Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Keegan off-target on Historical Analysis of Iraq

As he has in the past, the British historian John Keegan has written of the legitimacy of the war with Saddam.
The war was conceived and conducted in the honest belief that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. It was legally justified by United Nations Security Council Resolutions 678, 687 and 1441. It was, moreover, as a military operation, astonishingly successful, probably the most successful war ever fought between a democracy and a dictatorship.
However, he offers some analysis of what has gone wrong with the occupation and, I believe, has embarked on a bit of second-guessing.
One does not have to belong to the anti-war coalition to believe that something has gone wrong or to believe that what has gone wrong could have been avoided. Whether the current Washington regime was capable of avoiding the trouble is a more complex issue. President George W Bush brought with him into power an entourage of highly opinionated advisers, who were rapidly appointed to influential positions. They have become known as "neo-conservatives", since many were people formerly on the Left who subsequently moved Right.
Keegan doesn't rehash the same old meme concerning the now-near-universally-vilified "neo-conservatives." Rather, he explores from whence their ideology sprung.
A more accurate way of describing them would be as "post-Marxists", in that, like many 20th-century intellectuals, their thinking was formed in reaction to the Soviet system, whether originally for or against. In the world in which they matured, it was impossible not to perceive politics as the supreme and dominant human activity. Their perception had distorting after-effects.
In short, they believed that all problems could be resolved politically, at least in the wide-sense of the term. (Note that this is not the same as diplomatically.)
Confronted by the residue of tyranny, as in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, they expected democracy to take its place. Inside any people's democracy, they might have said, there is a real democracy struggling to get out. In the case of eastern Europe, they were genuinely right. Fifty years' experience of Marxist orthodoxy had conditioned every intelligent East European to yearn for democracy and to embrace it warmly wherever it showed itself.
This seemed to fulfill their belief, but
The neo-conservatives' mistake was to suppose that, wherever tyranny ruled, democracy was its natural alternative. So, when planning for the government of post-war Iraq, the lead agency, the Pentagon, dominated by neo-conservatives, jumps to the conclusion that, as soon as Saddam's tyranny was destroyed, Iraqi democrats would emerge to assume governmental responsibility from the liberating coalition and a pro-Western regime would evolve seamlessly from the flawed past.
Unfortunately, the "post-Marxist" cannot conceive of anything but a political solution, so they missed the fact that Iraq was not dominated by politics, but religion.
It is religion, of course, which the American neo-conservatives have come up against in post-Saddam Iraq. Not only religion; the survivors of the Ba'ath Party, a strictly secular organisation, are also deeply involved in the opposition to the American presence. Religion is, however, the real opposition force. The question is whether the grip it has established in the past year can be loosened.
Here, I think Keegan has provided and oversimplified view of Islam. In Iraq, and much of the Middle East, religion is inherently political. On a macro scale, the Sunni and Shia sects operate against each other within the political milieu, and factions within each sect operate similarly. Iran's attempt to influence the Iraqi Shia's, while it may appear a natural extension of a shared religion, is actually done with a distinct political goal in mind: the establishment of an Iranian client state in Iraq. In this sense, then, religion is being used as a political tool and cannot be extricated as easily as Keegan would have us believe.

There has certainly never been a tradition of the sort of liberal democracy in the Middle East. While the same could be said of most of the countries under communist rule, they still seemed to embrace democracy, as Keegan rightly points out. So if it is not a disconnect between those thinking a political solution is the only possible solution and the reality of the situation within Iraq, what does explain the reluctance by Iraqi's to embrace democracy? The answer is much more complex than that offered by Keegan.

First, one must assume that Iraqi's aren't embracing democracy. I don't actually accept that premise. As has been well chronicled throughout the blogosphere, the media has simply under-reported the successes in Iraq, many of which have derived from a growing sense of freedom among the population. Thus, I won't travel any further along this well-covered ground. But the Iraqi's certainly seem very passive in embracing democracy.

The many reasons include the lack of confidence in overall security within the nation in very specific areas and the natural reticence and cynicism among people to get "a new boss, just like the old boss". There is also a half-century of anti-American propaganda, still ongoing by the way, to overcome. How does a newly-free society embrace the sort of government practiced by those it has been so thoroughly taught to hate for fifty years? With great reluctance and a wary "wait-and-see" attitude, I would think. This leads me to something that is fundamentally different between the former communist eastern European and Iraq that Keegan missed in his comparison.

