Friday, December 15, 2006

Beijing vs. Jesus

The execution last month in Heilongjiang of Xu Shuangfu, the founder of the Three Grades of Servants Church, was the latest milestone in an ongoing trend that has attracted only sporadic attention outside of China. The number of Christians in China has been growing exponentially in the past two decades, and concurrently Christian worship has become an increasingly volatile flashpoint of conflict between the PRC government and rural society. No one can be certain how many Christians live in China right now. Some estimates place the number as high as eighty million and growing.

The greatest share of this Christian demographic surge has not been within established denominations recognizable to congregations outside China. This is not entirely surprising, as religious life remains under tight state control. Anyone desiring to "legally" participate in Christian worship in the PRC must join one of two officially established churches (one Catholic and one Protestant) chartered and regulated by the Chinese Communist Party. The new Christian explosion, however, has not taken place within the domain of the official churches, but within wholly novel and indigenous Christian communities that have sprouted and spread throughout rural China.

These new religious communities have come to be called "house churches" in the English language media. I am not sure who first applied this label to the new Christian groups in China, but the phrase is highly charged with symbolic historical associations. Scholars of late antiquity identified the "house church" as the focal unit of Christian communal worship during the first centuries of the religion's history. The implication of the label is thus to link current events in China to the narrative of Christianity's rise from persecution to triumph in Roman times. The facts on the ground provide much fodder for imaginative parallelism: the PRC is a vast empire, Beijing is Rome, the Party is Caesar, the house churches are communities of humble origins akin to those of the first Apostles. Indeed, many Christians in the US and Europe perceive developments in China as an epochal event with potentially prophetic implications.

The "house churches" themselves, however, do not easily assimilate to scriptural narratives cherished by non-Chinese Christians. Many of them are doctrinally quite idiosyncratic, such as the Eastern Lightning Church that insists that Christ has been reborn as a young Henanese woman (it is not entirely clear that the woman in question actually exists). Xu Shuangfu, the recently executed founder of the Three Grades of Servants Church, claimed to be in direct communication with God. Many of the new Christian churches are as distinct in social practice as they are in doctrine. The use of violence and extortion to win converts is quite common. Such violence is not reserved for unbelievers, but is aggressively applied to other Christians. Beatings and murders of the clergy and congregants of competing churches have been very common, and violence has even been applied to non-Chinese missionaries attempting to proselytize on behalf of orthodox denominations. Though PRC law technically empowered the state to execute Xu Shuangfu for his illegal religious activities, he and his lieutenants were in fact sentenced for murdering members of the rival Eastern Lightning sect. In the face of such theological and ethical complexities even the most enthusiastic observers of China's Christian effervescence have been compelled to develop a heuristic distinction between "house churches" and "cults."

China's new Christian communities thus sit at a complex nexus of cultural perceptions and expectations that colors many observers' readings of the implications of this phenomenon. In this climate it is perhaps most clarifying to focus on those aspects of the "house church" movement that fit integrally into the long context of Chinese cultural history. In many respects the "house churches" are no different from the long succession of Buddho-Daoist religious groups that have been a fixture of rural Chinese society since the Later Han Dynasty (25-220 C.E.).

Even during peak eras of imperial power central government institutions had very limited reach into the local domain of rural village society. Rural communities were free (indeed compelled) to organize themselves around locally rooted social and cultural institutions. Alongside family, clan, and lineage organizations, devotional traditions were ubiquitous matrices for the structuring of village life. Because these traditions picked up at the point where the ordering energies of the imperial state ebbed away (and because the imperial state itself was conceptualized as a grand spirit-cult), their "political" and "religious" functions could never be practically disaggregated.

Most of the time these local forms of religious life existed in a state of mutual benign indifference with the imperial government. The popular forms of Buddhism and Daoism that persisted in local society, however, preserved doctrinal visions that were radically at odds with the rationale of the imperial state. Self-cultivation traditions promised the practitioner health, long-life, and the acquisition of mystical powers that conveyed moral and spiritual authority. Eschatological teachings predicted the advent of a new age in which spiritual powers would effect the inversion of the current social and political order. Rural religious groups thus always retained the latent potential to explode into sudden and often violent political militancy. Though economic or political stresses can sometimes explain why this latent potential became actualized in any given instance, the metamorphosis from local religiuos group to armed millenarian rebellion was often completely unpredictable and seemingly motivated solely by the doctrinal teachings of the group itself. For this reason, though the imperial goverment remained practically committed to a posture of benign neglect toward local popular religion, it retained a broad and draconian system of prohibitions against any form of "heterodox (i.e. non-state -sanctioned)" religious expression so that state officials might be legally empowered to move swiftly and ruthlessly against any group that showed incipient signs of millenarian militancy. Thus though the extraordinary repression that the PRC government has applied to groups like the Falun Dafa and the Catholic Church has obvious roots in Communist ideology, in many respects they are in lock step with a pattern that has governed relations between the Chinese state and popular religion for many centuries.

Focusing upon the "house churches" we also see many aspects of a long historical pattern at work. These new Christian groups offer their adherents programs of self-cultivation (cast in terms of "prayer" rather than "meditation" or "yoga") that promise the same rewards of vitality and mystical power formerly claimed by Buddhist and Daoist teachings. Eschatalogical visions rooted in the New Testament nonetheless offer the same kind of social and political inversions predicted by Chinese millenarian groups in the imperial era. The violent militancy of groups like Three Grades of Servants and Eastern Lightning expresses the same political volatility exemplified by earlier non-Christian groups like the "Celestial Masters" or the "Eight Trigrams."

What, then, do these indigenous historical comparisons have to teach us about the "house churches" and their contemporary significance? One analysis is that these churches may be viewed as "old goods in a new wrapper." This view would hold that the rise of "house churches" is fueled by the same forces that impelled the spread of various popular Buddho-Daoist traditions throughout rural China for much of Chinese history. These groups are thus stepping into the same role as was filled by those earlier groups, and much of their social behavior can be understood as an expression of the same impulses that have always inhered within local religious life. There is much truth to this view, and it is indispensible to any clear global analysis of the "house church" movement.

The Christian nature of these groups cannot be completely discounted as ancillary or insignificant, however. The turn of local religious life toward Christianity may be a product of some essential appeal of the Christian message, as non-Chinese Christians would assert. This perspective is not wholly incompatible with an instrumental reading of the house church movement, moreover. If religious life has always been a medium for the expression of the collective political aspirations of rural Chinese communities, the choice of Christianity cannot be dismissed as arbitrary in the current political climate. In this regard, the most appealing aspect of traditional "Christian" narratives for Chinese congregants might be the long history of Christian opposition to Communism. Conversion to Christianity might represent a form of "voting with the spirit," electing to join the group that is most irreconcilably opposed to the ideology of the ruling Party. Awareness of the sympathies of Christians living overseas could play a role (if even a subconcious one) in this decision. Not only is the choice of Christianity an intrinsically anti-Communist one, but for precisely that reason the formation of a Christian group creates certain constraints within which the Communist Party must operate if it is to avoid international censure.

If something like this dynamic is a part of the "house church" phenomenon (and I strongly suspect it is) then anyone who is concerned about the long term stability of the PRC should pay attention. The Chinese Christian explosion is not only a religious or cultural event, but is one among many gauges of the political temperature of Chinese rural society. Along these lines, the course of Beijing's interraction with the house churches should not be wholly subsumed by narratives that are imported from outside the Chinese historical context. The execution of Xu Shuangfu is not first or only the execution of criminal justice or religious persecution, but is part of a longer struggle over whether the Communist Party will continue to retain control over the countryside.

Acknowledgment of this struggle does not provide clear ethical or pragmatic insights into who should "win." The "house churches" are not uniformly pious and humble apostles in search of spiritual redemption and the agents of Beijing are not uniformly brutal tyrrants bent on religious oppression. The great destructive potential of this conflict lies not in the moral character of its participants but in the systemic dynamic that makes the contest between Chinese state and local religion a zero-sum game. Decentralization and democratization of China's political institutions would help defuse the tensions that are bringing the house church movement to a political boil. The increasing violence transpiring at the interface between state and local religion suggests that the time for making these needed changes is running out.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Partition: No Magic Bullet

As US leaders cast about for ideas on how to pull the Iraq conflict out of the jaws of catastrophe one notion that has become very vogue is the partition of Iraq. Leslie Gelb, Peter Galbraith, and Senator Joseph Biden have all asserted in various forums that the road out of the Iraq quagmire lies in some form of tripartite division. Though this idea is often dressed in euphemisms like "federalism" or "confederation" (Biden writes of giving each region "breathing space" to manage its own affairs), it invariably reduces to division of Iraq into three independent states: one Kurd, one Sunni, one Shi'ite. This notion is superficially appealing for obvious reasons. Iraq right now is a portrait of sectarian strife. What better resolution to the problem than allowing the "sects" to go their separate ways? Unfortunately, as seductive as such a notion appears while one focuses on the current moment, it evaporates like a desert mirage as soon as one contemplates the history of Iraq and the larger region.

The greatest problem with any partition scheme centers on the Kurds. Unlike the Arabic Iraqi splinter groups the Kurds genuinely do desire their own independent and sovereign nation. The Kurdish nation is a dream deferred, Kurds still nurse lingering bitterness over Allied promises of "self-determination" in the immediate aftermath of WWI that have never been made good. US leaders seem to take for granted that Iraq's Kurds will blithely accept any "federalist" plan that is dictated to them. Yet nationalist passions run deep, and any steps toward greater Kurdish independence could easily snowball into a secessionist movmement, a development that would surely portend both deepening civil war in Iraq and a widening regional conflict. The natural boundaries of Kurdistan are not confined to Iraqi territory, Kurds are also a majority in parts of Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Those nations would go to war to prevent the emergence of a sovereign Kurdistan so as to staunch secessionist aspirations among their own Kurds. Moreover, the grant of any degree of sovereignty to Iraqi Kurds would cause enormous anger and resentment throughout the Arab world. The reduction of an Arab state to create a Kurdish nation would undoubtedly be compared to the international community's failure to reduce the Jewish state to create an Arab nation in Palestine. This would play directly to the rhetoric of groups like Hamas and Al Qaeda and would undermine US efforts throughout the Middle East.

