Monday, January 31, 2005

Looking Forward Toward the Historical Memory of Iraq

By all reports, yesterday's election in Iraq was a success. Security at the polls was good, the level of violence was low, and the turnout was exceptionally high. Everyone must admire the courage of the Iraqi people for coming out to vote in the face of very real threats. One can only wonder how high turnout would be in the U.S. if voters here faced even a fraction of the danger Iraqis take for granted.

The election will no doubt leave an enduring and important legacy in Iraqi and even Middle Eastern history, though just what that legacy shall be will take a very long time to emerge, if indeed it ever "stabilizes" as the event is interpreted and reinterpreted over time. For the present the election is the first step in a year-long process of institution building planned to culminate in the popular ratification of a new constitution in October and the election of a government under that constitution in December. If the Coalition can meet those two threshholds and conduct those two votes with equivalent results (and I suspect they will) the current Iraq policy will have scored a significant success.

Will this event produce a universal consensus on the wisdom of the Bush administration's Iraq policy? The historical legacy of the Iraq war in American memory is likely to mirror American political opinion over the coming months. Though the election is an inspiring event, if the insurgency and casualties among both coaltion forces and Iraqis continue American opinion is likely to see-saw. Whether or not the institutions in place at the end of 2005 can stand in the absence of U.S. military force will play a large role in shaping public perceptions. If after Iraqis institute a new constitution and elect a new government U.S. soldiers are still dying in Iraq opinion about the Coalition mission is likely to be mixed.

I personally see much promise in yesterday's elections, but I would temper that optimism with caution. The success of yesterday's election leaves hope that the next year will see the formation of an institutional structure that can, in the long term, form the nucleus of a stable and effective Iraqi sovereignty. However, in the short term the formation of that structure will not, I fear, end or significantly slow the rate of casualties among U.S. forces. Ultimately U.S. forces are likely to leave an Iraq still plagued with insurgency and violence, and the constitutional order built over the course of the next year will be forced to establish itself through a costly contest of arms.

Will Iraqis be better off if a democratically elected government emerges from that civil war (provided the democratic operation of its institutions survives the degrading influence of civil violence)? Yes. Will that definitively prove the wisdom of Bush policy? Not likely. The coming year is sure to bring many unanticipated events both within Iraq and in the world at large. Unknown costs will have to be paid, both in U.S. blood and treasure and in the opportunity price of foreign policy conducted under the handicap of a continuing heavy commitment in Iraq. All told, the only certain prediction I would be willing to venture is that the legacy of the Iraq war will remain uncertain for years to come.

16 comments:

Kate Marie said...

Reasonable enough, Madman. When the historical assessment of the Iraq War is finally made, however, I would ask whether its costs will be weighed against the costs of NOT acting, or of acting differently. I realize it's difficult to speculate about alternate historical paths that have been closed off by the choice of one particular path, but it seems to me an attempt of some sort must be made. What, in your opinion, should the U.S. have done, if anything? And how might a different choice have altered the historical outcomes?

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

My last post (U.S. Power in the Middle East) gives some sense of what I would have hoped the U.S. would do. By my assessment, the two fundamental levers the U.S. possesses in Mid East affairs are its influence in oil markets and Israel/Palestine diplomacy. I would argue that had we both brokered a stable two-state solution in Israel/Palestine AND drastically reduced our consumption of fossil fuels (by 50% or more) Saddam Hussein's regime might have collapsed under its own weight. Whether it would have or not, taking those actions first and foremost would have enhanced any and all policy efforts undertaken by the U.S., whether diplomatic or military, so that if it occurred an invasion and occupation of Iraq would have transpired very differently.

Kate Marie said...

I'm going to leave aside the two state Israel/Palestine solution for a moment and concentrate on the idea of reducing our consumption of fossil fuels by 50%. First, what would be the timetable for such a drastic reduction? How, exactly, would it be accomplished? And what are the projected short-term and long-term costs of such a reduction? Do you envision the maintenance of the status quo in Iraq during the years it would take to accomplish this reduction? Would the sanctions against Iraq have been lifted before we achieve our goal? For that matter, wouldn't the sanctions HAVE to be lifted in order for our drastic reduction of fossil fuel consumption to have any effect on Iraq? How much oil do we buy from Iraq? (My understanding is perhaps flawed here, but I thought we weren't buying much of anything from Iraq except what was arranged by the terms of the despicable food-for-oil scam.) How much do we buy from states in the Middle East in general (as opposed to, say, Venezuela and Russia)? Would that approach make "the world" (Russia, Germany, and France) any more likely to support our actions in the event of an invasion? It seems to me it would make them less likely to do so, unless we could convince them to sign on to the 50% reduction plan. If the Baathist regime were to collapse under its own weight, do you envision a stable non-totalitarian state resulting from the collapse? In the mean time, the Marsh Arabs would have been wiped off the face of the earth, and the torture/rape/oppression would have continued -- with little guarantee, it seems to me, that the prolonging of those particular evils would result in a transition that was any less painful and bloody (and which might be a good deal more so) than what occurred under the American invasion. I don't see how the "first step" that Iraq took on Sunday would have been better deferred for (at least) five years, or how one can argue with any degree of certainty that such a deferral would have been better for the stability of the region or more advantageous in terms of our conduct of the war against Islamo-fascism.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

