Thursday, December 29, 2011

Iraq: Hot News and History

Crisis plagues Iraq as U.S. troops depart -- As the last U.S. soldiers exited Iraq Sunday and debate was raging about the nation's future, political crisis erupted in Baghdad that raised fears of more sectarian strife to come. Iraqiya, a powerful political bloc that draws support largely from Sunni and more secular Iraqis, said it was boycotting parliament, a move that threatens to shatter Iraq's fragile power-sharing government.” – CNN 12/18/11 
 “As US troops exit Iraq, Maliki moves against Sunni rivals -- Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, briefly arrested the Sunni vice president yesterday and has urged a vote of no confidence against the Sunni deputy premier.” – McClatchy Newspapers/Christian Science Monitor 12/19/11
 “Iraqi Kurds maneuver in political minefield -- Iraqi Kurds, at odds with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over oil and power, have thrown down another challenge to the Shi'ite-led central government by giving refuge to Iraq's Sunni Muslim vice-president, despite a Baghdad warrant for his arrest.” – Reuters/Chicago Tribune 12/29/11

Long before the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was set up in the Pentagon to establish democracy in Baghdad, on just eight weeks notice before President Bush’s “shock and awe” invasion was launched, the British empire had a plan to make Iraq the very model of a modern democratic state.

The failure of British colonial administrators to plant a viable parliament in the Cradle of Civilization in a tumultuous 12-year effort (1920-32) should have been a sobering lesson to those running the American campaign, British historian Toby Dodge warned in a book published amid American self-congratulations on quickly overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime. In his timely book on the origins of Iraq—Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (Columbia University Press, 2003)—published amid daily news bulletins of violent attacks on “postwar” U.S. military patrols, Dodge shows how terribly relevant history can be.

Carved out of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, Iraq was a British invention, a cobbling together of disparate desert tribes who were to be molded into a “modern” state. When the natives resisted, the reformers dispatched by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill and other leading lights in London unleashed a deadly new device and bombed rural villages. “The British in Iraq in the 1920s, because of a lack of finance and soldiers, came to rely heavily on the coercive power of airplanes. Governance was delivered from two hundred feet, in the shape of regular bombing and machine-gun fire,” Dodge notes.

Now here’s the capsule lesson for Americans too busy reforming Iraq to read a history book:

 “The Iraqis of the 1920s were deeply suspicious of British motives. Through violence and political mobilization, they forced the colonial power to leave much sooner than they had anticipated,” Dodge writes. “Ultimately, however, it was the way the British understood Iraqi society that came to undermine their attempt to build a stable state. British colonial administrators…set about devolving power to indigenous Iraqis they believed had social influence. Resources were channeled through those individuals in the hope that they could guarantee social order at the lowest possible cost. The resulting state was built on extremely shallow social foundations. The governments that inherited the state after independence had, like the British before them, to resort to high levels of violence and patronage to keep the population from rising up and unseating them.”

The ink on Dodge’s book was barely dry and The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Nov. 2, 2003 titled “Who Botched the Occupation?” Journalist David Rieff noted: “What went wrong is that the voices of Iraq experts, of the State Department almost in its entirety and, indeed, of important segments of the uniformed military were ignored.”

In Toby Dodge’s view, the parallels between British and American occupations of Iraq are hauntingly similar in their hubris. “The British did not mean to undermine the nascent Iraqi state. But, hobbled by an ideologically distorted view of Iraqi society and facing financial and political limits, they did,” he writes. “The United States in Iraq today must understand that it is both living with the consequences of that failure and is in danger of repeating it.”

As the US military ceremoniously hauled down its flags and staged its last conveys from its last base in Iraq, American historian Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel whose son died in the fighting in Iraq, summed up the dissenting view on the war that the vast majority of the American people came to embrace, despite the still simmering bout of war fever in Washington:

“Yet few of those defenders have demonstrated the moral courage—or is it simple decency—to consider who paid and what was lost in securing Saddam's removal,” Bacevich wrote in an essay posted recently on the CNN World website. “That tally includes well over four thousand U.S. dead along with several tens of thousands wounded and otherwise bearing the scars of war; vastly larger numbers of Iraqi civilians killed, maimed, and displaced; and at least a trillion dollars expended—probably several times that by the time the last bill comes due decades from now. Recalling that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to al-Qaeda both turned out to be all but non-existent, a Churchillian verdict on the war might read thusly: Seldom in the course of human history have so many sacrificed so dearly to achieve so little.”

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