As problematic as the situation of the Kurds is for any "federalist" plan, the condition of Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs is little better. Neither community possesses the requisite coherence for functional nationhood. The Sunni minority would be left in control of a rump territory alienated from its economic and social centers of gravity. As the Sunnis were for years the proprietors of the Iraqi state that community's chief assets are concentrated in the "alpha city" of Baghdad, which would surely not be incorporated into the new "Sunni republic" and is in any case highly ethnically mixed. Such a scheme would be akin to asking the outer boroughs of New York City to carry on without any economic or political ties to Manhattan.

Iraq's Shi'ites, on the other hand, appear quite cohesive while the US occupation casts into sharp relief their differences with the Sunnis. But the Shi'ite community is impacted by historical forces that subvert its potential for functional political autonomy in the long term. The collective identity of Iraqi Shi'ites resides in their participation in a confessional community that crosses national and ethnic boundaries. Though divisions between Iraqis and Iranians, Arabs and Persians, are minimized by the current conditions of sectarian strife, those distinctions have historically been sources of profound friction. Very soon after the establishment of an Iraqi "Shi'ite republic" conflict will break out between those figures whose roots in the Shi'ite clerical establishment incline them toward closer ties with Iran and those individuals whose deep-seated feelings of Arab nationalism make the prospect of "Persion domination" anathema. The ultimate result would be a "republic" at war with both the Sunni community and itself.

"Iraq" as it exists today is obviously a terrain riven by social and cultural forces that make any degree of political coherence highly problematic. This does not indicate, however, that further fragmentation would be constructive. In historical terms one could argue that Iraq has arrived at its current impasse through hyper-fragmentation rather than the reverse. In the immediate aftermath of WWI Arab leaders who lobbied for independent nationhood on Wilsonian principles of "self determination" envisioned the Arab Middle East divided into far fewer nations than currently exist. Current political divisions express the colonial ambitions of Britain and France more than any intrinsic national consciousness of the peoples of the Middle East. The larger independent "Mesopotamia" envisioned by Arab leaders in the early 20th century would have had a more even admixture of Sunni and Shi'ite citizens, and might have been less susceptible to sectarian suspicion and violence.

In any case US plans for further partitioning of Iraq are deeply ill advised. The Biden-Gelb Plan, for example, calls for Iraqi "federalism," but such principles are already written into the Iraqi constitution. What, therefore, is new in this plan? The answer lies in provision 1: "Form regional governments -- Kurd, Sunni and Shiite -- responsible for administering their own regions." In other words, because the national government established by the US occupation is not working, the US should establish regional governments to rule in its stead. But if the US could not succeed in setting up a functioning national government why should it have any better luck setting up regional governments? According to the plan the central government would remain in order to oversee "truly common oil production and revenue," but a government that lacks the power to maintain the peace can hardly be expected to have the power to enforce a division of oil revenues, especially when its authority has been further eroded through the creation of three regional sub-governments with which it is forced to compete. If there is dire strife now in the absence of three regional governments it will only grow worse once those governments exist and are set to squabbling with one-another over oil revenues. The Biden-Gelb plan is effectively a recipe for replacing one dysfunctional government with three even more deeply dysfunctional governments, thus trading a slow-burning civil conflict for an all-out interregional civil war.

The lesson the US should take from its experience in Iraq thus far is this: Iraqi society is impelled by forces over which the US has little or no control, thus US meddling will most likely do more harm than good. If the government the US has assisted in creating does not operate as well as we like the answer is not to subvert it by creating new institutions that diminish its authority. Iraq may well be moving in the direction of some kind of functional partition, but the US should not imagine that it can "catch that wave" by way of retaining some residual influence over Iraqi politics. History dictates that within its current territorial boundaries (which for geopolitical reasons are unlikely to change in the near future) Iraqi society requires some form of central authority to function at all. Having planted the seeds of a central government the US would be very unwise to "change horses in mid stream," if only because this would undermine the already slim chances of the Baghdad government upon which the hope of any positive outcome rides. Ultimately the US must step back and let the Iraqis negotiate a modus vivendi between and among themselves, rooted in institutions of their own design and creation. The resulting outcome may not be entirely pleasing to the people or leaders of the US and its allies, but it is certain to be more constructive than what will result from further attempts by the US to compel a resolution of its own devising.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Exit Stage Three: The Eighteen Month Plan for Withdrawal from Iraq

This week senior military leaders such as General Anthony Zinni and General John Abizaid have warned against a hasty withdrawal from Iraq. One must respect their assessment of the "facts on the ground," but the danger of a hasty withdrawal does not argue for the wisdom of an extended American military presence in Iraq. Generals Zinni and Abizaid present sober cautions against changing the status quo but few new suggestions for moving the conflict forward. The blame for this lies with our civilian leaders, who persistently frame the problem in politically expedient and reductionist terms of "redeployment (i.e. withrdawal)" or "stay the course." Military officers can only give advice concerning the mission as it has been defined for them. The clock is ticking, however, on the American public's patience with the Iraq War. Voters will no longer make an open-ended commitment to a policy without a clear direction or goal.

It is long past time that American leaders lay a candid assessment of what is possible in Iraq before the public. Rhetoric about "victory" is both illogical and cripplingly counterproductive. Democrats and Republicans alike should confess to the American people that we no longer have (indeed we have never had) control over final outcomes in Iraq. We can not dictate what the institutions of the Iraqi government will ultimately look like or how power will be distributed socially, geographically, or ecomically. We can not produce an end to hostilities in Iraq or choose which of the current combatant forces will remain standing in the long run. America can not determine the destiny of Iraq, its best hope now is to disengage in a manner that gives the Iraqi government and people the best chance of achieving stability and progress.

To that end I propose the following eighteen month plan, divided into three six-month stages:

Stage 1- Full Armament of the Iraqi Security Forces

This is the most dangerous task that the Coalition must accomplish/facilitate, and entails the aspect of the conflict about which the US leadership has been most obtuse. US officials' constant intonation of the need to "train Iraqi forces" has become Orwellian in its ever-widening removal from practical reality. It is pristinely clear now that the problem with the Iraqi Army is not professional but political. No one can seriously believe that more training would make the Iraqi battalions that most recently refused orders to deploy to Baghdad more willing to accept such a mission. Every aspect about the IA's performance is rooted in its status as a dependent junior partner of the US military. The armed forces of virtually every sovereign nation on earth has its own air corps, artillery, and armor. No army can hope to survive on the modern battlefield without such elements, yet the IA remains a force composed almost entirely of infantry with light weapons.

This fact cries out for an explanation, yet I have never read of a US civilian or military leader being challenged on this issue in a public forum. Though the motives of press and academic observers of the conflict in this capacity are puzzling, the desire of US officials to avoid having to account for the strategic toothlessness of the IA is quite understandable. There are only two possible answers to such a query, neither of which are comfortable admissions for US leaders to make. The first is that the US has always intended to keep the IA in a state of dependency, so that responsibility for the strategic defense of Iraq would fall upon the US in perpetuity (this would explain the reluctance of the Bush regime to disavow maintaining permament US bases in Iraq). The other is that US officials have so little confidence in the competence and/or loyalty of Iraqi civilian and military leaders that they fear any move toward full armament of the Iraqi security forces would result in calamity.

The former possibility is a moot point. If the Bush administration had ever intended the US to assume the role of Iraq's permanent patron/defender that plan has become a complete impossibility. Iraq will remain lethal terrain for US soldiers for as long as they remain on Iraqi soil, a stable homeostasis like that of South Korea will never be reached. The operative motive for keeping the IA in a state of neutered limbo is thus a fear of how badly the process of full armament might go awry.

These fears are genuine. As the IA acquires heavy weapons many mishaps are possible. Fatal friendly fire clashes may occur between IA and Coalition forces. Infiltration of heavy weapons units by insurgents or militiamen could result in costly sabotage or the use of heavy weapons against Coalition troops or Iraqi government targets. As Iraqi military commanders achieve strategic independence they may "slip the leash" of civilian control and effect a military takeover. Worst of all, heavy weapons-armed IA units might square off against one-another in an all-out civil war.

As distressing as these concerns are, the full armament of the Iraqi security forces is an unavoidable necessity. In order to bolster the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and nurture civilian control the actual task of arming the security forces should be left in the hands of the Iraqi government itself. The Iraqi Defense Ministry should purchase weapons on its own budget-line, with funds borrowed from the US if necessary. Training new pilots, gunners, and technicians may have to be done outside of Iraq but it should be paid for by the Iraqi government and under Iraqi supervision. Iraqi intelligence services should perform security clearances on all trainees or skilled reinlistees from the Hussein-era armed forces.

Six months is a rush order. In that time weapons would have to be purchased, personnel recruited and trained, and further training exercises carried out in order to integrate the new heavy weapons units into the operational dynamic of already existing Iraqi security forces. Though these are complex tasks they could be provisionally accomplished in six months with a concerted US effort, in part because the Iraqis themselves will cooperate very enthusiastically. Moreover the armament program would not have to be entirely completed in six months. As the first heavy weapons units came through the "pipeline" stage two of the eighteen-month withdrawal plan could begin and continue as further units come on line. This is in fact advisable, as in order to minimize the temptation of internicine conflict it should be made clear to the Iraqi civilian and military leadership that this armament phase is step one in the final and inexorable withdrawal of US forces.

Stage Two- Internal Redeployment of US Forces

In the second six-month phase US forces should be withdrawn from Anbar Province and the Sunni Triangle, to be replaced by newly fully armed units of the Iraqi Army. Insurgent activity will continue and may intensify as US forces withdraw, but armed with helicopter gunships, tanks, and artillery IA units will be able to hold their own against the insurgents who, by all reports, display a bare minimum of military competency. If necessary small US teams could stay behind to help the IA in an advisory capacity, but the IA should ultimately assume 99% of the counterinsurgency effort in the Sunni Triangle.

