Sunday, August 22, 2010

Thomas Friedman on the Opportunity We Gave Iraq

The guy amazes me, truly.  He can write such wonderful essays (here's one, and another) on the need to counter global warming, move away from fossil fuels, develop alternative energy sources.  He deserves both thanks and praise for such stuff - a true public service.

And sometimes he can cut right to the chase when he delves into his putative area of expertise: international relations, and especially as they involve US policy in the Middle East.

But too, too many times he pens stuff that is so essentialist, so simplistic, so misleading, in his quest to be direct and incisive, that he does major damage, not only to the cause of shaping American public opinion, but to the general cause of American public diplomacy, of how people in the Middle East assess the wisdom of our pundits.

Case in point: today's Friedman piece in the NYT ("Surprise, Surprise, Surprise"), about how nice it would be for Middle Eastern leaders - and specifically, Iraq's current political leadership - ti surprise us all by stepping up and doing something truly courageous to put their country on track - a la Nelson Mandela in South Africa, or Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s, or Yitzhak Rabin at the time of the Oslo Accords (no mention, of course, of Yasser Arafat in that connection - so much for courage on Friedman's part).  Again, in itself, a good point to make: Iraq's politics will remained mired in stalemate unless either Nuri al-Maliki or Ayad Allawi (or perhaps both men) agrees to take less than he originally wanted in the wake of the March elections.

But why then pipe up with this?:
The reason the Iraq war was, is and will remain important is that it created the first chance for Arab Sunnis and Shiites to do something they have never done in modern history: surprise us and freely write their own social contract for how to live together and share power and resources. If they could do that, in the heart of the Arab world, and actually begin to ease the intra-communal struggle within Islam, it would be a huge example for others. It would mean that any Arab country could be a democracy and not have to be held together by an iron fist from above.
This is, first of all, simply a rebaked version of George W. Bush's now-busted freedom agenda.  (Never mind that that agenda was a shiny veneer of brightly burnished bullshit to cover the neocon agenda to promote American - and Israeli - predominance in the Middle East.)  Because of American selflessness and best wishes for all (in Friedman's world, whenever the rest of the planet is involved, we are always and everywhere "the good guys"), we magnanimously gave Iraqis a huge and wonderful gift: an opportunity to fix their society, and to make themselves into a little America, as that Reaganesque beacon on the hill for the entire Middle East.

Secondly, how can Friedman - or anyone else - be talking about this wonderful chance to "surprise us and freely write their own social contract for how to live together and share power and resources" after the war that we brought to the country in 2003 (and the sanctions that we so rigidly enforced during the 12 years before then) caused more devastation, death, and human misery than the country had seen since the time of the Mongol conquests by Hulegu and Tamerlane?

And it might surprise Friedman to know (and with his graduate degree in Middle East studies from Oxford, he should know better) that when the secular Arab nationalist Baath party came to power in Iraq in the late 1960s, they did indeed reach out to the Shiite community, and to the Kurds in the north.  The early Baath leadership in Iraq actually included some prominent Shiites.  It's true that Saddam later on hammered and brutalized the Kurds (and nothing can excuse his genocidal treatment of them in the late 1980s), but they have been  prone to separatism and rebellion against the central authority in Baghdad for centuries.  Saddam brutalized the Shia as well (and again, nothing can excuse his mass executions and burials), but the Sunni vs. Shia struggle in Iraq in the 1990s was largely grounded in Saddam's response to a threat from conservative Shiite religious leaders, encouraged from Iran, who wanted to overthrow him as much for his secular, "Godless" Arab-nationalist regime as for his "Sunniness."

All of this has engendered, with all the bloodshed, a chasm of distrust among Iraq's many ethnic and sectarian communities.  That Friedman sees the US invasion and occupation as having produced a golden opportunity to fix all that, and to "write a new social contract," is staggering in its naivete.

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