Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Iraq - A Needless War That Needs To Be Won

I have one thing in common with Barack Obama. Back when neither of us was a member of the US Senate we both vehemently opposed the Iraq War. Barack, no doubt, had sound geopolitical reasons grounded in his deep reading of learned foreign policy papers and the wise counsel of experienced diplomats as well as Bill Ayres and Jeremiah Wright hissing into either ear.

I just thought it was dumb.

No, not just dumb. It was sheer madness. Reagan – whom death and Rush Limbaugh have transformed into a mythic figure akin to Moses with a sense of humor – invaded countries. But he didn’t start wars. There’s a difference. The great and good Gipper was a wily old pol, not very Mosaic maybe, but utterly, relentlessly necessary if you’re the leader of a democratic country sending other people’s (i.e. voters’) family members into harm’s way. So he picked small, weak, corrupt countries that no one gave a tinker’s curse about, invaded them, kicked tyrant butt and skedaddled as quick as dammit covered in (Teddy) Rooseveltian glory.

Some good was done, the Munro Doctrine given a timely polish, other tin-pot Napoleons put on notice, troops, highly trained but virgins to combat, blooded. And at a militarily modest cost in the lives of the good and the innocent which is now a matter between the affable ex-President and God into which I am not equipped to intrude.

Compared to the length of skinny string which is Panama and the cuckoo’s spit of Grenada, Iraq is enormous, with a population in the teeming millions and a terrain which even the natives find inhospitable. Saddam was a tyrant with nothing tin-potty about him. The country sat on Great Lakes of oil which guaranteed that everybody on earth had a vested interest in what happened, even Amazonian Indians who have long swapped their paddles for gleaming Honda 4-stroke outboards.

To top it all off the whole region is as volatile as nitroglycerin in a food blender and will continue to be so “till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear, and rocks melt i’ the sun”. Iraq in particular is a poorly glued Humpty Dumpty. Hacked arbitrarily out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire its inhabitants owed allegiance only to tribe, clan and sect and in the case of the Kurds to a dream of nationhood. They viewed the sands which surrounded them merely as a handy means of soaking up the blood of their 'fellow citizens'.

This goes some way to explaining why it required a despot of Saddam’s rugged moral sensibilities to bind Iraqis together with hoops of blood and iron. It also more than demonstrates why anybody who gave the question a moment’s thought would expect, no, predict the sectarian, tribal and racial chaos that would inevitably occur once the Fuhrer of Baghdad was eliminated.

The only reason I can think of – apart from rampant megalomania infecting the upper reaches of the Bush Administration – for this misbegotten adventure was a frustration on the President’s part with his father’s refusal to take Baghdad in 1991 and his own determination to finish the job. His expressed desire to spread Freedom and Democracy by armed might is so outrageous as to defy any rational attempt to understand it. And all the talk of WMD was of course purposefully generated claptrap.

The only proper justification for the invasion – as it was for the Afghan War – would have been if Saddam was providing succor to Al Qaeda. In that event all people of good will would have been four square behind the US. Of course bin Laden and Saddam Hussein would have only supported each other in the same way that the rope supports a hanged man.

Unforgivably this terrible war was not planned for. The whole escapade was to be George W’s Grenada, a reprise of Bush pere's Desert Shield triumph. In like Flynn and out like Slim, leaving smiling freedom-loving Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds skipping to the polling booths, fuzzy all over with warm feelings of brotherly love while Iraqi Democrats (symbol: the Hawkmoth) and Iraqi Republicans (symbol: the Dhub-Dhub) thrashed out wonkish policy details and traded barbs over gun control and gay marriage.

The war just happened the way a drunken argument about baseball stats ends up in a lethal stabbing. Unpremeditated mayhem. The military top brass dickered and bickered, the political leadership puffed and postured and all the while Donald Rumsfeld did his Kirk Douglas impression to packed houses of the increasingly disaffected before exiting stage right to a smattering of dutiful applause. It seemed that only the President kept the faith. Perhaps he was the only True Believer all along.

It was John McCain’s finest hour to urge the Surge because however criminally injudicious the Administration was in creating this Gallipoli it is imperative that the US emerges victorious. The country has committed its honor, its power, its standing to the creation of a stable viable Iraqi state free of tyranny and terror. Militant Islam has chosen this as their battleground. This in and of itself has changed the whole meaning of the conflict. What began as willful adventurism has become a strategic confrontation with immense political, security and moral issues at stake for the whole of the Western World. Having gone in America must win.

Despite the Surge, a telling metaphor because surges are of their nature transitory, despite General Petraeus’s upbeat report, despite the very significant decrease in violence, the signs are again ominous. One sign in particular. Last week Iraqi Premier, al Maliki, a Shi’ite, gave in to pressure from the Americans, and decided to confront the Shi’ite militias who control the very strategic city of Basra. These militias, the so-called Mahdi Army, are headed by Muqtada al Sadr, a radical cleric, who has found refuge over the border in Iran. This was the much hoped for battle between the ‘good’ Iraqis and the ‘bad’ Iraqis, a pattern for the future, if the wretched country is to have a future to speak of.

The results are now in. The ‘good’ Iraqis are, in fact, no good. The militiamen are willing to fight and die for their cause. The Government forces, highly trained and excellently equipped, are unwilling to die and therefore willing only to fight as long as they don’t put themselves in too much harm’s way. They have, it appears, no cause worth dying for. Having been fought to a standstill by the militias, they began to throw in the towel. One military source reported that "[a]n Iraqi army commander was told by the local Madhi army commander to lay down all their weapons, surrender all their uniforms, surrender their equipment and then there would be no trouble. The Iraqi army did just that." Striking an ominous note, he added, "we lost Basra faster than we lost Da Nang in 1975".

In order to stabilize the deteriorating situation US commanders sent in special forces and aircraft. A stand-off ensued as the Americans were reluctant to commit enough troops of their own to ensure success, fearing another Fallujah and judging the likely level of casualties unacceptable. On foot of subsequent official negotiations with the Baghdad Government al Sadr has declared a ceasefire. Militiamen already imprisoned by the authorities will be amnestied and released. Al Maliki’s much trumpeted re-occupation of Basra has failed ignominiously. By imposing a tactically advantageous stalemate al Sadr has achieved a stunning strategic victory.

The implications for the future are appalling. The American trained Iraqi troops have proved to be so many paper tigers. The American backed Prime Minister looks like a busted flush. Bush’s – and by extension McCain’s – strategy was aimed at building up a civil administration, capable of winning the people’s confidence and allegiance, buttressed by an Iraqi defense force capable of maintaining law and order and suppressing terrorism. This clearly is not anywhere near accomplished.

An eerie calm will probably now descend on Iraq. In Baghdad al Maliki will continue to go through the motions as will his security forces now that the enemy is on vacation. Al Sadr knows now that each day that passes is his friend. The American public has no stomach for another thousand deaths on top of the four thousand already in their graves. A Democrat may likely be elected next Fall solving the only problem he really has.

Even if the stalwart McCain gets the nod what more can he do to stiffen the spine of the Government side in Iraq? How can it be politically possible for him to continue to supply the wants of his lukewarm allies with more and more of his citizens' lives? The refusal of the US commanders in Basra to countenance the further shedding of American blood is more than a straw in the wind. The example of Vietnam still provides powerful encouragement to those who bank everything on the failure of US resolve.

And Osama bin Laden, untouched all the while by the misdirected bedlam in Mesopotamia, lurks in his wretched cave rubbing his hands and smiling that gentle deadly smile of his.

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