The risks of this strategic shift are also high. The IA is predominantly Shi'ite, thus sectarian animosity might incite them to acts of brutality against the residents of the Sunni Triangle. There is the hope, though, that commitment to the mission in cities like Falluja and Ramadi might help professionalize and nationalize the IA. Brutality might produce as much resistance as it suppresses, forcing the IA to ameliorate its tactics and combine political suasion with military coersion. Moreover, Shi'ite IA soldiers struggling to pacify the Sunni Triangle might learn to construe their own self-interest differently than their more radical co-religionists in Baghdad and Basra. When IA soldiers perceive that atrocities committed by the Mahdi Army in Baghdad deepen support for the Sunni insurgency in Falluja their sympathy for the program of the Shi'ite militias will hopefully decrease sharply, thus creating pressure on the Iraqi civilian leadership to interdict and disarm the militias. While IA troops take over counterinsurgency duties in Falluja and Ramadi the US troops thus freed can be redeployed to mixed-ethnic areas like Baghdad and Diyala Province. The resulting increase in troop presence in those areas (combined with increased cooperation from Iraqi civilian authorities under pressure to support their troops in the field) would hopefully help restore order and diminish sectarian strife.

Stage Three-Phased Withdrawal of US Forces From Iraq

If the assumption of counterinsurgency duties by the IA in the Sunni Triangle has had the desired effect upon the working ethos of the IA, in six months the stage will be set for transferring all internal security duties in Iraq to the Iraqi armed forces themselves. US forces can thus begin to transfer their operational zones to Iraqi units of corresponding stength and skills. Some US units can remain deployed in the region (in Kuwait, say) to assist Iraqi forces as requested. As US troops depart Iraq, however, all bases and infrastructure built within Iraq for US use should be dismantled or turned over to the IA. Fighting is likely to be continuing as US troops depart and to go on for a long while after US forces have gone, but there is a chance that at the end of eighteen months the Iraqi military and government together will have the coherence and political will to win through to eventual peace and stability.

This plan is by no means assured of success, in fact it might well be an extreme long-shot gamble. The current situation offers no better alternative, however. In the end the odds of success or failure can not be set by the US, they will be determined entirely by the Iraqis. If the Iraqi people and their leaders can summon the will, the courage, the flexibility, and the political skills to weave together a new social contract from the current anarchy then no matter how quickly the US withdraws Iraq will eventually stabilize and prosper. If the Iraqis can not gather these energies then no matter how long the US stays the result will be chaos and bloodshed. Indeed, every day the US remains in Iraq now helps increase the odds of this darker outcome, as each such day depletes the legitimacy of the Iraqi government in many of its people's eyes and helps habituate Iraqi leaders to dependency upon US protection and assistance. An eighteen-month staged US withdrawal is not a perfect or a sure choice, but it the best choice for the people of America, Iraq, and the world at large.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Base Motives

The Democratic electoral victory and the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld are both hopeful developments for the war effort in Iraq, the former because it signals clearly that the American public has lost patience with the current failed strategy and the latter because Mr. Rumsfeld was its principal architect and civilian custodian. This institutional sea change naturally raises the question of what can and should be done differently going forward. The departure of Rumsfeld is likely to be the most important development in the long and short term. With Robert Gates as the new Secretary of Defense the US General Staff will feel more confident to assert their prerogative in charting the course of the conflict, a trend that is sure to produce profound changes in tactics and overall strategy. As the resolution of the Iraq conflict requires political maneuvers as much as military, however, there are steps that the civilian leadership can take right away that will assist Coalition forces in their task. Moreover, they are steps in which both Defense and Congress may participate.

The clearest and easiest policy shift that would help move the conflict toward resolution is for the US government to forswear maintaining any permanent military bases in Iraq. Such a move would bleed both the Sunni insurgency and provocateurs such as Moqtada al-Sadr of a great deal of political capital. The clear wisdom of this policy is so evident that it cries out for an explanation as to why the Bush administration has not embraced it already. The only real risk it entails is to foster the impression that the US is capitulating to terrorist pressure, but given the benefits at stake such a consideration only argues for the policy to be adopted as soon as possible. The longer the US waits to renounce a permanent military presence in Iraq the more it courts political embarrassment for doing so, but no matter how high that liability gets ratcheted up the inescapable necessity of renunciation will remain.

Why, then, has the Bush administration tarried? The only ultimately logical answer is oil. If we take Bush regime pronouncements at face value this conflict has always been driven by a "big theory" strategy to foster US security in the extreme long term. One does not have to be entirely cynical about Bush assertions of "promoting democracy" to deduce that the regime closely associate the long-term security of the US with the assurance of access to oil reserves. Any argument about the true nature or moral status of such motives is now moot, as an enduring US military presence in Iraq is simply not a sustainable strategy if a positive resolution to the current conflict is ever to be found. One of the potential long-term benefits of the nascent shift in US "Iraq politics" is thus a corresponding shift away from allowing fossil fuel dependency to drive foreign policy and towards using domestic policy to decrease or eliminate dependency on fossil fuels.

The first step, however, is a renunciation of permanent US bases in Iraq, a policy that both Defense and Congress should move to insititutionalize immediately, preferably in concert. New construction on bases should be halted, and contingency plans laid for the disassembly of current facilities or their staged transfer to the Iraqi Army. Congress can help effect this strategy by writing it into law, preferably with the input of both Defense and Centcom. The wording of such legislation would have to be worked out carefully, as it should not place artificial constraints on the current military conduct of the conflict. A simple solution might be to place a deadline for dismantlement or transferal far in the future- five to ten years hence. Such legislation would do much to deflect criticism of the Coalition mission as "neocolonial" and sap insurgent propoganda of most of its vitality and appeal.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Right Where They Want Us

As the midterm election draws nigh the Bush administration remains on message concerning the Iraq conflict: the US cannot withdraw troops before "we get the job done." Democratic rejoinders about the ill wisdom of "staying the course" are weak at best, as they might be taken to imply that the US should not "stay the course" because it cannot "get the job done." This latter prospect cannot be appealing to voters however persuaded they are of the shortcomings of the Bush Iraq policy, and Democrats would be better served by pointing out why Bush's "get the job done" injunction simply does not make sense.

Bush rhetoric immediately raises two questions for which there are no simple answers: 1)what job? 2)what can the US do that it has not already done to "get the job done?" Bush defenders might insist that there is a clear answer to question one: foster a free and a stable Iraq. But that still leaves unanswered what problems must be overcome to get there, and in that respect it must be acknowledged that if the US troops are in fact to proactively work toward that end they must accomplish three jobs: 1)end the violent ethnic cleansing campaign being waged by Shi'ite militias; 2)defeat the Sunni insurgency; 3)dislodge the foreign jihadists.

Once one acknowledges that US troops in Iraq are faced with three jobs, not one, it soon becomes clear that they will not be able to accomplish any of them by staying in Iraq. The first job of ending the Shi'ite ethnic cleansing campaign is manifestly beyond the strategic reach of US forces. This weeks' standoff between CentCom and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki makes clear a trend that has become increasingly evident these past months- the US military does not have the full cooperation of the Iraqi government in its anti-militia operations, an obstruction which will preclude success in those endeavors.

The second job of defeating the Sunni insurgency is also out of reach of US forces as they are currently deployed, a fact that US Centcom itself acknowledges. This is the crux of the "stand up, stand down" policy- only when the Iraqi Army and police reach full combat readiness, so goes the Bush strategy, will there be enough troops in place to defeat the insurgency. But as the length of the Iraq conflict draws even with that of the US participation in WWII the proposition that more time will yield more or better Iraqi soldiers grows increasingly absurd. By now a significant number of US soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad had never fired a weapon prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Unless an Iraqi for some reasons requires 3 or 4 times as much training as an American to be made into a soldier more time on the current tack is not going to create a significant change in the strategic trajectory of the counterinsurgency.

With regards to jobs 1 and 2 the plain fact is that they will only be accomplished by the withdrawal, not the continued deployment of US troops. Iraqi soldiers will only begin to make headway against the Sunni insurgency when they have true strategic and tactical autonomy. As long as the Iraqi Army remains dependent on the air, armor and artillery support of the US military the denizens of the Sunni triangle will continue to tacitly support the insurgents. Only when it has its own tanks, planes and guns will the Sunnis view the Iraqi Army as a serious and permanent force with which they are compelled to deal, and only then will a negotiated resolution to the Sunni insurgency be achievable.
In the same vein, the Iraqi government and army will never feel compelled to deal politically with the problem of the Shi'ite militias as long as the US military remains to shield them from the consequences of their neglect. Only as the US withdraws and Iraqi authorities are forced to weigh the competing priorities of defusing the Sunni insurgency and placating the Shi'ite militias against one-another will the Iraqi government and army move aggressively to disarm groups like the Mahdi Army.

In many American assessments of the Iraq war, job number 3 is the "clincher" concern that compels the US to keep its troops in Iraq despite all other reasons to withdraw. The foreign jihadists now based in Iraq are lethal enemies of the US, and it would be disastrous if they could ever develop a stable base in Iraq from which they could plan and launch 9/11-type attacks against US soil. As real as that concern is, it must be viewed against two factors:

1)Keeping US troops in Iraq to hunt down jihadists is simply not a tactically viable mission. US Centcom estimates that foreign jihadists make up 5-7% of the insurgency,thus asking our troops to hunt them in the vast expanse and dense society of the Sunni triangle and Baghdad is effectively sending them after a needle in a haystack. More concretely, we would be sending our soldiers to search for the needle with a flamethrower, and the "hay" in which it was hidden would be the Iraqi people. With so few boots on the ground and so little intelligence-gathering assets in place the only thing our troops could accomplish would be to further anger and alienate the Iraqis and thus make the very terrain in which they were operating more dangerous for themselves and more welcoming to the jihadists.

2)The history of Iraq shows that the ONLY condition that gives the jihadists any purchase in Iraq is the presence of US soldiers. As long as a critical mass of Iraqi society is angered at the US presence in Iraq the jihadists' suicidal malevolence makes them welcome allies of anti-Coalition forces. If and when the US pulls out, however, the jihadists' militancy for an Islamic state and their willingness to provoke foreign nations to further ideological ends will make their welcome in the relatively secular and nationalist society of Sunni Iraq expire very quickly.

