Friday, February 24, 2006

Reading Signs in the Rubble in Iraq

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it is preposterous to suppose that those who committed it would somehow lose the motivation to do so had the US already withdrawn.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.


Anonymous said...

Would you mind posting a citation or three where a speaker for the "left" claims the US is causing the insurgency?

On the planet I'm on, the argument from the left is that the US presence in Iraq is aggravating the existing problem, and that the occupation is making things worse and not better.

The straw man equivalent for the other side would be to claim the position on the "right" is that there no insurgency, just a few dead enders. Oh, wait...

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Anonymous,

I would mind, your request strikes me as tendentious. If you have not heard or seen or read any spokesperson (ever heard of Cindy Sheehan?) for "the left" articulating this opinion you really need to get out more. Instead of "a citation or three" I offer you this advice- type the words "causing the insurgency" into Google and do a quick scroll through what comes up. If you can't find three of the examples you demand in about 30 seconds you need to work on your "point and click" technique.

As for the "other" argument you describe, "that the US presence in Iraq is aggravating the problem," this is different from the position I described only in degree. In practical terms the only real difference between the "causing" and "aggravating" assertions is that advocates of the former propose a US pullout will make the insurgency disappear immediately while those of the latter would grant that the insurgency will remain but insist it will lessen in intensity. This latter position is more reasonable, but that doesn't make it any more correct. The gratuitous brutality of the Samarra attack suggests that the stakes in this conflict have ratcheted up much higher than the mere inducement of a US withdrawal; its destructiveness will continue to escalate whetherthe occupation ends or not. Indeed, given that the presence of US soldiers must operationally deprive the insurgents of at least some mobility and initiative the conflict is likely to be a good deal worse in the immediate aftermath of a US withdrawal.

Please understand that I opposed the invasion of Iraq, am disgusted with the Bush administration, and generally consider myself of "the left." But I cannot see the validity of either the "causing the insurgency" or "aggravating the insurgency" positions. All the facts on the ground indicate that the US military is basically treading water. As long as US troops are deployed an effective stalemate will continue- the insurgency will be prevented from doing as much damage as it might (though I would grant that the difference is difficult to estimate and may be slight), but it will never be defeated. The stalemate will only be broken when US troops withdraw and the Iraqis are forced to realign their own political field through combined methods of force and diplomacy, and for this reason it is in the best interests of everyone for the US to withdraw from Iraq in rapid stages over the next year (or at most two years).

I critique both the "causing" and "aggravating" arguments because as a left partisan I do not want to see the left suffer the same political blowback that has fallen upon the right as "rightist" predictions about speedy victory, WMD's, yada yada yada have rung hollow. The greatest likelihood is that when the US pulls out the insurgency will initially get much worse, not better, and when that happens my teeth will grind to nubs listening to right pundits declare "Aha! The left was wrong! We were not causing/aggravating the insurgency!" The fact is that one does not have to appeal to the causing/aggravating argument to demonstrate the clear wisdom of withdrawing from Iraq and staying withdrawn, and as the debate about the wisdom of this policy is likely to last through the rest of my lifetime and on into the next generation I would like to see "the left" not begin that discourse by shooting itself in the foot.

Anonymous said...

I asked my question for specific reasons, and I feel relatively justified.

I played your Google game for three pages, and I found a press release from Citizens United for Peace and Justice. Oh, and Tom Hayden saying that the occupation was the "chief cause" of the insurgency. Nothing from Cindy Sheehan, even when I checked for 'Cindy Sheehan "causing the insurgency"', but a few allegations she'd said something. It's been a loooong time since Tom Hadyen was a spokesperson for the left.

I'm going to skip over arguing whether the US occupation is stalemating or making things worse because Juan Cole can make the point more precisely than I can. I do, however, want to point out that your central motivation is naive and ill-informed.

You could easily have posted saying "See, this shows that there aren't enough US troops to keep the peace, especially now. But you felt that to make your point, you needed to backstab people who agreed with you that things wouldn't get better until after the end of the US occupation.