Keegan rightly alludes to the fact that eastern Europeans were well-versed in the communist orthodoxy that held democracy in high esteem, if not in practice. They were aware of the ideal and saw it exhibited by its primary purveyor, the United States of America. As such, the democratic ideal was associated with an ideological framework of liberal democracy provided by the example of the United States. This was facilitated by shared traditions rooted in the history of Western civilization (Athens, Rome, Christianity). Additonally, America was upheld as the best-yet construction of a government that both championed and protected liberty. When freedom came, they actively and enthusiastically sought the help of America and endeavored to mimic her institutions as best and as quickly as possible. Another crucial fact was that they at least had the impression that they had been active participants in acquiring their own freedom. The same cannot be said in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

The Arab world, and Iraq was no exception, is rent by class struggle. The majority of the population is powerless and poor. The ideology that has shaped and focused their anger against their lot in life has two primary points of emphasis. The first is the belief that a cultural revival based on a strictly defined, usually Wahabian strain of Islam (in which the idyllic life is dominated by mullahs) that seeks power for itself by advocating the toppling of the more secular leadership of whatever country in which they reside. The second is the demonization of the West as the purveyors of all that is antithetical to the Islamic ideal. (As a sidenote, this last is, ironically, encouraged and fed by the secular antagonists whose removal from power is the ultimate goal in the first place. These heads of state, kings and princes all, have successfully shifted the focus from themselves to the Zionists and their supporters. At least until recent months, as the Al Queda resurgence in Saudi Arabia has shown.)

Thus, the past that the Muslims call on, unlike the shared Western civil tradition of the old Eastern bloc countries, is suffused with religious ideology of the most extreme kind and lacks any real sense of individual self-determination. Whether this is a historically accurate portrayal of the Islamic past or not is not the point, it is this radical ideology that prevails in the cellars and shadows of Arab totalitarian states. As such, the ideology of insurgency, or perhaps a better phrase would be the ideology of self-rule, has at its basic core a return to an Islamist theocracy. I don't know the extent to which this ideology prevailed in Iraq, but I believe it is safe to assume that it was, and is, prevalent. Therefore, it is understandable that we weren't welcomed with open arms. (That, and the fact that we encouraged rebellion in the past and then pulled back.)

Keegan believes that the "post-Marxists" (or "neo-Conservatives") failed to see that there wasn't a political solution to Iraq and that the main hurdle to overcome was religious. He was half-right. In fact, in the Arab world, religion and politics are intertwined. Though we in the United States are familiar with religion and government intersecting occasionally, we hold the concept of a separation of church and state (in varying degrees) as fundamental to a degree simply not present in the Arab world. If anything, the Administration underestimated the degree to which religion formed the basis of Islamic political ideology. In short, while we in the west have drifted to an overarching secularism, the Arab world seeks to take an opposite course. They are informed by their immediate experience in which secularism is tantamount to totalitarian rule.

I think that we were surprised that we weren't overtly embraced and showered with gratitude when we liberated Iraq (I was), but we should have realized that the fundamental baseline of individual liberty has not been established in Iraq. Man longs to be free, but a mind not familiar with such a concept will have a hard time visualizing that desire and recognizing it when it occurs. Thus, he is not equipped to articulate his joy if he is unaware of what has just occurred. Also, it is basic human nature to distrust those who have apparently acquired power in a violent manner. The nostalgic feeling that "he was a crook, but he was our crook" is often a normal response to a new apparent governing power. The United States was faced with some hard work to show that it wasn't the monster portrayed by Saddam and some of the mullahs, such as Al Sadr.

Keegan believes that the United States erred in removing the Baathist governmental infrastructure, thus, he says, "Iyad Allawi has now to rebuild Iraq's military and civilian services from exactly the same group of individuals who the neo-conservatives rejected at the outset." While he doesn't mention this, there is another useful comparison between the former Soviet client states and Iraq to be made. The nature of the governments in the eastern bloc changed, but many of the same people remained in place. Thus, the transfer of power was smoother than that of Iraq as the institutional infrastructure remained in place. (Still, it must be remembered that the transfer of power went nowhere as smoothly as is generally believe, Bosnia is example enough of this fact. And, as most do, Keegan forgets that Bosnia is still being monitored by the United Nations and experiencing violence, nearly a decade after the fighting was "over.") Keegan makes an accurate point, but it is still not germane to Iraq, which saw a violent change in power unlike the mostly peaceful transfers of eastern Europe. Keegan expresses a hope that
...the neo-conservatives and their Democrat equivalents have learnt a lesson, since it is unlikely that this is the last time the United States will have to undertake an exercise in nation-building. Next time Washington should take as its target the preservation of as much as possible. Looking back, better a Ba'athist Iraq than an Islamic one. Let us hope that it is not too late.
Left unsaid is whether the Iraqi people would have embraced such a situation. Thus, if that had been the situation, would a more Islamicist based insurgency now be underway as opposed to the mostly Baathist and terrorist uprising now going on? To a large extent, historians are paid to second-guess, but they should remember that while calling into question the problems of decisions made they should be required to answer questions that arise from the solutions they profer.

Gradually, the Iraqis are realizing what freedom means and are anxious to excercise their new rights by electing their own government. The efforts of the United States military to "win the hearts and minds" is succeeding, even if the gratitude is left unsaid or even unrealized. Though expression of gratitude may seem scant, the obvious desire of the Iraqis to enter into self-rule is all the evidence that is needed that the United States succeeded in its mission: Saddam Hussein was removed from power and the Iraqi people are clearly on the path to self-rule. The Iraqi people will decide the nature of their government, the degree to which it is secular or religious. It is their country and up to them. They will make the decision, not the United States, not the United Nations, not the mullahs. Can this be viewed as anything other than a success?

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