Again, the plain fact is that the jihadists have us right where they want us. As long as US soldiers remain in Iraq the jihadists' toehold in Iraqi society remains firm, once the US leaves the Iraqis will pass them like a kidney stone. Bush critics who want to defuse the political efficacy of Bush's rhetoric must expose the rotten logical foundations upon which it rests. The one card the US has left to play to get anything like "the job" done in Iraq is a staged withdrawal, and the longer the US waits to begin that strategy the lower its prospects of success will sink.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Autumns of Our Discontent: Falluja 2004 to Amarah 2006

As of today US forces in Iraq have suffered 73 fatalities during the month of October, already double the low casualty count of 30 reached during March of this year. These numbers in and of themselves do not present a clear strategic picture. March was the nadir of a six-month declining trend in US casualties, and pro-Bush pundits asserted that this was attributable to technological and tactical innovations that were frustrating efforts of the insurgents to target US soldiers. It now seems clear that that analysis was not sound, and that the trend from October 2005-March 2006 was conditioned primarily by a policy of "hunkering down" in fortified bases rather than sending US soldiers out on frequent patrols. After the Samarra mosque bombing of February set off an accelerating wave of sectarian violence, that defensive posture was no longer sustainable, and as US troops have been increasingly exposed to Iraqi society casualty figures have correspondingly risen.

Absent specific information about the frequency of US patrols, casualty figures do not provide concrete evidence of whether the risks to US soldiers in Iraqi society at large are rising or holding steady, and default assumptions would have to favor the latter case. The US infantry soldier enjoys such an advantage in training, armor, firepower, and logistical support that under the most perilous circumstances s/he is very difficult to kill. Though October's casualty figures are alarmingly high, they would have to double by the end of the month to reach the high casualty figures for April and November of 2004, the months when US forces launched frontal assaults on insurgent strongholds in Falluja. Unless Iraqi insurgents again achieve the same degree of territorial, social and political purchase acquired in Falluja 2004, they are unlikely to inflict the same kinds of high losses upon the US military as were suffered in the reduction of that defensive position.

A look at Falluja today explains why that is unlikely. Though the city was garrisoned by 3000 US soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 siege, today it is garrisoned mainly by Iraqi Army and Police, with only a "quick reaction force" of 300 Marines and a few dozen US reservists embedded as "military transition teams" among the battalions of the Iraqi Army garrison. Michael Fumento spent time observing joint US-Iraqi operations in Falluja in May 2006. He acknowledges that there are problems of tactical coordination between the Marines and their Iraqi Army partners- he describes one case of mistaken identity which almost ended with the Marines calling in a helicopter strike on IA soldiers. On the other hand, he speaks optimistically of the high morale of the IA forces- he reports one instance in which an IA patrol accompanied by only 3 US Marine advisors held off 50-80 insurgents until a Marine quick reaction team showed up to save the day with helicopter support.

Taken together, these incidents paint a picture of neither victory nor defeat for US forces in Falluja, but indefinite stalemate. As long as the Iraqi Army can be relied upon to cohere and patrol the city precincts (the units in question are mainly Shi'ite, so there is little prospect of them being infiltrated by/sympathizign with the local Sunni insurgents) the insurgents will not have the breathing space to consolidate control over the city's instititutions and infrastructure as they did in 2004. However, as long as the insurgents can summon the human resources to launch coordinated attacks of 50-80 combatants the IA will not be able to safely patrol the city without the backup of the Marine quick reaction force.

As the role of helicopters in both of Fumento's anecdotes conveys, in 21st century warfare infantry soldiers are in effect armed forward observers. The real combat power of a modern infantry unit resides in its ability to direct airpower, armor, or artillery to battlefield targets. Fumento reports that IA patrols can call in air support, but the coordination problems he describes suggest that only the Marines must have quick and unobstructed access to air power. Even if and when IA forces do successfully call for air cover, it is of course US planes or helicopters that respond. The IA has not been given heavy weapons of any kind, the Iraqi soldiers and officers Fumento spoke to lamented that they have not even been issued heavy machine guns for tactical use.

This is a situation that could persist indefinitely. The Bush White House and US Centcom is presumably hoping that civil society in Falluja will stabilize and state control will regenerate, displacing the resources of the insurgency. This is not a realistic expectation, however. As long as the IA is seen to be dependent on US support the residents of Falluja have no reason to totally withhold support from the insurgents. Fallujans have watched the US enter and leave their city several times, they have been conditioned to expect that the US will eventually depart. Were they to do so at a time when the IA remains dependent upon their fire support the insurgents might well regain control of the city, thus a Fallujan who is hedging his/her bets will continue to give at least passive support to the insurgency against the day when they potentially return to power.

The prospect for the US mission in Iraq for the near future thus might be read this way: in cities like Falluja a stalemate will hold, while in Baghdad and its environs civil unrest will force chronic exposure of US soldiers to mortal danger. If those circumstances could be counted upon to continue, US casualties would not be likely to again drop to the low level of this March, but nor would they be likely to rise again to the high levels of April and November 2004. Unfortunately, recent developments do not inspire confidence that current conditions will hold steady.

On Friday the Mahdi Army launched a (seemingly) abortive attempt to take over the city of Amarrah in southeastern Iraq. Though the Maliki government now claims that the situation has stabilized, even the prospect of such a takeover raises a troubling specter. Though the joint IA-US investment of cities in the Sunni triangle like Falluja have staved off the reemergence of an insurgent stronghold as had to be reduced in 2004, Amarah holds out the possibility that an analogous Shi'ite stronghold could be developed outside of the Sunni triangle, forcing the Coalition back to a strategy of frontal urban assault that would cause new spikes in ground force mortality. Moreover, the "hold" and "build" phases of those campaigns would present problems that have as yet not encumbered operations in the Sunni triangle. As IA forces are disproportionately Shi'ite, in a Shi'ite city such as Amarah IA units might not cooperate with Coaltion troops in the same kind of joint operational dynamic that currently prevails in Falluja. If Amarah is the thin edge of an advancing wedge the strategic situation of US forces in Iraq may be about to degrade drastically.

What is the best course of action with which to address this situation? Though it may seem counterintuitive, staged US withdrawal is still the best current option from the perspectives of both the US and the Iraqi people. As long as IA forces in the Sunni triangle remain dependent upon US support teams they will not truly be a national army, as they will not identify wholly with their mission or remain thoroughly invested in its success. However, if the IA were given complete control and responsibility for restoring order in cities like Falluja and Ramadi it would quickly be compelled to take a national perspective. If the IA were alone in policing Falluja they would realize that inflammatory behavior on the part of their Shi'ite coreligionists in other parts of Iraq cost them in local animosity and bloodshed in Falluja. Commitment to their strategic goal in the Sunni Triangle would bleed them of sympathy for provocateur forces like that of the Mahdi Army in Amarah.

The only force that has any hope of restoring unity and order to Iraq is the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Army. The Defense Ministry of the Iraqi government must be given true budgetary and strategic autonomy. They must be allowed to control their own fiscal resources and purchase the heavy weapons that will give the IA true combat superiority over insurgents in the Sunni triangle. Once that is done the US can withdraw completely from the Sunni triangle and focus on peacekeeping duties in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and other heavily mixed ethnic areas. Over the course of the next year US forces could then draw down throughout Iraq and transfer law-and-order duties to the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police. This is by no means a foolproof strategy- its success depends entirely on the commitment of Iraqi leaders to the genuine professionalization of the Iraqi security forces and the development of an authentically national policy in government affairs. Neither of those things might come to pass, but there is no alternative strategy that the US may employ that can accomplish what the Iraqis can not.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Two Dissidents

Last week saw the murder and imprisonment, respectively, of two dissidents on opposite sides of the line that is becoming increasingly reified in current discourse, that between "Islam" and "the West." The first was Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and outspoken critic of the war in Chechnya, shot dead in her apartment over the weekend. The second was Ayatollah Mohammed Kazemeini Boroujerdi, who was arrested in Tehran on Sunday for his opposition to clerical rule in Iran.

Ms. Politkovskaya's reporting revealed that the treatment the Putin regime dealt the Chechen people rose to and surpassed the level of cruelty visited upon the Kurds by Saddam Hussein. The fact that Saddam Hussein sits in jail while Vladimir Putin remains at the helm of one of the G8 can hardly create any other impression except that crimes against Muslims will be held to account only if they are committed by other Muslims. The only redemption for "the West" on this score was provided by the outspoken courage of Ms. Politkovskaya herself, in that Saddam Hussein let no one of her ilk survive in his Iraq. Now she has paid for that courage with her life, and the thin thread by which any conceivable moral superiority of "the West" hung in this instance has snapped.

Ayatollah Boroujerdi provides a counter-example of the crimes of "Islam," but one that confounds the usual parameters within which that boogeyman is perceived. Here is an oppressed critic of the rightly decried Tehran regime, but rather than being an apostle of "modern rationalism" or "enlightened secularism" he speaks from the heart of Islam itself. Though Boroujerdi has not yet paid the ultimate price for his stance and his clerical rank perhaps affords him a degree of protection Ms. Politkovskaya did not enjoy, still his criticism took a similar kind of courage. His reasons for opposing clerical rule are no doubt complex, but the fact that they are rooted more in Koran and Hadith than in Locke and Rousseau does not make them any less principled.

What then, may we learn from Politkovskaya and Borourjerdi? Whatever else may be true of "Islam" and "the West" they are alike in the capacity to oppress or destroy those who take a principled stand against values that have strong institutional roots. Pope Benedict XVI's recent call for a "great dialogue of cultures" rooted in rationalism and tolerance was no doubt a message for the age. It will only serve a constructive purpose, however, if all people of conscience understand that no culture exercises a monopoly on intolerance or irrationality; these are universal human potentials that find expression wherever abstract principles or naked self-interest are put before the sanctity of human life. In this light, "the West" and "Islam" are best abandoned as categories that lack any real utility in a genuinely productive "great dialogue of cultures."

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

Foreign occupying soldiers fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing five. The soldiers are put on trial and a talented local lawyer steps forward to defend the men who had killed his compatriots. With skill and effort he wins acquittal for most of the accused. Twenty-seven years later he becomes the second president of his country.

The lawyer, of course, was John Adams, whose political career was launched in part by his defense of the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre in 1770. Later that same year he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and joined the Sons of Liberty. The contrast between those events and the legal drama playing out in Baghdad today could not be more stark. Some of the lawyers and judges involved in the trial of Saddam Hussein may someday rise to positions of great prominence in Iraq, but for now they must preoccupy themselves with a day-to-day struggle to survive. Three of the lawyers defending Hussein have already been killed.

