Sunday, September 30, 2012

Iraq, Afghanistan: America's Wasted Treasure

Among the many dismal pieces of news that awaited me in the morning's email were two bulletins from Time's Samantha Grossman: another Sunni-on-Shia attack in Iraq, and another American killed in Afghanistan.  Especially notable about the latter: the death was the 2000th of an American soldier in Afghanistan, the US's longest war.  What was the point of that death, or of the many more deaths that will follow in the months prior to the 2014 withdrawal (which, we know, will not be a total withdrawal), no one seems able to explain.  And Messrs Obama and Romney are giving the Afghan war a wide berth in the run-up to the November election.  (It will be interesting to see how they might dance around that issue in this week's first debate.)

The AP (via NYT) provides details of the attacks in Iraq:

 insurgents struck Shiite neighborhoods and security forces, officials said, killing at least 26 people.


Insurgents coordinated attacks in multiple cities, the latest strikes in a campaign apparently intended to rekindle widespread sectarian conflict and undermine public confidence in the beleaguered government.


The frequent bombings have raised concerns about the government’s ability to contain the violence, since the last American troops left in December after more than eight years of occupation and civil war that upended Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led minority power base and empowered Iraq’s long-repressed Shiite majority.


The deadliest attack on Sunday came in Taji, a former Al Qaeda stronghold north of Baghdad, where three explosive-rigged cars went off within minutes of one another. The police said eight people were killed and 28 were wounded in the early morning explosions.


In all, at least 94 people were wounded in attacks that stretched from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to the southern Shiite town of Kut.


An eight-year invasion followed by occupation in Iraq ended with 4000+ US soldiers killed, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.  (It seems a war crime in itself that we'll never have an exact accounting of Iraqis killed.  The Pentagon couldn't be bothered, especially in the war's early phase.  After all, they were only dead hajjis, right?)  Iraq is really no closer to being a functional, unitary state now than it was when the US removed Saddam Hussein.  Rival Arab- and Kurdish-dominated governments in Baghdad and Erbil, respectively, vie for advantage over oil and territitorial claims.  The Kurds nurture grievances against the Arabs that the US occupation did nothing to assuage - and it was only a hubristic conceit of the US to believe that it might be able to do so.  The Sunni Arabs of Anbar province and other regions in Iraq deeply resent the Shiite dominance that is now entrenched in Baghdad, and that continues to arrest and imprison Sunni leaders as "Baathist terrorists."  Many of the now disenfranchised Sunnis fear the resurgence of al-Qaeda jihadists in Iraq, but likely shed no tears over the deaths of Shiites at al-Qaeda's hands.  And as the largely Sunni-Arab-based insurgency against Bashar Assad's regime in Syria gathers momentum and forces him from power (while the US cheers them on), it's quite likely that Sunni fighters there - a goodly number of them, from Iraq - will then turn their efforts to restoring their Sunni confreres to some greater measure of power in Iraq.

Yes, Iraq has a constitution (with the US's fingerprints still all over it), and a parliament.  And it has an elected prime minister, but he continues to display a penchant for authoritarianism and brutality, as well as a subservience to Shiite sectarian interests, that makes him a far cry from the kind of "democratic" leader whose installation might have warranted the entailed sacrifice in blood and treasure.

Of course, given the dysfunction of American politics these days, one might ask how, or if, the US really has much standing any longer to teach the world about democracy.  Prof. Shadia Drury, Canada Research Chair at the University of Regina in Canada, provides thoughtful, cogent reflection on that very question:

It is ironic that America has embarked on the monumental project of teaching the world about democracy at a time when its own democracy is in a state of decay and degeneration. It seems to me that the most important lesson that America can teach the world in the twenty-first century regards the conditions that signal the imminent demise of the democratic body politic. The elements of democratic health are not a mystery. Like all other forms of government, democracy requires virtue—especially among its ruling elites.

Democracy is not a panacea that brings with it all good things, as Amer­icans are inclined to believe. It is a challenging form of government that re­quires certain conditions to avoid de­scending into chaos, sectarianism, or the tyranny of the majority. The American Founding Fathers were particularly wary of the tyranny of the majority, so they created a republic of laws with a Bill of Rights to protect minorities and individuals from the power of the majority. A constitution that sets limits on the power of the majority is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy.

It has often been said that, more than any other form of government, democracy re­quires virtue. This was the view of Jean-Jacques Rous­seau, who was an advocate of small participatory democracies. Although he did not express it that way, he thought that it was possible for small participatory democracies to arrive at the common good (he called it the General Will) if individuals asked themselves the right questions when it came time to vote. Instead of asking, “What do I want?” they should ask: “What do we need?” If they proceeded in this way, then they were sure to arrive at the common good.

In truth, every form of government needs the kind of virtue that Rousseau espouses—at least among its ruling class. The men and women in Congress must have the virtuous attitude described by Rousseau when they vote on the issues if they hope to make decisions that serve the common good (not just private interests). Unfortunately, American politicians are more devoted to the interests of their corporate backers than they are to the public interest that they are sworn to serve. They are afraid to ask tough questions on committees investigating corporate fraud lest they find their campaign contributions decimated. They have made a valiant effort to conceal their corruption by claiming that the corporate oligarchs they serve are “the job creators” whose interests are identical to the interests of the nation. They have succeeded in duping the public with this sleight of hand, but there are signs that this ploy will not work indefinitely. In foreign policy, they defend the interests of Israel, right or wrong, at the expense of the United States. Again, they are motivated by fear—fear that they will find themselves facing a well-funded opponent when seeking reelection. The result of this widespread corruption is gargantuan profits for large corporations that ship jobs overseas, environmental degradation, impoverishment of the working classes, shrinking of the middle class, and useless wars in the Middle East that serve neither the interests of America nor her client state—they merely augment the financial coffers of security companies and the arms industry. It is time for Amer­icans to look for courage among their elected leaders. It is time to expose the cowards who have not the courage to stand up for the good of their nation.

I highly recommend the rest of her essay, here.

Do Americans truly value and mourn those American lives lost - as well as the hundreds of billions of dollars squandered - in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Or will we choose to keep our eyes shut, our ears closed, and party on?

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