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Iraq, the model

Meanwhile, Back on the Iraqi Ranch
Dude, Here’s Your Civil War

It was barely a few months ago—at the beginning of spring training, to be exact—when Ralph Peters, the New York Post columnist and one-man ministry of information for the Pentagon, scratched out his semi-famed “Dude, Where’s My Civil War” piece after driving around a couple of Baghdad corners in heavily fortified U.S. Army vehicles that, luckily, did not get hit. He was “looking for the civil war that The New York Times declared,” but couldn’t find it. It’s not that he wasn’t looking hard enough (how could he, from the military’s mobile fortresses?). But like every Panglossian apologist for the occupation, his predispositions forbade him to see anything more than country agog in hugs and kisses for his American-accented Rudyards and Kiplings (minus the poetry). “Oh,” his last line went, “and I’ll remember those ‘radical Shias’ cheering our patrol as we passed by.” You gotta love those air quotes around radical Shias, as if the concept was as outlandish as, say, a bunch of ‘radical Shias’ taking oh, I don’t know, 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in the heart of Marlboro country suddenly gone Persian and Ayatollesque.

Ralph Peters returned to Baghdad and wrote home about it last week: “There is no civil war in Iraq today. But it’s beginning to look as if there might be one tomorrow.” That was on July 27, a Sunday. On Monday, sure enough, Iraqis were back at work, clocking in their 40-hour week of kidnappings, bombings, executions. As Peters saw it, this was the difference: “Political violence with a religious undertone is becoming outright religious violence. The difference is crucial. The earlier fighting was over who should govern. Increasingly, it’s about who should define Allah’s will on earth.” And that’s the sort of moronic analysis that dragged us there more than three years ago, and that has kept us there since—an incapacity to see an invasion of Iraq for what it was bound to be from the start. Just so I don’t come off like a Friday-prayer quarterback luxuriating in hindsight, here’s how I concluded my weekly newspaper column on March 26, 2003, less than a week into the invasion of Iraq, when Ted Koppel was marveling at the speed and awesomeness of the 4 th Infantry Division’s NASCARing it to Baghdad and Bush was having his cakewalk and making us eat it too: I compared America’s involvement in Iraq to its involvement in Lebanon in 1983, which ended disastrously:

And it is into that mayhem, that Lebanon writ large, that President Bush is sending his army. American soldiers will probably get the rice treatment. They’ll get the hugs and the roses. The pictures will be grist for a month of Bush-pumping propaganda back in the ‘homeland.’ But the gratefulness of liberation doesn’t outlast the afternoon nap. Those trigger-happy Shiites the Marines last knew in Lebanon , incidentally, form Iraq ’s majority, and the country is crawling with Balkan-tempered minorities. Planning the California-scale creation of a pro-American nation out of Washington Beltway blueprint in the Arab heartland is science fiction with a death wish. It is colossal hubris. It is Icarus on crack. With Afghanistan still smoldering with chaos, the Anglo-American country-hoppers don’t know what gothic nightmare they’re getting into in Iraq , what they’re getting us all into. And it won’t end well no matter the bushels of rice riddling Americans’ welcome along Mesopotamia ’s shimmering, shifty sands. [See the full column here.]

Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, what should have been obvious to three years ago to men entrusted with thousands of lives and the most powerful military on earth began subbling to the surface, like sputters of blood on a fatal wound. Gen. John Abizaid, commander of United States forces in the Middle East : ““I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war.” Sen. John Warner, the Republican chairman of the committee: “I don’t have the exact words before me, but I was struck by General Chiarelli’s statement the other day that in his 35 years of military training, he really never had spent a day preparing for what faces him as our commander of forces in Iraq: sectarian violence, civil war.What is the mission of the United States today under this resolution if that situation erupts into a civil war? What are the missions of our forces?” He was posing the question to Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Pace’s answer: “Sir, I believe that we do have the possibility of that devolving to a civil war, but that does not have to be a fact.”

Pace had his Panglossian moment then: “I believe that U.S. armed forces today can continue to do what we’re doing, which is to help provide enough security inside of Iraq for the Iraqi government to provide governance and economic opportunity for their citizens.” But here was the catch: “The weight of that opportunity rests with the Iraqi people. We can provide support. We can help provide security. But they must now decide about their sectarian violence.” In other words, the U.S. military’s mission is confessing its limits—and unwillingness to go beyond them. It is as good as a green light to the warmongers, not dissimilar from the implicit green light to warmongering in Lebanon , and not with entirely different results. In either case, radical Shiitism is ascendant, American influence in decline. The Bush doctrine, intended as the wildfire of democratic reform, proved to be the accelerant of that decline.

There is a connection with Lebanon (if not also with Afghanistan). It’s not, as Bush claimed in Florida earlier this week, that the war there “is part of a larger struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror in the Middle East .” It’s that overwhelming military force in the 21 st century is meaningless when it’s up against the flammables of what the West is neither equipped nor willing to understand, let alone deal with in less than embarrassing, savage ways: a mixture of sectarianism and tribalism paradoxically wedding itself to nationalist mantles: Hezbollah’s Shiitism in the name of Lebanese independence (however alleged), Sunnis and Shiites battling it out in Iraq in the name of supremacy of the faith and the nation—Umma, Oprah. For now, only Sartre seems to have the answer of what so many analysts have been calling an “existential” struggle on all sides: “No Exit.”

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