The contrast between Boston 1770 and Baghdad 2006 exemplifies the profound systemic problems that militate against the formation of a stable, much less a democratic, order in Iraq. That John Adams was able to continue breathing after successfully defending the Boston Massacre culprits was not because colonial America lacked class, ethnic, gender, racial, or sectarian tension. Rather, it was because a long and sometimes violent complex of negotiations had created a cultural and institutional framework imbued with enough legitimacy to stave off anarchy even during times of revolutionary change. Iraqi society does not enjoy the benefit of any such history, it is an arbitrarily and inorganically formed community that has never come to terms with the destructive centrifugal forces that tear at its social fabric. This was true long before the Coalition invasion of 2003 and should have been the central guiding fact of US foreign policy toward Iraq.

Much ink has been spilled on the mistakes made by the Bush administration during the occupation of Iraq- too few troops were deployed, too little administrative talent was recruited, the UN was alienated, the Iraqi army disbanded, the nascent insurgency ignored, corrupt and inefficient contractors employed, strange laissez-faire economic policies pursued, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Yet however true this litany of mistakes may be, it should not create the false impression that "had things been done differently" this policy would have been a success. Had all the mistakes since 2003 been averted, had the US pursued the optimal policy within its power to execute, the Iraq mission would still most likely have gone awry. No invasion of Iraq could have succeeded without the Iraqis themselves cooperating in a revolution to form a newly stable and functional state, and counting on that contingency right now was like counting on snow in July.

This assertion is neither an indictment of the Iraqi people nor an impeachment of their desire to be free. As Michael Goldfarb's book, Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq demonstrates, Iraq does not lack its own Adamses or Jeffersons, yet in the current conditions of anarchy and strife no such person can give free rein to their talent and integrity and hope to survive. These conditions are not an index of the moral weakness of the Iraqi people, they are a product of historical circumstance. As rapidly and profoundly as John Adams' Boston was about to change circa 1770, it was a society that rested on foundations laid by centuries of revolution in the British metropole and adaptation on the American continent. Even after the movement of which Adams was a part won through to stability, the system he helped found was riven by violent conflicts and destined to experience cataclysmic schism and bloodshed.

The Iraqi revolution that the Bush administration imagined it could custodian was no less profound than that of 18th century America, yet it was attempted in a society that had none of the social and institutional assets that had made the latter revolution possible. The delusion that American military power could induce revolution was the gravest and most inexcusable mistake of the Bush White House, it expressed a scorn for the arduousness with which democratic institutions are established and a paternalistic disregard for the complex and dynamic humanity of the Iraqi people themselves.

As we run up to the mid term elections here in the US, the Bush White House has taken its usual offensive tack in addressing the issues that will register at the polls. Iraq weighs heavily on voters' minds, and President Bush has been relentless in broadcasting the message that Iraq is part of the "great ideological conflict of our time." This is simply not true. Great ecumenical conflicts are of little significance to the Iraqi people at this time, theirs now is a struggle to negotiate, under extremely difficult circumstances, a new and stable social contract between the diverse conflicting groups that are compelled to live together in Iraq. That was never a struggle over which the US could exercise much control or to which it could be much assistance. Though the negligence of the Bush regime has nullified what little influenced the US ever possessed in the evolution of Iraqi politics, even had they not done so the mission of the Coalition would most likely have proven impossible. The shame of the Bush regime's failing to realize this plain fact before lives were lost is now compounded by their insistence on feeding the American public self-interested rhetoric instead of pragmatic policy.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Puzzling Out Hezbollah

Despite the fact that fighting between it and Israel has, for the moment, ceased, Hezbollah and its media-savvy leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah continue to make headlines. Nasrallah spoke to thousands of supporters on Friday in Beirut, declaring that Hezbollah will not disarm and that the government of Lebanon does not faithfully serve the Lebanese people. This kind of rhetoric alarms many concerned for peace in the Middle East, leading many to lump Hezbollah in among other forces pursuing a militant agenda in the region. At his UN speech this week George W. Bush cited Hezbollah as one example of the general threat against which the civilized world must unite in the "War on Terror." Others are prone to characterizing Hezbollah as a proxy of Iran.

None of these analyses completely account for the historical conditions that shape Hezbollah and inform its leaders' strategic choices. Hezbollah has been, since the days of the Lebanese civil war in the 1980's, a major force in Lebanese politics. As such it is, for good or ill, a major player in the geopolitics of the entire Middle East. If world governments are to build an effective policy for interacting with Hezbollah they must adopt an informed and pragmatic understanding of Hezbollah as a movement and resist reductionist, one-dimensional conceptions.

As Shi'a Muslims Hezbollah's affinity for Iran is predictable. Shi'a Islam is founded on an enduring ambition to fully integrate the practice and doctrine of divinely ordained religion with the reigning institutions of state. Where Sunnis accept a policy of "render unto Caesar," Shi'ites insist that Caesar and the Prophet must be combined. In this sense the Iranian Revolution presents a compellingly appealing model for all Shi'a communities throughout the modern world. Not only is Iran the country in which Shi'a political control has been consolidated to the greatest extent in history, it presents an enduring model of how traditional Shi'a religious institutions may be integrated with (and control) the working organs of the modern nation state.

It is thus natural for Shi'ites seeking to participate collectively in modern politics to look to Iran as a model. Even so, the modular appeal of Iran does not nullify or replace the domestic impulses that drive Shi'ites into the political arena of their home states in the first place. Anyone insisting that the impetus of an Iranian-modeled group in Lebanon resides not in Tyre or Byblos but in Tehran must explain why we do not find Hezbollah-like movements in every nation with a significant Shi'a population. Bahrain is the prime example of this conundrum. Bahrain has only 489,000 Shi'ites as opposed to Lebanon's 850,000. Bahrain's Shi'ites, however, make up a 70% majority of that small Gulf State. Moreover, its geographic proximity to Iran gives Tehran easier access to Bahrain than Lebanon. Yet Bahrain's Shi'ites live peacefully under the constitutional rule of a Sunni monarch. Bahrain's main Shi'a political party, Al Wefaq, does not militate for a clerical theocracy but participates in parliamentary politics alongside Sunnis, nationalists, and Maoists.

If Iran's influence were sufficient to create a Hezbollah-like group in every Shi'a community Bahrain and many other countries would be experiencing something akin to what now transpires in Lebanon. The only other majority Shi'ite Arab nation, Iraq, is arguably the single nation in which the Iranian model has exerted the most influence, surpassing even that found in Lebanon. Yet despite sharing a border with Iran its Iranian-inspired political movements have neither been able to claim a majority hold over the loyalties of Iraq's Shi'ites or the explicit sanction of Iraq's most senior Shi'a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Thus Hezbollah's power and influence within the Lebanese Shi'a community is as much or more the product of domestic Lebanese social and political forces as the external influence of Tehran. Hezbollah formed in the context of the Hobbesian "all against all" anarchic civil conflict into which Lebanon descended in the 1980's, in which each of Lebanon's ethnic constituencies felt compelled to form its own political/military organization as a matter of survival. It was given further impetus and coherence by the Israeli decade+ occupation of southern Lebanon which is home to the majority of Lebanon's Shi'ites. All of Hezbollah's actions, up to the present day, must be understood in that context.

One might ask how this serves to illumine Hezbollah's motives in the most recent conflict. The incursion into Israel and the seizure of two Israeli reservists in immitation of Hamas' earlier raid may strike many outside the Middle East as gratuitously belligerent. Why would Hezbollah undertake such a step if they were not acting under orders of Tehran? What other than a grand conspiratorial urge to destroy Israel could make Hezbollah join in the provocations of Hamas, a group with which it shares few common sympathies outside of anti-Zionist rage?

As superficially persuasive as such questions may be, they overlook certain hard pragmatic realities. Whatever appeal an attack against Israel might have had it came with very grave risks. Bravado aside, the recent round of fighting cost Hezbollah dearly in human and material resources, a reality of which they were well aware even as they committed to war. Tehran may have had motive to distract the world from its nuclear ambitions (though if this was the plan its effect was obviously short-lived), but however much Tehran may have desired a provocation it was always Hezbollah that was going to bleed for it. No matter how much financing or material assistance it receives from Tehran, Hezbollah would not have attacked Israel if they had not felt it was in their immediate interests.

This leads naturally to the question of what those interests were. In the wake of Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon the political field in that country has returned to a fluid state fraught with both potential and peril. Lebanon's Shi'ites might well wonder whether Lebanon's newly independent political institutions can be established on an enduring and stable footing or whether the country will descend once again into interethnic violence. What about this situation would tempt Hezbollah's leaders to attack Israel? Hezbollah views the Israeli Defense Forces as both a direct enemy of itself and an ally of its domestic opponents. Given the newly fluid state of Lebanese politics all political players in Lebanon are highly sensitive to any change in the strategic balance of power between and among them. The withdrawal of Syria alienates Hezbollah from its principal ally in any interethnic conflict. Were that to be combined with an increase of Israeli involvement in Lebanese politics/military affairs Hezbollah might very likely view that as a "doomsday scenario" threatening its (and its constituent Shi'a community's)survival.

If Hezbollah fears increased Israeli involvement in Lebanon, why would it provoke an Israeli attack? The answer lies in the motives of the group Hezbollah was imitating- the military wing of Hamas in Gaza. As I have written in earlier posts, Hamas hoped through its provocation to put the brakes on the Israeli Kadima party's policy of unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territory. Hamas hopes to derail unilateral disengagement because any two-state solution will preclude Palestinian extremists' dream of one day destroying Israel and turning all of Israel-Palestine into an Arab state. Hezbollah likewise fears a two-state solution, not out of sympathy with the Palestinian cause, but because the withdrawal of the Israeli Army from the occupied territories will free up more of Israel's military and economic resources for use in Lebanon. Hezbollah did not attack Israel on the orders of Iran or as a proxy attack on the U.S., it did so to help turn Israeli public opinion against disengagement and weaken Ehud Olmert's mandate to carry through the policies of Ariel Sharon. Whatever the costs of Hezbollah's attacks it must be acknowledged that in this regard they (and Hamas) achieved their strategic obective- plans for withdrawal from the West Bank are on indefinite hold and Ehud Olmert's governing coalition is in political trouble.

