By “Iraqtimism,” I’m referring to “Iraq optimism.” Having long been mired in “Iraqssimism,” I find myself feeling strangely encouraged by recent developments.
(1) On Friday, Sabrina Tavernise reported that a number of Shiites are turning against Shiite militias. This makes perfect sense. The “ethnic cleansing” of Baghdad is already fairly far along, which means that a number of Shiite neighborhoods are far safer from Sunni extremists and yet still very vulnerable to the depredations of Shiite militias that in many cases resemble criminal gangs. As Tavernise, who unlike John Burns or Michael Gordon can’t be mistaken for someone who is broadly sympathetic to the aims of the Iraq invasion, notes,
The hardening Shiite feeling in Baghdad opens an opportunity for the American military, which has long struggled against the Mahdi Army, as American commanders rely increasingly on tribes and local leaders in their prosecution of the war.
I should note: in Sadr City and a number of other areas, the Jaish al Mahdi (JAM) does not resemble a criminal gang. Rather, it represents a social-cum-political organization with a military wing, not unlike Hezbollah and Hamas. And as counterintuitive as it may seem, this is not an entirely bad thing: it represents a step away from armed conflict as the sole means of settling diputes and a step towards politics.
This, to make a broader point, reflects one of the may ways the overbroad language of the Bush administration has gotten us into trouble. As horrible as the JAM undoubtedly is, they will need to become part of the solution if there is to be a decent outcome in Iraq: we can’t siimply wish that all the bad actors will vanish. All attempts to demonize political factions that represent a broad current of opinion are thus very dangerous. Similarly, overbroad language directed against Iran has put us in a box: there is relatively little we can do to punish the IRGC’s bad behavior without going “all out,” for obvious reasons.
(2) Tavernise also notes that some members of the JAM have now been integrated into the state.
Now, three years later, many members have left violence behind, taking jobs in local and national government, while others have plunged into crime, dealing in cars and houses taken from dead or displaced victims of both sects.
This is a mixed bag. One cause for (cautious) optimism is that the governance picture is stiill extremely grim, as a friend (recently back from Iraq, due to return in a few days) pointed out to me recently. Lines of authority between the center and the governorates remain exceedingly unclear, all power is de facto centralized in the hands of ministries operated along crony principles, accountable local officials have an extremely difficult time getting things done. The current “law” on provincial powers keeps everything tightly centralized, and it clearly needs to go.
And though I’m a firm believer in proportional representation, it is a system that works in a society at peace. In Iraq, real accountability will more likely flow from single-member constituencies with elections organized along first-past-the-post or instant runoff lines.
Imagine if we were proceeding along two tracks: marked improvements in the security picture and marked improvements in the quality and accountability of government.
We’re still fighting with one hand tied behind our back, in this case the hand of having local and provincial governments that have the tools they need to build on security gains.
(3) A brief word on withdrawal: we’ve seen some very encouraging signs with blended units in the Iraqi Army. The successes thus far have been modest, but we know that these soldiers are fighting and dying bravely in pitched battles, and they are increasingly winning them. If we withdraw, the officer corps will head to Syria and Jordan, and with good reason.
I realize that I sound like I’m “in-the-tank,” and until a couple of months ago I was convinced that we needed to radically reduce troop numbers. It could be that I’ve been duped by a sophisticated propaganda campaign. But the people I’ve found most convincing are people who believe (a) that President Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a mistake, (b) that the Rumsfeld phase of the war was marked by near-constant blunders and a fatal lack of responsiveness to the changing nature of the conflict, and © that we are making significant progress.
There are a lot of rhetorical games going on. Is caring about the fate of Iraq and Iraqis essentially imperialist? Perhaps it is. I can’t say this ever made that much sense to me. Frank advocates of liberal imperialism, and I was among them, have clearly been discredited on that point. But now, after bringing tremendous death and destruction to an already terror-plagued country, now that there is some sign that we can restore some semblance of peace, we have to leave immediately because we’re imperialists? This seems rather rich to me. I’d much prefer to engage in some form of ritual self-flagellation than abandon Iraq for purposes of clearing my conscience.
What about the decline of America’s weight in the world? I wonder about the specifics, and I say this as someone who has deployed the “whither American influence?” argument myself. How many of our allies want us to withdraw from Iraq? And here I mean allies who opposed the invasion, or who (rightly) expressed grave doubts and (shrewdly) refused to provide any troops to aid our effort. Or consider the non-allied great powers: my guess is that they feel much the same, which is to say I think they want us to contain the crisis and lower the temperature.
Some advocates of withdrawal who like me think the invasion was a mistake go very far indeed: they are particularly loud and pointed in calling for withdrawal, as though this represents some kind of penance, or as though they’ve resolved the whole question of Iraq to their intellectual satisfaction, thus making signs of progress fundamentally beside the point: the point which of course resides somewhere between their ears.
I’m not very good at writing about this subject, perhaps because it strikes me as truly and tremendously important. I also realize that this is a very polarizing subject, and I do my best to avoid polarizing subjects. And frankly, I’ve made each and every one of the arguments I’m now arguing against myself, which makes me more than a little gun-shy. I wouldn’t be saying a damn thing had my lefty friend not spent several hours telling me about district councilmembers getting shot in the chest for trying to do the kind of thing we take for granted. So there you have it.