Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Biden's Rhetoric and Iraq - Not a Way Forward

All in all, some very sound advising in today's WaPo from a former Bush-administration foreign-policy official.
Meghan L. O'Sullivan - Biden's Rhetoric Could Harm U.S. Prospects in Iraq - washingtonpost.com

By all means, I concur - Iraqi politicians need to be encouraged to think in terms of issues, not ethnicity, and Joe Biden's earlier support for a soft partitioning of Iraq has to some extent come back to haunt the Obama administration, at least in the eyes of Iraqis who hope to see a reasonably strongly centralized state.

But the big issue that Ms. O'Sullivan fails to address is one that Patrick Cockburn raised in an important essay several weeks ago: How can Iraqis get past their paranoias, their deeply ingrained resistance to trusting fellow Iraqis who happen to be of different sect or ethnicity?

But the attitudes of Iraqis are not determined solely or even primarily by monthly casualty figures or even the current security situation. Their individual psychology and collective political landscape is shaped rather by the memory of the mass killings of the recent past and fear that they might happen again. Iraq is a country so drenched in blood as to make it next to impossible to reach genuine political accommodation between Shia and Sunni, Arab and Kurd, Baathist and non-Baathist, supporters and opponents of the US occupation. "How do you expect people who are too frightened of each other to live in the same street to reach political agreements?"

We've all become familiar with the accounts about how Sunnis and Shii intermarried during the Saddam era and earlier, hardly giving a thought to such differences. But the fact of the matter is that such fault lines are there, and that when Iraq has been destabilized (often by outside intervention), it's been along those fault lines. But Saddam accentuated them as well, no more so than with his Anfal genocidal campaign against the Kurds in the last years of the 1980-1988 war with Iran or his brutal repression of the Shii intifada in 1991.

Can outsiders play a significant role in helping rebuild trust between Arabs and Kurds, Sunni and Shii, in Iraq? Or is this a matter better left to the people of Iraq themselves?

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