Divide and Scamper

Sometimes it feels lousy to be right. Watching the Bush Administration scramble for an exit strategy from Iraq is cold comfort to those of us who warned America against blundering in. For the sake of our troops, I would have preferred it had the daydreams of the neoconservative hawks come true—if U.S. soldiers had been greeted with a Roman triumph through the streets of Baghdad, marching like victorious Yankees down Broadway to a ticker tape parade, and leaving in their wake a moderate, secular, genuinely democratic Arab state that would magnetically attract its neighbors into emulating its virtues.

Likewise, a cop who barges in to stop a man battering his wife might hope that she will appreciate his intervention, throw the bum out, and never see him again. But he knows better than to expect it. He probably has heard that domestic violence calls are more dangerous for cops than drug busts—and usually as thankless. He certainly knows better than to evict the battering dad, move into the house himself, and expect the wife and kids to adopt him as their liberator. After a few days of indulging such a delusion—after the wife rebuffs him in the bedroom, the kids try to steal his gun, and the husband sneaks back to leave the family dog strangled on the door step—the most dunderheaded rookie would get the idea and find new digs. He’d leave the poor woman to choose her fate—and perhaps have a colleague look in on the kids now and then.

Let’s hope that’s what the Administration has decided to do. If I could catch a few words with President Bush, I’d whisper simply: “What part of ‘Cut and Run’ don’t you understand?” Take American soldiers out of Iraq, and in six months the average citizen will forget that the place exists—a perfectly normal attitude for someone to have towards a faraway country that has almost no impact on his homeland. Bismarck once said that “the whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” I’ll go further: To Americans, the whole Middle East is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian, much less a beagle.

Now there are several reasonable-sounding objections to the proposal that the U.S. set up some sort of government as quickly as possible, and get out of Iraq almost immediately. Let’s address them one by one:

1. Iraq is a divided, unstable country. If we leave it without transforming its political culture, it will end up in the hands of another tyrant like Saddam, who will still have all that oil.

Perfectly true. In fact, there is every reason to go ahead and divide Iraq, explicitly, on our way out the door. If we want to leave behind a peaceful, humane government, the best way to do that would be to parcel out the country’s territory along the rough ethnic lines that make it logically not one nation, but three. As we pull out our troops, we should encourage the Iraqi governing council to split the country into these parts—at least provisionally, with the option to reunite if it suits their mutual interests. “Iraq” was invented by colonialist Brits doodling on a map after World War I. There’s no more reason to insist on a single Iraq than there is to fight for a unified Bosnia.

This strategy would have several advantages. The Kurds, who show the most pro-American attitudes of any Iraqis, would count on our influence to maintain their independence from a fearful, aggressive Turkey. Their territories contain enough oil to make the country viable on its own. Likewise, the Shiite south is generously endowed with natural resources—which Iraqis, not Americans, are welcome to repair and profit from, as soon as they can. The one area of the country that supported Hussein most vigorously, the Sunni center, has little oil and few prospects for prosperity—having long sucked its sustenance from the other regions, through the tyrannical Baath Party. If left on its own, this area would probably have to depend on subsidies from friendly Sunni regimes, or sink into ruin. Ah well, there’s some justice in the world.

In any case, it’s hard to see why Americans should care much how these distant regions sort out their problems; Iraq only came up on our radar screen when it seized the oil fields of Kuwait, and threatened to become a regional power. We invaded the first time in order to avert that threat—and again, on the pretext of finally ending it. Whether or not it was worth the expenditure of blood and treasure, that mission, at least, has been accomplished. The three new “post-Iraqs” would be too small and weak to form a strategic threat to anyone—and internally, they’d surely be juster, saner, and easier to govern without the use of torture and totalitarianism. Drawing on the experience of the Swiss, Wilhelm Ropke argued in his widely-read wartime book The Solution to the German Problem, that a post-war Germany should be governed not as a whole but in its constituent states, with most power devolved to local authorities. Allied authorities listened to him, and Germany is still a “federal” republic, happily far more decentralized than England or France. Ropke went further, and suggested that Bavaria or the Rhineland or Prussia might be granted independence, if they wished it. Thanks to the Soviet threat, this option was never pursued. Besides, Germany had historical grounds for unity—reaching back as far as Charlemagne. Iraq was a British daydream, which has become an Arab nightmare.

