The destruction Wednesday of the Golden Mosque in Samarra gives the lie to myths from both "the left" and "the right" (of the US political field) concerning the war in Iraq. The complete devastation of not only a Shi'ite holy site but an architectural work of art presents an unequivocal message to anyone who is paying the slightest attention. Like the destruction of the ancient Buddhist collosi by the Taliban or the felling of the Twin Towers by Al Qaeda, this crime was the work of those who will accord no dignity or value to any human achievement that does not square precisely with their very narrow theological vision.
Claims from "the left" that "we (the US) are causing the insurgency" are shown false by the attack on the Golden Mosque. By calling this claim "a myth" I am not focusing on the more limited sense of the US having caused the insurgency by the very act of invasion, but on the broader notion that the insurgency continues only because of the US presence and would evaporate were the Coalition to withdraw. The Golden Mosque exists in a symbolic universe of which the US is virtually no part, its destruction has grievous consequences that will resonate far beyond any time threshold for a US withdrawal. Nothing about this atrocity can be interpreted as a response to foreign occupation, and it is preposterous to suppose that those who committed it would somehow lose the motivation to do so had the US already withdrawn.
Even before the Samarra bombing the ongoing distress of Christian Science Monitor journalist Jill Carroll gave the lie to "leftist" myths about the insurgency. Perplexed comments about how Ms. Carroll was "the wrong" person for insurgents to kidnap woefully misreads the nature of the insurgency and the rationale behind its strategy and tactics. The fact that Ms. Carroll wrote pieces sympathetic to the Iraqi people and exposing the suffering war and invasion has brought to them means very little to the insurgents. If anything, it makes Ms. Carroll a more appealing target, because her dilemma creates confusion and demoralization in a US public trying to make sense of the conflict. Whether or when the US withdraws matters much less to the insurgency than insuring that all aspects of the Coalition occupation are conducted in as disorganized and ineffective a manner as possible, and confounding any attempt by the US public to rationally comprehend what is going on in Iraq helps sow the seeds of chaos and discord.
The attack on the Golden Mosque sends a different kind of message serving complimentary ends. Where the Carroll kidnapping creates confusion and dissonance, the Samarra attack aims at brutal transparency- it precisely targets one of the deepest fissures in Iraqi society. Taken together both crimes demonstrate a truth that the US leadership and public seem slow to grasp: this conflict is no longer about "us," and in a certain fundamental sense it never was.
Here is where cherished myths of the "right" may be seen fallen amid the rubble of the Golden Mosque. First of these is the notion that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was ever a vital or effective response to 9/11. If one asked US security analysts in 2002 what precautions were being taken to guard against Al Qaeda attacks upon Shi'ite holy sites one would have been greeted with a look of total incomprehesion. By taking upon itself the custodianship of Iraqi society the US and its allies have effectively increased their scope of liabilities without any corresponding increase in assets. The invasion has unleashed forces within Iraq and the greater Middle East that the US does not fully understand and is ill-prepared to control.
Beyond this, where the "left" propounds the myth that the US is causing the insurgency, the "right" clings to the myth that it is within the power of the US to end it. President Bush routinely insists that he will not be held to an "artificial political timetable" in deciding when US troops will be withdrawn. This assertion, however, elides the fact that the Bush regime is itself already in thrall to a tactical and strategic posture artificially dictated by politics. As I have written in previous posts the only effective application of US military power at this juncture would be to guard against tragedies like the Golden Mosque bombing, but effectively executing that mission would require a massive increase of US troops in Iraq. The Bush administration remains wedded to a "search and destroy" strategy that relies on the superior firepower and mobility of US troops, despite the fact that such tactics have not retarded the insurgency's ability to commit atrocities like the Samarra attack. This decision is driven principally by politics, since an increase in US troop deployment would create a corresponding and deeply unpopular increase in US casualties, thus the Bush administration's decrial of "political timetables" is either hypocritical or deluded.
It is too early to predict what the disfigured dome of the Golden Mosque portends for the future of Iraq. Even Saddam Hussein did not so gratuitously profane Shi'ite holy sites, it remains to be seen whether the fabric of Iraqi society can withstand the stress of this kind of barbarity. The US is certain to emerge as a loser in this instance, though. Already Iraqis on both sides of the sectarian divide are blaming the US for allowing this atrocity to occur. Whether that judgment is fair or not it is entirely predictable, and it forces the question of how much good the US presence can effect and how much longer it should continue. In strategic terms the choice is clear- either the US must commit the number of troops to the Iraq occupation sufficient to provide security to all vulnerable sites of significance like the Golden Mosque or it must draw down quickly and transfer all apparent and real responsibility for security to the emergent Iraqi government. It was never likely that the US public could be persuaded to support the former option, and early Bush regime rhetoric about "mission accomplished" makes it now a political impossibility.