Recognizing Hezbollah's intrinsic domestic power-base and agenda compels the realization that there is no easy solution to the challenge Hezbollah poses to Middle East peace. However inflamatory its actions may have been, demonizing Hezbollah and adopting a purely military posture in confronting it is a recipe for failure. More than a decade of Israeli occupation in Hezbollah's heartland was not sufficient to root it out or nullify it as a political force, thus no military solution will ever effectively rid Israel or anyone else of Hezbollah's threat. Embracing superheated rhetoric which labels Hezbollah a pawn of Iran or an enemy in the "War on Terror" abandons the effective political tools that might be used to integrate the group into a stable regional political dynamic. Hezbollah must be disarmed, but that will only happen if the world comes together in good faith to help build strong, stable, and democratic central institutions in Lebanon as a whole. Such a process will require many years and a virtually limitless commitment of diplomatic effort, money, and human and material resources. Only when all ethnic groups in Lebanon feel that they have a share in their nation's collective destiny and share equally in the protection and stewardship of their government will Hezbollah no longer pose a threat to the regional peace.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The "Hail Mary" Oil Spot vs. the Praise Allah Oil Spot

The New York Times reports today that the Iraqi government under Nuri al-Maliki is planning to construct a trench cordon around Baghdad to restrict traffic in and out of the city. This would seem to indicate that the Coalition command (who presumably had a hand in these plans) has finally decided to implement something akin to Andrew Krepinevich's proposed "Oil Spot Strategy." On the one hand this new plan is hopeful news, as it demonstrates that both the Iraqi government and the Coalition command are taking proactive steps to stem the rising tide of chaos in Iraq. On the other hand this strategy could all too easily amount to "too little too late."

Establishing order in Baghdad and allowing it to "seep outward" toward the rest of the country is the last best hope for the current Iraqi government. Though Krepenivech deserves credit for articulating this strategy, its current implementation does underscore some of the shortcomings in his original formulation (and, to be fair to Krepenivech, in the original strategic planning of the Bush White House). If building such a cordon around Baghdad now is such a good idea one must naturally ask why it was not done three years ago. The answer, of course, is that there were not enough soldiers then to build and maintain such a cordon. This is the most unrealistic promise made in Krepenivich's strategic manifesto- that an "oil spot" strategy could employ fewer rather than more troops to prosecute an effective counterinsurgency.

In this regard the plan to build a Baghdad "Oil Spot" does offer a glimmer of hope for the Iraqi government. The number of Coalition troops in Iraq has not significantly increased (though it is notable that more troops have been deployed to Baghdad itself in the face of the current crisis), thus the commitment to this new plan hopefully evinces that the Iraqi Armed Forces have increased in size and combat readiness to make such a strategy practicable.

As optimistic a trend as that may be, any objective analysis must acknowledge that the current situation is very grave, and that the prospects for success are not high. The strategic task that must be accomplished by the planned "oil spot" cordon is vastly more complicated than the implementation of such a strategy would have been three years ago. Though Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead, his legacy lives on in the horrific sectarian violence sparked by the Samarra mosque bombing in February. Before the Samarra bombing the only effective task of an "oil spot" cordon around Baghdad would have been to stop Sunni insurgent provocateurs from launching terror attacks within the city limits.

Now that the genii of sectarian violence is already out of the bottle, however, simply keeping insurgent terrorists out of Baghdad will not be enough to restore order. Inside the cordon thrown up around Baghdad someone (either the Iraqi Armed Forces or the Coalition) will have to move very aggressively against the Shi'ite militias that are on the rampage against Sunni civilians. The currently planned "oil spot strategy" will in fact have to contend with a countervailing "oil spot" strategy, one being violently carried on even now by groups like SCIRI and the Mahdi Army. The indiscriminate mass-killing of Sunni civilians by Shi'ite militias can only have one aim- to drive Sunnis out of Baghdad and transform it into a Shi'ite stronghold. As Baghdad is indisputably the economic, demographic, and political center of any Iraqi state, ethnically cleansing Baghdad is the first logical step in any attempt to bring the Iraqi government uncontestably under Shi'ite (clerical) control. Even as the Iraqi government attempts to turn Baghdad into an "oil spot" of stability from which effective control over the nation can be extended, radical Shi'ite groups are trying to make Baghdad an "oil spot" from which a new Shi'ite sectarian order can be imposed on the nation as a whole.

Establishing a security cordon around Baghdad will help stem the tide of Shi'ite radicalism by virtue of reducing the incidence of insurgent terror attacks that enrage Shi'ites and drive them into the radical camp. The Iraqi Armed Forces can most likely be relied upon in that regard, as they are composed principally of Shi'ites and have little reason to sympathize with the goals of the Sunni insurgency. Such a campaign will not be enough to quell the radical Shi'ite "oil spot" campaign, however. The SCIRI militias and Mahdi Army must be disarmed, and that task will require a sustained campaign that will undoubtedly necessitate recourse to force of arms. Toward that end the Iraqi Armed Forces are far less reliable, as their sympathy for their coreligionists (combined with their own concern for self-preservation) may trump their loyalty to the nascent Iraqi government. Even if they could theoretically be relied upon, it will take an enormous degree of courage and political will for Nuri al-Maliki and his governing partners to superintend such a potentially violent campaign against their own political allies. Perhaps they secretly plan to rely on Coalition forces to execute the "internal" phase of this oil spot campaign. If this is the case, it remains an open question whether the Coalition can restore order in Baghdad without the logistical, political, and intelligence support of the Maliki government (or whether the Maliki government will make such resources available to the Coalition in sufficient supply).

There are some good signs that the Maliki government is sincere in its desire to carry through on this new plan and restore order both in Baghdad and Iraq at large. The recent meeting between Maliki and Ahmedenijad of Iran may be counted among such signs. Any campaign to rein in Shi'ite radicalism stands a much better chance if political pressure can be brought to bear on SCIRI and the Mahdi Army from Tehran even as IAF and/or Coalition forces apply military heat on the ground in Baghdad. Still, one must acknowledge that the task is very difficult and the stakes are very high. As well advised and proactive as this Baghdad cordon plan may be, it must be judged the last best hope of the Maliki government. If this new strategy fails to establish order in the capital, it is difficult to see how the Maliki government can preserve any structural coherence in the long term, or how Iraq can avoid a slide into unbridled anarchy.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

China, North Korea, and the US

A new sobriquet for North Korea could be drawn from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel: The Land that Time Forgot. Everywhere else the Cold War is a fading memory. Free market economics are rapidly transforming Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and Vietnam. Even Fidel Castro's Cuba has made tentative accomodations with the globalized world. North Korea, however, remains suspended in an ideological deep freeze. The preternatural stasis of the regime has even produced the world's first Communist dynasty, as the "Great Leader" was succeeded by the "Dear Leader" with hardly a pause for breath.

This stagnation is not only embodied in the workings of North Korea's government and economy, however, but extends to the geopolitics of the entire Korean Penninsula. In most of the world the strategic barriers and defensive protocols of the Cold War have disintegrated. Germany is reunited. The "iron" and "bamboo" curtains are fallen. A U.S. embassy is operating in Hanoi. Yet the Demilitarized Zone remains a no-man's land so full of mines it may never be fit for human traffic or habitation. This state of affairs is so taken for granted now that one rarely sees a commentator ask "why?" Why have the chilled relationships of the Cold War warmed everywhere else but on the Korean Penninsula? What is keeping North Korea on ice?

Isolation is obviously the key to this conundrum. Pyongyang has been able to keep its political and economic system operating on strictly Stalinist principles because it has avoided the pitfalls of commerce and communication which so eroded the ideological purity of other Communist systems. But "isolation" itself is not a satisfactory answer, for it begs the further question of what has enabled the North to remain so isolated. Why has Pyongyang resisted the globalizing tide that has penetrated Moscow, Beijing, and even Havana?

To begin approaching this question one must merely look at a map. North Korea has only two borders over which any threat to its isolation might approach. The DMZ to the south is obviously a non-porous frontier. Less obvious, however, is why North Korea's frontier with China would not be a worrisome source of subversive influences.

Beijing has not, of course, embraced democracy. But it has opened its arms to free-market commerce and a general depoliticization of the economic realm. I remember when the most prominent billboards one noticed bicycling down Changan Boulevard proclaimed the supremacy of "Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought." Now as one passes those same billboards in a Toyota or BMW one sees ads for French facial cream or Irish beer. Why have the winds blowing from Beijing not have led to a thaw in the rigidly Stalinist posture of Pyongyang?

North Korea remains heavily dependent on economic aid coming across the Chinese frontier, yet none of it has come with the attached condition that Pyongyang conform to Beijing's reformist line. This fact may not be dismissed as insignificant, as ideological differences have been a source of friction between Beijing and its Communist neighbors in the past. Moreover, tolerance of Pyongyang's anti-reform stance must have cost reformist leaders in Beijing politically. Allowing a client state to remain ideologically "pure" would provide fodder to those in the Chinese Communist Party who opposed free-market reform.

Given these potential costs, therefore, Beijing must have tolerated North Korean puritanism out of perceived self-interest. Why would Beijing desire stasis in Pyongyang? Because stasis is the only condition in which North Korea may persist as a single-party state. The Korean Communist Party can only maintain its authority through draconian control of communication and commerce, any degree of "Pyongyang Spring" would most likely lead to the implosion of the North Korean state and its absorption within the liberal democracy of South Korea (a la Germany 1990). This is a scenario Beijing fears far more urgently than any retrogressive chill coming from Pyongyang. The democraticization of North Korea following on the heels of full-sufferage elections in Taiwan would send shock waves through the PRC that could threaten the unravelling of Beijing's single-party autocracy. It is for this reason first and foremost that Beijing abets and encourages North Korea's policy of isolation and stagnation.

These realities cast a harsh light on recent US policies on the Korean Penninsula. Since 1993 Washington has labored fruitlessly to pressure Pyongyang into surrendering its nuclear program. A central pillar of that policy has been reliance on the assistance of Beijing. Such an expectation is founded on a confusion of both Beijing's motives and practical influence, however. Beijing might well desire that Pyongyang relinquish its nuclear arsenal, but in certain respects the PRC is less equipped to exert pressure on North Korea than the US, as Beijing's own self-preservation is intertwined with Pyongyang's survival. Beijing will never threaten Pyongyang with genuinely dire sanctions (the refusal of food aid, for example) for fear that such a move would cause its fragile client state to collapse.