As for how and on what timetable a 50% reduction in fossil fuels is to be achieved, well...it can go hard or it can go easy, but you can bet the bank that it and more will happen eventually. At current rates of consumption the world's oil supply will be exhausted in 50 years. Since consumption is accelerating exponentially that horizon is very likely to be reached much, much sooner. The more quickly and aggressively the government intervenes to force a switch over to renewable sources of energy the less panic, pain, and economic chaos will be caused by the inevitable shift. If we allow market forces to determine when and how such a change occurs it will be cataclysmic. A good first step the government could take (though not the only one) would be to levy punitive taxes on the consumption of oil and gasoline, making renewable energy sources market-competitive in the short run. Such a move would have a politically efficacious impact not only on Iraq but on the entire Middle East. As long as the despotic regimes of the ME can draw treasure from the soil they have no incentive to invest either in modernizing their economies or empowering their people. The effect of oil currently is quite similar to the corrupting effect of the narcotics trade in places like Afghanistan and Burma. Because the U.S. is such a huge consumer of world oil any move the U.S. made to limit consumption would have an immediate effect (especially on vital futures markets), setting off ripple effects that would intensify as conservation efforts progressed. Even though the U.S. was not a direct trade partner with Saddam Hussein, depleting the value of the treasure trove upon which he stood would have eroded the political base beneath his feet.

As to whether the collapse of Hussein's regime would be as or more catastrophic than what is transpiring now and in the future, that is of course speculative. One thing is certain, a process that was wholly indigenous to Iraq would enjoy credibility that any U.S. efforts lack. Also the lives of the more than 10,000 U.S. service men and women killed and wounded in Iraq would have been very different (and in some cases much extended). Though I would agree that if the political restructuring of Iraq can be achieved the sacrifice of Coalition soldiers will not have been in vain (indeed, the very occurence of Jan. 30's election goes some way to redeeming their loss, though nothing can do so totally), I feel that in the end what will be achieved after so much pain and sacrifice from those who fight in our name could have been achieved by other means, perhaps to better effect.

Kate Marie said...

Your entire scenario stilll seems to rest on the assumption that -- however long it takes for us to reduce oil consumption and broker the two-state solution -- everything else, especially in the Middle East, will remain static. And why do you assume that reduction in oil consumption will force Middle Eastern despots to modernize,etc? That's not the way it happened with Saddam Hussein. What about the danger that the greater instability in Arab states (caused by our drastic reduction) will strenghten the Islamofascist's hand (especially in those countries where bin Ladenism already seems to be the favored ideological antidote to Arab despotism)?

Kate Marie said...

P.S. The doomsday predictions about the exhaustion of the world oil supply are not shared by all credible analysts.

Madman of Chu said...

I would not require all else to remain static, my point is that whatever else may change in the ME or elsewhere the two greatest levers the U.S. possesses in ME affairs will remain our influence in oil markets and Israel/Palestine. Attempting to force change by military action will always have an inferior effect, as that is by far the most blunt instrument in what is admittedly, from the outset, a limited toolkit. Certainly my proposed plans do not require a greater degree of stasis than what the Bush regime is doing now. What if, over the course of the next year while most of our effective combat force is tied down in Iraq China should attack Taiwan? Or North Korea should attack South Korea? Or Iran should test a nuclear weapon? A good deal of stasis may be the only thing that saves us from our current policy. We have been occupying Iraq for almost two years, the Bush regime has been in power for more than four. In that time much progress could have been made toward reducing oil consumption and the Israel/Palestine peace process- the time table for Iraqi liberation might have been identical using that path instead of war, and much less costly in both treasure and human life. Reducing oil consumption alone might not have forced ME countries to modernize and liberalize, but it would have gone a much longer way toward that end than war, and would have made U.S. diplomatic and economic efforts toward fostering change exponentially more effective. As for Binladenism (I think the term you use, Islamofascism, is a misnomer- Saddam Hussein was a genuine fascist, Bin Laden is a horse of a different color, and the distinction matters) being the chief ideology of protest in the ME, if that is so (and I don't think it is even now) it is largely the result of U.S. military action. The invasion of Iraq has both dramatically increased anti-U.S. sentiment in the ME and humiliated one of the most credible (though admittedly absurdist, in objective terms) secular ideologies in the Arab world. The U.S. has thus given Bin Ladenism a new widespread cachet it never really enjoyed among Arabs.

Madman of Chu said...

P.S. The Bush regime obviously believes the "doomsday" forecasts, otherwise their enthusiasm for invading Iraq is hard to fathom.

Kate Marie said...

"P.S. The Bush regime obviously believes the "doomsday" forecasts, otherwise their enthusiasm for invading Iraq is hard to fathom."

-- How so? You mean they did it for oil?

Kate Marie said...

"Attempting to force change by military action will always have an inferior effect, as that is by far the most blunt instrument in what is admittedly, from the outset, a limited toolkit."

