The Closet Moderate: Wanna Hear My Master Plan / Here Is My Master Plan

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wanna Hear My Master Plan / Here Is My Master Plan

I'm a big nerd, and, as a result many of my childhood friends are nerds. Actually, I think the causation flows the other way, but you get the point. My co-bloggard, Waldorf, famously pioneered an expression that he uses whenever he's in the process of fucking you over in some nerdy contest: I'm doing you a favor.

Of course, it's enraging. When confronting a major setback in any endeavor, the last thing you want to hear from the guy who inflicted it is that it's actually a blessing in disguise.

I'm mentioning this because I want to recap the essential strategic incoherence of the Iraq War. In 2003 I was still an undergraduate, nose buried in Waltz, Clausewitz, Mearsheimer, Wendt, you name it. There were a number of theories circulating on campus about why we were invading Iraq, from the geostrategic (control of oil reserves) to the downright nutty (the 9/11 truthers). Six years later, the most baffling aspect of the Iraq War is that none of the explanations really make sense in light of our actions. We didn't behave like a resource-seeking imperial power, nor did we find the WMDs that formed the foundation of the preventive case for war. (See also: The Terminator Teaches Just War Theory for more on the difference between preventive and preemptive war.)

I've settled on the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Bush folks actually believed their own bullshit about regional transformation. More after the jump.


On the most basic level, there was a case to be made for Iraq as a proving ground for a regional transformation strategy. Saddam Hussein was an oppressive dictator who maintained himself in power by servicing an ethnic minority within Iraq (Sunnis). If they did take this idea seriously, I imagine the bet was something like, "we knock off Saddam, earn the gratitude of--and are greeted as liberators by--the Shi'ite majority, and use them as the building blocks of a new Iraq."


The problem is that there are a lot of complicating factors. First of all, war is an ugly undertaking that destroys lives and livelihoods. When you blow up someone's house or kill their child, even if it's accidental, "I'm doing you a favor" is not going to cut it. In fact, asking someone to see anything beyond "you blew up my house, you fuckmook" is ridiculous. (I'm looking at you Elliott Abrams.) Perhaps the RMA and the promise of Future Combat Systems had seduced us into believing that we could fight a war with so little collateral damage that it wouldn't provoke that sort of response, but even if that were true, there are other problems.

History, for one. You can have the best of intentions, and still fail at regional transformation because, let's face it, you're a bunch of white guys running the show and this region in particular has had a number of bad experiences with white guys running the show. Asking people to give you the benefit of the doubt--no, really, we're not the British and the British we brought with us are here for your own good--is a tall order when the entirety of their modern history involves grappling with the problems caused by people who look a whole lot like us.

On the plus side, Iraqi nationalism has never been strong. After WWI, Faisal was made King of Syria and Iraq as repayment for his father's (Sharif Hussein of Mecca) decision to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans (in other words, the plot of Lawrence of Arabia). In 1920, Faisal was kicked out of Syria by the French, who had taken over the mandate of Syria after the Conference of San Remo. In 1921, the British appointed Faisal King of Iraq, a place where he was almost completely unknown. They played "God Save the Queen" at his coronation, because there wasn't an Iraqi anthem.

As a result, there wasn't an Iraqi nation per se. Instead, there were three tribes: Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurd. The Iraqi Ba'ath Party, of which Saddam Hussein was an excrescence, was nationalist and pan-Arabist in ideology but tribalist in practice. That tribalism and the way it became entwined with government resources would prove to be a major stumbling block for the US. When we toppled Saddam and purged the Iraqi army, we ruined the lives of a whole bunch of people who had guns, connections, and grudges. Also, once ejected from power, the intra-tribal security arrangements became an important check on the ambitions of an aggrieved majority. Thus, it was very hard for individuals to defect from the greater tribal alignment as they'd forfeit their security guarantees.

All of these factors militated against a regional transformation strategy. It's not rocket science, nor is the idea that all of this is 20/20 hindsight at work persuasive. A quick examination of other ethnically-divided countries in chaos (the former Yugoslavia, which was still in our rearview mirror, for one) would've revealed similar patterns of inter-tribal violence. That alone* should've led to a reassessment of our "I'm doing you a favor" approach to the invasion of Iraq.

*Or, whatever, they could've read a little of the work done by Stathis Kalyvas.

No comments: