Friday, July 3, 2009

The US "Liberation" of Iraq

Now that US troops have "withdrawn" (hardly, actually - just redeployed outside the cities), commentators are crawling out of the woodwork with reflections as to what the US impact has been, now that Iraqi "sovereignty" has been restored. The assessments run the spectrum. Michael Gerson (formerly of the Bush administration) writes in the WaPo our "gift" of "liberation" to Iraq - that we've done all we can do, bless our hearts, now it's up to the Iraqis to take this country of theirs that our invasion cracked apart and put it all back together. After all, Gerson says, nobody was expecting Jeffersonian democracy. Actually, I don't believe Bush's people (including Gerson at the time) had any idea what to expect when the US went in. They just wanted Saddam out. Well, they got that, but now theyve helped spawn a new Saddam perhaps, in Mr. al-Maliki.

Ivan Eland, on the other hand, writes of the "coming train wreck" in Iraq (closer to the mark, in my view), but also declares that Iraq will get nowhere without a long, bloody civil war, because the country can be held together only by force. Basically, he's arguing for partition, which is something that people like Joe Biden, Leslie Gelb, and Peter Galbraith have been endorsing for a few years now.

This is a dilemma of huge proportions. A unitary Iraq is going to be an Iraq nonetheless very badly divided internally for the foreseeable future. The propects for sectarian and ethnic reconciliation are as dim now as they were five years ago. It may well be that a strongman wielding a preponderance of internal-security power (yes, a la Saddam) may be all that can keep Iraq together, but at this point the Kurds in the north and northeast - having had the sweet taste of autonomy since 1991 - are not going to accept dictates from Baghdad, and they have the military to back that up. On the other hand, partition - even a so-called soft one - opens up even more cans of worms. Turkey and Iran would be forever injecting themselves into the affairs of Iraqi Kurdistan, feeling the need to keep their own Kurdish populations from starting down their own roads to autonomy. Iran would be working to cement its influence in the largely Shiite south of Iraq. Iran still sees itself as the standard-bearer of a political Islamism rooted in Shiism, and influence in southern Iraq endows them with a connection with the great Shiite shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, as well as Iraq's massive, largely undeveloped oil fields in its south.

Of course, that Iran might edge closer to controlling a major portion of Iraq's oil would send the US's blood (or oil?) pressure through the roof. The Saudis would likewise rail against such a development as (1) an Iranian threat to Saudi oil dominance, (2) a Persian threat to the Arabs of southern Iraq (not to mention those many Arabs who inhabit Iranian Khuzistan, in Iran's southwest - nice leverage, that), and (3) a threat from "heretic" Shiites of Iran to the traditional Sunni dominance and prerogatives in the mostly Arab Middle East.

All of these lovely dilemmas brought to the foreground, of course, courtesy of Mr. Bush's sense of his own being destined for greatness after 9/11 - which, of course, gave him the opening, and the supposed moral leverage (to save us all from evil), to shock and awe that WMD-toting, al-Qaeda-loving Saddam Hussein into submission.

Except, of course, that Saddam wasn't about either of those things. The FBI interviews with the Iraqi dictator (now dead two and a half years) make it pretty plain: he had no WMDs, but wanted Iran to think so, because he hated Iran's mullahs, and he feared and distrusted Iran more than he did the US (which, he said, was not Iraq's enemy), and he viewed Osama bin Laden as a religious zealot.

Am I glad that Saddam is no longer oppressing the Iraqi people? Yes. But, on balance, did the US's "liberation" of Iraq leave the Middle East, or the world, more secure, or save more lives, in the short term? I'd say, no. Will it have contributed to a happier situation, say, 50 years from now?

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