Herein lies the basic flaw of US policy toward North Korea. An unremitting focus on North Korea's nuclear weaponry will never produce desired results, as any sanctions which Washington is able or Beijing is willing to apply will only deepen the isolation upon which the KCP thrives. Thus every method the US has applied thus far to break the nuclear standoff in Korea has only nurtured the conditions that cause it to persist.

The only tactic that can move Pyongyang is one that forces a crack in its self-sustaining isolation. Since Beijing will never be anything but complicit in maintaining the North's antiseptic cordon, the sunlight of a "Pyongyang Spring" can only come from one direction- south. Maintenance of a hostile posture of "regime change" has made Washington Beijing's unwitting accomplice in abetting North Korea's stagnation. If the US would drop "regime change" in favor of a policy of "reconciliation and reunification" on the Korean Penninsula as a whole, such a move would rock both Pyongyang and Beijing back on their heels.

If the President or the Congress (or both) announced the US' intention to pursue negotiations toward the peaceful, bilateral reunification of Korea the strategic deadlock would be broken. The KCP, trapped by its own history and rhetoric, could not reject such overtures absolutely. The US and South Korea could make Northern disarmament a precondition of discrete aspects of reconciliation. Though both Beijing and Pyongyang would attempt in ways both subtle and overt to stonewall such a process, in the long run neither regime would likely succeed in preventing at least some commerce and communication from opening up across the DMZ, any amount of which would be radically destabilizing to Pyongyang.

Beijing would no doubt fear the long-term consequences of such a development, but diplomatic propriety would preclude the CCP from acting too aggressively to interdict it. It is thus in the power of US leaders to break the deadlock on the Korean Penninsula with a modicum of ingenuity, skill, and flexibility. First and foremost, however, they must recognize that the same motives prevailing in Washington are in not force in Beijing.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Omen

The kidnapping of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit on Sunday is dire news to anyone concerned about the prospects of peace in Israel-Palestine. My response to this affair is conditioned by my personal convictions as both a Jew and a Zionist. On the one hand and foremost, I hope fervently that Shalit is unharmed and will be returned safely to his family. Beyond this, however, I hope that Israeli and American leaders will draw the right lessons from this perilous moment moving forward. Sunday's attack is undeniably a gratuitous provocation, but it is nonetheless an omen of what will surely come if Israel continues down the path of unilateralism staked out by Ariel Sharon.

Israeli officials assert that the seizure of an Israeli military hostage was one of the primary aims of Sunday's raid, the ultimate goal being to negotiate for the release of Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel. The former part of this analysis makes sense- the effort expended and risk undertaken by the perpetrators of the raid indicate that the seizure of Shalit was not an arbitrary whim. The latter assertion, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. Their refusal to release any information that would confirm Shalit's status casts suspicion on the seriousness with which his captors approach potential negotiations. Moreover, the prospects of negotiation are slim at best, while an Israeli military incursion into Gaza is a virtual certainty as a result of Sunday's raid. Unless the militants are supremely daft they must understand these odds, thus in all likelihood it was not the extremely tenuous negotiations but the all-but-definite Israeli military incursion that was the true object of Sunday's raid.

Why would Palestinian militants want to provoke an Israeli military incursion into Gaza? Because it is the only way to undermine Kadima's strategy of unilateral disengagement. The perpetrators of Sunday's raid are not merely anti-Semites and anti-Zionists, they are opposed in principle to any successful two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Polls show that most Paletinians are opposed to Kadima's unilateralist policy because they feel it will ultimately establish boundaries between Israel and Palestine that are unfair. Even so, if pressed they would most likely admit that a Palestinian state with abridged borders is preferrable to no Palestinian state at all. The militants who carried out Sunday's raid would not agree with this majority consensus, however.

For Sunday's attackers anything short of a Palestinian state that occupies all of Israel-Palestine is an unconditional defeat. They would thus prefer a situation in which the Israeli army occupied every inch of Israel-Palestine to one in which a stable and sovereign Palestinian government was ensconced in Gaza and the West Bank. As long as the bloodshed and hardship continue the militants' dream of "Greater Palestine" (in their minds, at least) remains theoretically possible, as enough violence might someday lead to the collapse of the Israeli state. A stable and sovereign Palestinian state bordering Israel would cut off all chance of "Greater Palestine," as that government would have a vested interest in cooperating with Israel to keep violence to a minimum. Sunday's raid was thus not merely an attack on Israel, but an attack on the peace process itself.

Unfortunately, if Ehud Olmert moves forward with Kadima's planned unilateral disengagement Sunday's attack will serve as a harbinger of things to come. Unilateralism may seem like a magic knife that can cut the Gordian knot of disputed Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty, but in the final analysis it is only a formula for putting extremists and terrorists in the driver's seat of Arab-Israeli relations. Drawing a line in the sand and building a wall on it will undoubtedly increase Israelis' security in the short term, but in the long run no wall can stand in place of diplomacy in dertermining Israel's boundaries. Sunday's attack shows that any wall is permeable. Tunnels can be dug under it, missiles can be fired over it. A determined opponent will, given time enough and murderous effort, succeed in launching a provocation that demands a response and undermines any attempt at unilateral disengagement. As Kadima moves forward with its planned disengagement in the West Bank this problem will evolve a domestic dimension as well. Extremists on the Israeli side are not likely to give up dreams of "Greater Israel" in the face of a Kadima defensive wall, they will almost certainly launch similarly provocative attacks into Palestinian territory by way of undermining any stable two-state peace.

Nothing justifies Sunday's attack against Israel, as it can only result in more bloodshed and hardship for all of Israel-Palestine's residents. Nor is it realistic to expect Israel to refrain from taking military action when one of her soldiers is in mortal jeopardy. Hopefully, however, Israel's leaders will read the signs of this sad affair for what they portend- unilateral disengagment will never ultimately lead to enduring stability, security and peace. Israel must have a sovereign and authoritative Palestinian counterpart with which to negotiate a two-state resolution and to coordinate joint efforts at security. If such a Palestinian partner does not now exist this is not an argument for unilateralism, but a sign that Israeli leaders must assist those on the Palestinian side, like Mahmoud Abbas, who are committed to a two-state solution to establish their authority so that a bilateral peace process may move forward.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Complex Specter of Vietnam

Comparisons to Vietnam began haunting the Bush administration's Iraq policy even before the Coalition invasion was launched in 2003. The specter of Vietnam is not a simple or univalent influence on the US political climate surrounding the Iraq conflict, however. It impinges upon the perceptions of both opponents and supporters of the Bush policy in complex ways that reflect the vagaries of memory and its perceived reverberations in future policy.

Opponents of the Iraq policy (among which I count myself) are frustrated not only or least by the sense that "the lessons of Vietnam" have been ignored, but that in certain political circles those lessons themselves remain ambiguous more than thirty years after the fall of Saigon. The image of "the last helicopter" leaving the US embassy in April 1975 leaves no doubt that the US Vietnam policy was a failure, the reasons for that failure, however, remain contested.

For those who opposed the Vietnam War (with whom I retrospectively agree, having been born at the conflict's height) the Vietnam policy ultimately failed because it was flawed at the outset. Certain pundits, however, insist that the Vietnam War was "lost" not because of any prior deficiency in US policy but because of domestic opposition among the American public and political leadership. This latter argument manifests in several forms, the most empirically plausible of which is the assertion that at the conflict's tail end the Nixon administration's policy of "Vietnamization would have worked" had it not been undermined by withdrawal of funding by a Democratic Congress in 1974 and 1975.

Arguments that US Congressional miserliness doomed the Thieu regime are dubious at best. Congress did barter down the executive's proposed package of aid in fiscal year 1974, but this was not an exceptional case of appropriational wrangling. A supplemental request for additional military aid made by the Ford administration never reached the appropriations stage before the collapse of the Thieu regime. Despite failing to meet Nixon administration targets (which were likely inflated in anticipation of Congressional bargaining) US aid to South Vietnam was expansive- 4 billion dollars from the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, with an additional 1 billion dollars of donated equipment. By 1974 South Vietnam, a nation of 20 million people, had the world's fourth largest army and air force and fifth largest navy. The South Vietnamese military initially enjoyed a 4 to 1 superiority in heavy weapons over that of the North. Under these conditions the idea that the South was defeated for lack of bullets is a stretch of the imagination.

Moreover, the notion that Congress was ultimately responsible for the collapse of South Vietnam rests on two false assumptions. The first is a misunderstanding of what role any legislature may play in the conduct of an armed conflict. Any battle that depends on particular action by a legislative body is lost from the outset- a body like Congress simply cannot be relied upon to respond with the kind of alacrity that warfare demands.

Secondly, the "Congress lost Vietnam" myth assumes a degree of control over events in Southeast Asia that the United States never had. At most Congressional action helped catalyze a crisis of confidence within South Vietnam that hastened the collapse of the Thieu regime. But a government whose legitimacy balanced so precariously on perceptions of the American political climate was bound to collapse sooner or later, the idea that a further infusion of cash could have precluded such a crisis altogether is a fantasy. In the end the fate of the Thieu regime is not best epitomized by the fabled "last US helicopter," but by the South Vietnamese F-5E jet flown by Lt. Nguyen Thanh Trung that made three bombing passes over President Thieu's residence on April 8, 1975. Any regime so lacking in coherence and political control that it would find such an expensive and destructive asset turned against itself could not stand long. Ultimately South Vietnam was not defeated by a lack of US volition or even a failure of South Vietnamese leadership, but by the aggregate unwillingness of the Vietnamese people themselves to live in a partitioned nation.

The "Congress lost Vietnam" myth does not have enormous traction in the American public perception of Vietnam and its legacy. Even so, opponents of the Bush policy in Iraq may be forgiven for fearing that such myths continue to distort foreign policy. Structurally similar myths to those that precipitated and persist in the wake of Vietnam are propounded in support of the decision to invade Iraq and by way of apology for the mission's setbacks.