You're worried that the right will attack and say that you're wrong - and this fear shows that you need to get out more. Ever hear of Al Gore? John Kerry?

The right will attack no matter what you say or do. Even if you can find some way of keeping every single elected official, think tank, and PAC from saying what you're afraid of, Ann Coulter will find some professor from Colorado or student from Berkeley and anoint them the new voice of "the left". And you've bought into it by your need to attack both the left and the right to show that you're the only person who really understands what's going on.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Anonymous,

Arguing over what can be discovered on Google is a waste of time. Anyone who reads these comments can perform the search and decide with which of us they agree.

"I'm going to skip over arguing whether the US occupation is stalemating or making things worse because Juan Cole can make the point more precisely than I can. I do, however, want to point out that your central motivation is naive and ill-informed."

The Juan Cole essay you link to says little specifically about the conflict in Iraq, though in abstract his thesis seems quite congruous with what I call the "causing the insurgency" position. Wouldn't you agree that his title, "Foreign Occupation has Produced Radical Muslim Terrorism" implies that "the US occupation is causing the insurgency?" Since you were very insistent that this is NOT the position of "the left" you seem to be subverting your own contention by linking to this article.

I respect Juan Cole for devoting much time and energy to an understudied part of the world, but his hard work doesn't necessarily translate into good politics. His argument in this essay strikes me as grossly ethnocentric in a manner that mirrors that found on the "right." The idea that "foreign occupation causes radical Muslim terror" presupposes that it is always about "us," that there are no internal tensions and issues within the Islamic world itself that might produce this particular response. In the body of the essay Cole deploys evidence that subverts his own thesis:

"After the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Prime Minister Nuqrashi in 1948, it was banned and dissolved. It was briefly rehabilitated by Abdul Nasser in 1952-1954, but in 1954 it tried to assassinate him, and he banned it again. There was no major radical Muslim terrorism in Egypt in the period after 1954 and until Sadat again legitimized the Brotherhood in 1971, despite Egypt being a dictatorship in that period."

If the Muslim Brotherhood were solely the product of foreign occupation how would it be in the power of Abdul Nasser or Sadat to "rehabilitate" or "legitimize" them, and why would they then fall out with one-another so dramatically? One could insist that every one of these developments can be pegged to movements by the US or Israel, but that would be a wildly reductionist and paternalist assertion. These events suggest that there are internal dynamics within Egyptian society that cause the fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood to wax and wane, the shape of Egyptian politics is not always a response to some stimulus from "the West." It would be silly to deny that imperialistic behavior on the part of the US and its allies provides some of the impetus for radical Muslim terror, but it is equally absurd to assert that were the former to stop the latter would disappear. In the absence of American and European imperialism many of the causes for groups like Al Qaeda will remain.

"You could easily have posted saying "See, this shows that there aren't enough US troops to keep the peace, especially now. But you felt that to make your point, you needed to backstab people who agreed with you that things wouldn't get better until after the end of the US occupation."

Backstab? Are you kidding? Convenient fictional labels like "the left" and "the right" notwithstanding, debate about an issue as serious as the Iraq conflict is not some kind of team sport. Disagree with me if you like, but the suggestion that what I have to say is illegitimate because I haven't toed some line drawn by you or Juan Cole is absurd.

I could have easily posted what you suggest if that was my point, but it is not. It seems self-contradictory of YOU to suggest that "there aren't enough US troops to keep the peace." If you hold that the US presence is aggravating a bad situation, wouldn't more US troops make it worse? My point is that there are two directions to go, one involving deploying more US troops (which according to Juan Cole would produce more Muslim terror) the other making a quick and orderly exit. I'm confused as to whether you and I "agree that things would not get better until the end of the US occupation." I would predict that just after the US occupation things will get a good deal worse in Iraq, and that unfortunately that cannot be prevented. Perhaps in the long run things MIGHT get better once the occupation ends, but this is by no means certain. The only thing I am confident of is that the best hope of the occupation is to maintain an obviously horrible status quo.

