much-heralded march of freedom.

Among the highlights:

“13. We cannot call employees in on weekends or holidays without blowing their ‘cover.’ Likewise, they have been unavailable during multiple security closures imposed by the government since February. A Sunni Arab female employee tells us that family pressures and the inability to share details of her employment is very tough: she told her family she was in Jordan when we sent her on training to the U.S. in February. Mounting criticisms of the U.S. at home among family members also makes her life difficult. She told us in mid-June that most of her family believes the U.S. – which is widely perceived as fully controlling the country and tolerating the malaise – is punishing populations as Saddam did (but with Sunnis and very poor Shi’ites now at the bottom of the list). Otherwise, she says, the allocation of power and security would not be so arbitrary.

“14. Some of our staff do not take home their American cell phones, as this makes them a target. Planning for their own possible abduction, they use code names for friends and colleagues and contacts entered into Iraq cell phones. For at least six months, we have not been able to use any local staff members for translation at on-camera press events.”

When given the opportunity to moderate the impact of his memo, Ambassador Khalilzad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “I stand behind that cable.” One wonders if he did the leaking, or at least authorized the action. After all, he may be a good soldier prepared to remain at his post in the midst of a rising tide of violence, but he might want the world to know that he recognizes that administration policy is hurtling toward disaster.

Problems for the U.S. embassy staff is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Iraqis who work for Americans are at special risk. But there is little sense of normalcy for many other Iraqis, especially those living in Baghdad, the capital, with one-fourth of the population. Even the wealthy are not safe.

Reported The New York Times in late June:

“Mansour is Baghdad’s Upper East Side. It has fancy pastry shops, jewelry stores, a designer furniture boutique, and an elite social club.

“But it is no longer the address everyone wants.

“In the past two months, insurgents have come to Mansour to gun down a city councilman, kidnap four Russian Embassy workers, shoot a tailor dead in his shop, and bomb a pastry shop.”

Mansour is just three miles from the U.S.-dominated Green Zone. Pervasive violence affects virtually every aspect of people’s lives. Increasingly religious Iraqis pray at home rather than at a mosque. Universities have dropped graduation ceremonies, and professors now hesitate to fail students. Everyone fears the insurgents. But many people also fear the government.

Every day brings another disturbing story about the Iraqi regime the U.S. has established and supported. Even competent officials are unable to provide the normal public services. Corruption is endemic; security forces are brutal, and many use their positions to wage ethnic war.

Earlier this year, an Iraqi army unit discovered a Shia death squad apparently linked to the Interior Ministry. Privately, leading Shi’ites deplore the activities of party-controlled militias, but say they are understandable. “I can’t blame them,” one parliamentarian connected to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Reuters. Maliki has been reduced to begging members of competing bands of murderers to “unite as brothers.”

This is liberation, a democratic experiment worthy of emulation?

What Iraq has become undercuts the usual humanitarian justifications for the war. It’s one thing to argue that the presumed positive result will outweigh the tragic but inevitable death of some civilians; it’s quite another to engage in moral preening as one plunges another society into a deadly vortex of bombings, shootings, kidnappings, and more. At some point, even many people happy at Saddam Hussein’s overthrow might be ready to turn to almost any authoritarian figure who promises to provide security.

Moreover, these are deaths for which the U.S. is ultimately responsible. Of course, other people do the actual killing – people who are evil, seek only to divide and destroy, and are prepared to ruin if they cannot rule. However, it was an ill-considered war and an even less well-considered occupation that loosed the murder-minded to do their worst. Washington opened Pandora’s Box.

Some warrior pundits have trouble recognizing that America has any responsibility for the slaughter on Iraq’s streets. Radio talk show host Mychal Massie recently blamed assorted Democrats for failing to express “one word of outrage at the swine” who tortured and mutilated the two U.S. soldiers. Worse, in his view, the Democrats were proposing to pull out American forces.

To satisfy Mr. Massie, let’s make clear: people who slaughter children, murder hapless workers, destroy families, turn city streets into open charnal houses, and brutalize captives are monstrous. But we don’t even influence, let alone control, them. We only influence (and maybe control) American politicians. And it is they who foolishly put U.S. forces into harm’s way. It is they who even more foolishly keep them in harm’s way. The supposed best and brightest policymakers have inserted American (and allied) forces into the middle of a steadily worsening communal war.

It is worth reiterating this point. Americans are dying because of the decisions of feckless U.S. officials, backed by a chorus of neocon pundits and policy nerds who joyfully sing their soaring sagas of conquest far from danger. Iraqis, too, are dying as a result of those same decisions by these same policymakers. The U.S. wiped out the structures of authority, evil though they were, without replacing them with anything. Every day dozens, scores, and more die as a result of a toxic mix of arrogance and incompetence, the administration’s hubristic attempt at global social engineering.

So what now? Hope continues to triumph over experience. The usual suspects talk about turning points and blather on about good news amid the carnage on the streets. The vice president solemnly insists that the insurgency really, really is in its last throes. The president affirms that he will be vindicated in time. “Just wait,” he says.