-- That's a rather sweeping statement. Do you mean it to apply only to the current situation in the Middle East or to apply to all matters of foreign policy in general?

"Reducing oil consumption alone might not have forced ME countries to modernize and liberalize, but it would have gone a much longer way toward that end than war, and would have made U.S. diplomatic and economic efforts toward fostering change exponentially more effective."

-- But you haven't explained the reasons for your assertion. The reduction of oil consumption didn't force Saddam to modernize and liberalize, so why should it do so in places like Syria and Saudi Arabia? Why might it not just foster the kind of vast corruption that we've seen under the U.N. food-for-oil program? My understanding of the "reduce oil consumption" argument has always been that such a policy would leave the U.S. less economically dependent on the stability of Middle Eastern states -- and thus free to pull up stakes completely and let the region go to hell. The idea that the reduction of oil consumption would unquestionably enhance efforts to "reform" the region seems a bit murkier to me, and, in my opinion, requires some fleshing out.

"As for Binladenism (I think the term you use, Islamofascism, is a misnomer- Saddam Hussein was a genuine fascist, Bin Laden is a horse of a different color, and the distinction matters) being the chief ideology of protest in the ME, if that is so (and I don't think it is even now) it is largely the result of U.S. military action."

-- I used the term bin Ladenism as well as Islamo-fascist. The term Islamo-fascism already modifies the term fascism, but I don't want to get bogged down in semantics here . . . I believe I said bin Ladenism was the favored ideology of protest against Middle Eastern despots (I would argue that that's the case particularly in Saudi Arabia); what is the evidence for your assertion that that isn't the case now -- or that that wasn't so before our military action in Iraq? What was, or IS, the chief ideology of protest?

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

You keep missing my point. Saddam Hussein was able to build one of the largest standing armies in the world despite having virtually no industrial base- why? Because he could by as many weapons as he needed using the black treasure that kept pumping out of the ground, the same way the ruling junta in Burma can keep itself armed to the teeth by selling dope. If the price of oil began to steeply decline, as it would if the single largest consumer of oil began to kick the habit (true, it would have to be quickly, as the economies of India and China are growing at a rate that might take up the slack- eventually), then ME countries would be forced to invest their oil revenue in assets that would add value to their economy and produce a future income stream- like roads, factories, an educated workforce. They would have to make hay while the sun shines. If history is any guide, that type of economic restructuring creates pressure for political liberalization, as the workforce whose elevated skills are now indispensible to the new economy demands a share of power in the political realm. As to why this didn't work for Saddam- the U.S. stopped consuming his oil, but it kept consuming oil in general, which just meant that Saddam had new customers that were being squeezed out of other markets by voracious U.S. demand. Sanctions impovershed all elements of the Iraqi economy equally, thus Saddam remained the biggest fish in a shrinking economic pond.

Like I said, Binladenism is now enjoying high cachet in the ME because of the humiliation of Ba'athism, but before the invasion of Iraq Bin Laden and his ilk were confined to the lunatic fringe of ME politics. Religious ideologies are handicapped in the Arab world as religion divides Arabs (Shi'ites vs. Sunnis, Christians vs. Muslims) where ethnicity unites them, thus secular ideologies rooted in shared Arabic heritage are more popular than Bin Laden's form of fundamentalism. Bin Laden's appeal is strongest in places like Pakistan and Indonesia where the multiplicity of ethnicities is divisive and Islamic religion provides the most universal cohesive cultural force. If the U.S. had not invaded Iraq some stripe of Arab national-socialism (like that espoused by the Fatah movement) would probably be the most common ideology of protest. The invasion of Iraq has turned Abu Musab al-Zarqawi into an Islamist Che Guevera.

Kate Marie said...

Okay, Madman, I'm being obnoxious, but I asked for the evidence that bin Ladenism was a "fringe ideology" before the invasion and a is much more popular since the invasion. You didn't really provide that, though your argument about the divisiveness of religion sounds reasonable.

And for whom is Al Zarqawi the Islamist Che Guevara? (I'm assuming you don't mean to suggest anything positive about that murderous Stalinist thug, but merely to use him as an example of the romantic figure Al Zarqawi has become among some Arabs). For the Iraqis?

Madman of Chu said...

Che was really more of a murderous Maoist thug, but you seem to get my point. For whom is al-Zarqawi the Islamist Che? For anyone inclined to hate the U.S. or resent how U.S. power is being applied. That would not include all or perhaps most Iraqis, but enough so that the mission given our soldiers is a very arduous one.

alex said...

Interesting discussion.

On the question of Saddam and oil: but didn't we do more than simply stop consuming Iraq's oil between the two gulf wars? Sanctions prevented Iraq from exporting any oil at all, with the exception of the oil for food program. So unless I am missing something it seems like the no oil consumption=modernization argument does not go through.

Madman of Chu said...

Alex-

A total cutoff of oil revenue could not be expected to spur modernization, as it left Iraq without capital to divest in economic diversification. Sanctions produced economic and political stagnation in Iraq, a "principled engagement" with the rest of the ME on the part of the U.S. might (stress might) catalyze progressive change, provided it included the steps I outlined above.

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