2. Withdrawing from Iraq without “redeeming” it would mean that we can be driven out of a country by guerrilla warriors, and are willing to accept defeat in a massive initiative to which we’ve committed ourselves.

Maybe it would. How tragic is that? Every world power has seen its share of strategic withdrawals. It’s called “the human condition,” in which the “greatest plans of mice and men”… you get the idea. Only ideologues who have convinced themselves that their cause is not only just but divinely appointed, historically determined, or otherwise fixed in the stars, refuse to step back when they’ve made a mistake. It’s that refusal to learn from errors, to take account of new information, which brings down mighty empires. When Counter-Reformation Spain took on the mission of imposing the Catholic faith everywhere—from England to Holland to Bohemia and beyond—it spent itself into ruin and rapidly declined. Napoleon’s determination to overthrow the established order all across Europe, as far as the Urals, ensured his miserable exile on St. Helena. Brezhnev’s outrageous hubris in claiming that the Soviet Union had the right to forcibly preserve “socialist” regimes—wherever they were threatened—drove his nation into the quagmire of Afghanistan, where its lifeblood and treasure drained away. The list could be multiplied endlessly—and applied on a smaller scale. The deplorable wastes of human life that marked the Western Front in World War I, and Stalingrad in World War II, resulted from the same blundering refusal by commanders to abandon self-defeating strategies, and process new information. Psychologists have actually summed up mental illness as “Repeating the same behavior, expecting different results.”

If the U.S. walks away from Iraq, and kicks the Mesopotamian dust from its boots, some parts of the world will sneer at us for weakness—then forget the whole thing, as they forgot our retreat from Lebanon, Somalia, and Vietnam. They’ll remember that we possess the world’s only first-class military, with enough nuclear weapons to incinerate all life on earth. We might just squeak by without that extra airbase in Basra.

Besides, in a real sense, we will still have won. A nation which we’d proclaimed our enemy would lie divided, helpless, and under new regimes, its former leaders deposed and its weapons scattered. Only American ideologues could make of that result a defeat—and only because they have become what they hate, proponents of an eternal “jihad” against non-Western, non-secular regimes, which can only end when the enemy is not only defeated but converted, incorporated into the “Dar-Al-Disney.” They must learn to love Uncle Sam.

3. But what about the “war on terror”?

As we’ve now seen, and even the White House admits, there was no real connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. The disaster on Sept. 11, 2001 had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein, or Hamas; it had to do with incompetent airport security, bumbling law enforcement, lax immigration enforcement and political correctness at the FBI—all of which remain almost as bad as they were on Sept. 10, 2001. Box-cutters show up on airliners; travelers smuggle themselves in cargo holds; thousands of students overstay their visas, and most of Al-Qaeda could walk across the Mexican border, any day of the week. (The Bush Administration would probably offer them amnesty. They’d end up working at Wal-Mart.) The hard, unsexy work of making America safe from sabotage has not been done; instead, we’ve followed bright, shining lies into the desert, where our men and women chase mirages to their death.

Neoconservative idealists and foreign policy “realists” alike dream of “draining the swamp” that breeds terrorism in the Arab world—as Saddam Hussein planned to destroy the swamps that harbored his enemies, the “Marsh Arabs.” All he achieved was an ecological and cultural disaster, and we should expect no better. What’s more, we don’t have the ruthlessness, the motivation, or the money to forcibly transform a dozen troubled countries into functioning democracies with tolerant pluralist cultures. It took the West some 400 years of religious wars, revolutions, counter-revolutions, and several genocides to transform itself into the childless, secular shopping mall that so enchants the bureaucrats of the European Union. These conflicts were driven by internal forces indigenous to Europe, not imposed by outside powers hungry for its natural resources and afraid of its aggression. If the peoples of the Arab world are to follow the West down the garden path from the Koran to “Sex and the City,” they’ll have to do so on their own, and not at the point of a bayonet.