More sober-minded policymakers propose new strategies intended to dampen ethnic and religious divisions. Although they cannot guarantee success, they demand that U.S. forces, substantially augmented to better patrol violent Baghdad streets, stay for years. Even the Pentagon is talking about the occupation lasting another decade.

However, things seem more likely to get worse, much worse, than to improve. The International Crisis Group has issued a new report entitled “Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle Over Kirkuk.” Baghdad is bad. But, amazingly, Kirkuk, in the north, could become worse. Already Kurdish and Shia army units have clashed during military operations.

Warns the ICG:

“As all eyes are turned toward efforts to stabilize Iraq, the conflict that has been percolating in Kirkuk remains dangerous and dangerously neglected. That struggle is equal parts street brawl over oil riches, ethnic competition over identity between Kurdish, Turkomen, Arab, and Assyrian-Chaldean communities, and titanic clashes between two nations, Arab and Kurd.”

Oh joy. The organization proposes appointment of a special UN envoy. If no accord is reached, worries the ICG:

“The result would be violent communal conflict, spreading civil war and, possibly, outside military intervention. It is doubtful that an Iraq so profoundly unsettled by sectarian rifts and insurgent violence would survive another major body blow in an area where the largest of the country’s diverse communities are represented.”

Washington can work to prevent this from happening. But what sane person would bet on the administration fixing Kirkuk? Consider how well George W. Bush & Co. have done managing the rest of Iraq, promoting the democratic triumph in Lebanon, pushing the democratic wave into Eqypt and Syria, expanding Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” resolving the dual nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea, and doing so much more overseas. The Kirkuk time bomb illustrates how the risks of America staying are far higher than the risks of going.

Admittedly, to not stick around seems somehow dishonorable: we blew everything up, so it’s our job to rebuild it, runs the argument. However, there is no evidence that we – and certainly this president and administration – are capable of doing so.

Nor is there any reason to believe that Iraq can be “fixed” at reasonable cost. This is the fundamental problem with the “failure is not an option” crowd. What do they mean? War advocates have failed at every turn so far, getting everything wrong: the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam’s alleged connection to 9/11, Iraq’s presumed operational ties with al-Qaeda, the Iraqi people’s willingness to be ruled by Washington and its friends (like exile Ahmed Chalabi), the Iraqi majority’s willingness to build a multi-ethnic society, the number of U.S. troops needed to maintain security, and the willingness of America’s allies to assist the U.S.

Most recently the pro-war lobby was wrong in predicting that the death of al-Qaeda’s Abu Musab Zarqawi (like so many previous supposed “turning points”) would reduce the level of sectarian violence. Admitted Ambassador Khalilzad: “In terms of the level of violence, it has not had any impact at this point.” Even the subsequent security campaign by 70.000 U.S. and Iraqi forces had little impact. Admitted U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell: “I think everybody had thought that perhaps it might be improving more than it is at this point.”

Why, then, should anyone believe the armchair warriors when they claim to know how to avert ultimate failure by creating a pro-American, Western-style democracy in Iraq?

Of course, failure is a bad option. But worse would be fighting on unsuccessfully for years. More than 2,500 Americans and 50,000 Iraqis are dead. More than $300 billion has been squandered.

America’s international reputation has been ruined. Even the military is at risk, with vast resources being poured into the Iraqi hellhole and an alien mode of combat tearing at the military’s soul.

Perhaps most fundamental, Iraq has been a strategic catastrophe. With its ill-considered invasion, the Bush administration has established a vast terrorist training zone, created a new grievance for those inclined to hate America, empowered Iran, discouraged allied states from cooperating with the U.S., and diverted Washington from its most fundamental duties, such as protecting Americans from terrorism. At what point will the armchair warriors acknowledge that Iraq’s price has gone too high?

Of course, the people who got America into the current mess denounce their critics for wanting to “cut and run.” But what do they suggest? Going down on the Titanic. And it could be a very long, unpleasant voyage.

Rep. Gutknecht reluctantly acknowledges, “Baghdad is worse today than it was three years ago.” Indeed, “the condition there is worse than I expected,” with U.S. forces appearing to have little operational control over the city. Even the military brass is unable to apply much of a sugarcoat to the situation. The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, recently opined, “I believe that we are closer to the beginning … than we are to the end.” It seems the longer we have stayed, the longer we must stay.

The U.S. must bring home its troops. Not everyone tomorrow – that’s logistically impossible, anyway. But expeditiously, with no turning back.

In the end, even one of the war’s most fervent proponents, Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic, says that “on the question of sectarian rage, America is now largely beside the point.” Whatever might have been with better policies no longer matters. And the current outcome was probably inevitable. Explains Kaplan:

“Even if America had arrived in Iraq with a detailed post-war plan, twice the number of troops, and all of the counterinsurgency expertise in the world, my guess is that we would have found ourselves in exactly the same spot. The Iraqis, after all, still would have had the final say.”

Washington needs to get out of the way and let the Iraqis have their say.