First among these is the idea that the invasion of Iraq was a necessary blow against the global power and influence of Al Qaeda. This notion persists despite being demonstrably false- even with the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last week Al Qaeda enjoys far greater purchase in Iraq now than it did in April of 2003. The consistent invocation of the "war on terror" in defense of the Bush Iraq policy echoes calls for "containment" during the Vietnam War. Both arguments overestimate the degree to which the perceived threat (global Communism or political Islam) expresses itself universally uniformly and to which local conditions are shaped by larger geopolitical forces. Just as the expense and destruction of the Vietnam War could not be justified in terms of its impact on global Communism, the human and material costs of Iraq will not be worth the damage inflicted on Al Qaeda (assuming that, in the best case scenario, Al Qaeda's strategic position is ever materially degraded by events in Iraq at all).

The second disturbing myth current in the Iraq crisis is the structural doppleganger of the "Congress lost Vietnam" myth: the idea that the current Iraqi insurgency would not exist (or would be much attenuated) if there were no domestic US opposition to or criticism of the war. This latter myth rests upon the same faulty reasoning of the former, an assumption that the US enjoys far greater control over local political developments internationally than it ever actually has. The Iraqi insurgency exists because a certain critical mass of Iraqis are intrinsically opposed to the Baghdad government the Coalition is trying to establish, and that opposition is not reducible to nationalistic anger at US imperialism. If the US departed tomorrow the insurgency would continue and even intensify, because the Baghdad regime embodies forces (multiethnic rule, democracy, relative secularism, protection of Shi'ite religious freedom) with which the insurgents (to varying degrees) will not be reconciled.

Given the eery parallelism between the myths surrounding Vietnam and those surrounding Iraq, opponents of the Bush administration's policy might reasonably fear the long-term consequences of any degree of success in Iraq. Despite the clear failure of the Vietnam policy, myths such as the "Congress lost Vietnam" canard seem to have had just enough traction to bring those who propound them back into control of the US' foreign policy apparatus for another bite at the apple. If such a costly and misguided policy could be launched on such a flimsily established precedent one trembles at the prospect of what might be attempted on the basis of even provisional success in Iraq.

Such reasoning must be tempered by two considerations, however. First is that it rests on an overestimation of the degree to which Vietnam precedents figured in to the initiation of the Iraq policy. The policy pundits who gave us Iraq never wholly subscribed to US strategic doctrine during the Cold War, at the time they were advocates of "rollback" rather than containment. The Rumsfeld Defense Department knew full well that the very structure of the 21st century all-volunteer US military was predicated on the assumption that it would never be engaged in a prolonged occupation such as Vietnam. Their decision to go ahead with the invasion of Iraq was rooted in the conviction that it would not develop into an extended occupation, they did not so much ignore the lessons of Vietnam as obstinately insist those lessons were irrelevant.

Moreover, in contemplating Iraq one must hold in mind that the complexion of total failure there would look very different than the previous case of Vietnam. If the current insurgents could be expected to form a coherent state that would be bad enough, as they do not have anything approaching the nationalist goals or credentials of the Viet Cong or the NVA. Instead, however, the more likely outcome of a complete failure of the Bush policy would be total, destructive anarchy. A failed state in Iraq would result not only in untold misery for the Iraqi people and a vastly amplified terror threat to the United States, but might well spill over into a broader regional conflict that could make prior events in Laos and Cambodia pale by comparison.

Ultimately provisional success is the best possible scenario for which the US and the Coalition might hope, and even that outcome is beyond the power of the US or its allies to guarantee- it can only be brought about by courage and skill on the part of Iraq's leaders. Even so, the possible future ramifications of provisional success in Iraq are troubling to consider. If even Vietnam can be spun as a worthwhile and all-but-won cause, should Baghdad win through to stability one cannot but fear what expenditure of blood and treasure might be advanced on that precedent in years to come. In the final analysis, however, such thinking amounts to an abdication of the duty of citizenship. Baghdad will hopefully establish its authority over a stable Iraqi state and the violence in that beleaguered country will subside. If and when that happens US proponents of the current Iraq policy will trumpet it as a great victory and a vindication of the policy from its outset. Such a political climate will place a great burden upon those of us who know how ill-conceived this policy was. We will have to redouble our commitment to remain politically engaged, to insist on a clear and factual assessment of the Bush administration's policy and its consequences, and to see that future foreign policy is not predicated on the same faulty thinking that prevailed in March of 2003.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Goodbye and Good Riddance

The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq yesterday must come as welcome news to anyone concerned about the fate of Iraq, the US, or the world at large. As leader of one of the most violent and high-profile elements of the insurgency Zarqawi has ordered or perpetrated execrable acts of cruelty and destruction. He lent his imprimatur to senseless and gratuitous attacks that can produce nothing but death, anarchy and mayhem. The shattered rubble of the Golden Mosque and the copious innocent blood spilled in his vicious career stand mute testimony that any portrait of Zarqawi as a "freedom fighter" is a pathetic falsehood.

The ability of the US military to track and target Zarqawi is a hopeful sign. This action is a victory for the counterinsurgency, and the soldiers and leadership of the Coalition forces deserve ample credit for carrying out a difficult and vital mission. Though the long-term strategic significance of Zarqawi's demise will take time to assess, for now it is undeniably a significant psychological triumph for the Coalition. At the very least it will detract from the insurgents' aura of inviolability and boost confidence in the prospects of the counterinsurgency among the Iraqi populace, the Coalition forces, and the international public.

All that being said, US leaders would be wise to temper caution with optimism in communicating this development to the public at large. Though the defeat of Zarqawi is undeniably a positive event in the short term, the ultimate effect it will have upon the insurgency itself is an open question. Much hinges on a question that may seem counterintuitive or obvious to some observers: did Zarqawi create the insurgency or did the insurgency create Zarqawi? This was an irresoluble question as long as Zarqawi was alive and operating in Iraq, but it might be resolved by observing how the insurgency does or does not transform in the wake of his demise.

On a surface level it is clear that Zarqawi did not create the insurgency. Though he is a foreigner to Iraq and leads a tendency of the insurgency heavily constituted of non-Iraqis his activities do not indicate that the Iraq insurgency lacks a domestic base of support. The international Al Qaeda movement to which Zarqawi swore allegiance has carried out terror attacks across the world. Yes, Al Qaeda would very much like to see the govnerment in Baghdad collapse. But the same could be said about the government of Morocco, or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Indonesia, or that of any number of a host of countries that have been targeted by the movement. The only condition that can account for the disparity between the degree of violence that Zarqawi has managed to engineer in Iraq and that which Al Qaeda has produced in other nations is the fact that Zarqawi's movement was operating in support of and in tandem with a home-grown Iraqi insurgency of which it was a part. Zarqawi might have perceived himself to be an agent of an international Islamic jihad, but he only achieved the degree of purchase in Iraq that he did because his aid and leadership were perceived as instrumental to furthering the interests of a critical mass of disaffected Iraqis (principally Sunni Arabs). Zarqawi's appeal in Iraq owed as much or more to his credentials as an experienced insurgent from his Afghan days and the perceived anti-American successes of Al Qaeda post-9/11 as to his devotion to an ecumenical Islamic revolution. Zarqawi would not have been embraced by his Iraqi hosts and comrades if they had not already been intrinsically opposed to both the Coalition and the nascent Baghdad government and persuaded that Zarqawi had the "right stuff" to help defeat both.

Acknowledging that fact, however, still compels the question of how much Zarqawi's presence influenced the goals and methods of the insurgency itself. According to both Zarqawi himself and official observers among the Coalition, Zarqawi's element of the insurgency was resposible for the most lurid and destabilizing attacks of the ongoing conflict. Zarqawi lent his name to the indiscriminate homicidal assault upon the Iraqi Shi'ite community and its sacred icons that has done so much to sow the dragon's teeth of chaos in Iraq in recent months. Was this strategy one of his devising or did it grow organically from the intrinsic impulses of the insurgency itself?

At first glance the former might seem the case. The most militarily powerful opponent of the insurgency has always been the Coalition, and the strategically wise course in attempting to oust the Coalition from Iraq would have been to make common cause with all armed groups that oppose the US presence. The popular Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr had taken up arms against the Coalition twice in the immediate wake of the invasion, and even after being militarily defeated it has never been clear that his commitment to the political process is firm. The insurgency could have doubled or tripled its combat power by allying with the Mahdi Army and incorporated an "interface" that might have drawn progressively more Shi'ites into the anti-Coalition cause. Given the advantages that might have accrued from such a policy the brutally sadistic anti-Shi'ite campaign pursued by the insurgency seems anomalous, prompting suspicion that it originated in the personal initiative and leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Though such a conclusion seems plausible, there is some evidence to suggest that it is incorrect. Zarqawi's ruthless anti-Shi'ite strategy costed him in support and confidence among the international leadership of Al Qaeda. US intelligence intercepted communications from Al Qaeda leaders urging Zarqawi to ameliorate his anti-Shi'ite campaign. In the broad view it would seem clear why such would be the case- Osama bin Laden and his confederates ex-Iraq were chiefly concerned with co-ordinating an ecumenical Islamic jihad, antagonizing other Muslims (like the leaders of Iran) did not make good tactical sense toward that goal in the short term. Why, then, would Zarqawi have pursued his anti-Shi'ite strategy though it cost him standing among Al Qaeda internationally? The most likely answer is that this strategy was not dictated by Zarqawi himself but by the Iraqi hosts and comrades upon which his position of leadership among the insurgents depended. The insurgency itself is fueled as much or more by fear of a Baghdad government in which Kurds and Shi'ites enjoy significant power as it is by hatred of the US or the Coalition. Pursuing a brutally anarchic anti-Shi'ite strategy was the condition upon which Zarqawi's influence in the insurgency was sustained.

Thus though the personal defeat of Zarqawi is a step forward in the counterinsurgency for which the Coalition is to be congratulated, it would be ill advised to leap to the conclusion that a sustained Coalition troop presence is the answer to Iraq's problems. If it is true that Zarqawi and his tactics were more product than source of the insurgency then his removal does not eliminate the underlying political impulses that nurtured his sadistic career. In the end only a broad belief in and trust of the Baghdad government on the part of the Iraqi people will defeat the insurgency, and in that regard the continued presence of Coalition soldiers will prove more hindrance than help to the political defeat of the insurgents in the long run.