"You're worried that the right will attack and say that you're wrong - and this fear shows that you need to get out more. Ever hear of Al Gore? John Kerry?

The right will attack no matter what you say or do. Even if you can find some way of keeping every single elected official, think tank, and PAC from saying what you're afraid of, Ann Coulter will find some professor from Colorado or student from Berkeley and anoint them the new voice of "the left"."

At what point in my essay or comments do I express a fear of being attacked by "the right?" Trust me, Anonymous, I am aware of the kind of knee-jerk response any criticism of the Iraq war can evoke. If anything your comments evince that similarly reflexive responses can be evoked from "the left." I could care less about what Ann Coulter thinks of me or anyone else, I simply feel very strongly that this war should not serve as any kind of precedent for future US policy. For this to be maximally true and to REMAIN SO opponents of the war and the occupation should not undermine their own credibility by predicting things that are not likely to happen.

"And you've bought into it by your need to attack both the left and the right to show that you're the only person who really understands what's going on."

This kind of ad hominem jab is cute, Anonymous, but it doesn't constitute an argument. Let me ask you a question that bears on one of my actual points- Is it your contention that the Samarra attack would not have happened if the US had already withdrawn?

Kate Marie said...

I happen to be "of the right," Madman, and so presumably -- at least according to Anonymous's worldview -- I'm going to attack you no matter what you say ... but I thought this was an excellent post.

By the way, me 'n' Ann Coulter? We're like this [picture me crossing middle finger over index finger to indicate "closeness"].

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

We agree? I thought the moon looked a little blue last night. Thanks for the kind words and say hi to Ann for me.

Ahistoricality said...

I wonder if agreeing that "the US is the cause of the problem" isn't fundamentally helpful -- as I said at my own blog, I think that's true, now that we're in Iraq and things have developed thusly, but doesn't give the left credit for foreseeing the problem more clearly -- precludes talking constructively about ways in which the US could be contributing more effectively towards some kind of solution?

It could be that, though withdrawal in itself is not going to end the civil conflict, it might be a part of a broader set of initiatives that did help Iraqi society develop a more sustainable modus vivendi.

Now I'll stop, as I've used up my quota of italics for the night....

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Ahistoricality,

I'm not sure if I get the gist of your first paragraph here, the syntax is a bit convoluted. I would agree that-

1)the U.S. was proximally "the cause of the problem" in that there would have been no insurgency absent the initial invasion (though a good deal of blame for Iraq's current social and political woes must fall on Saddam Hussein);

2)whatever "myths" are out there in circulation RIGHT NOW, "the left" (or perhaps more accurately, "opponents of the war") can be credited with having correctly foreseen the insurgency and its tragic potential;

3)Given all of the strategic and political conditions in effect at the moment, a US withdrawal holds out the best hope (though by no means a sure hope) of finding a way forward for the Iraqis themselves.

josh narins said...

Dear Madman of Chu,

General George Casey, the Commanding General of US Forces in Iraq, says the occupation is fueling the insurgency.

Please recall that an oftstated goal of the US is to draw terrorists to Iraq. There is a major difference between the "suicide bombers/militant muslims" and the "anti-occupation/insurgency." The latter itself is in at least 35 different groups, each with varied aims.

Well over 90% of the fighting is done by anti-occupation Iraqis. Their motivations are many. But the US encouraged the radical, sectish muslims to come to Iraq, and Bush has claimed this is a goal, over and over.

These are, most likely, the forces which blew up the shrine. These are, almost certainly, people who would not be in Iraq if it were not for the invasion.

As if any Iraqi would support this endeavor! "Please, Mr. Bush, fight them "over here" so you don't have to sully your nice, rich country!"

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Josh,

It would be silly to insist that no militants join the ranks of the insurgency out of anger at the U.S. Remember, however, that Casey's "fueling the insurgency" remark was delivered in September 2005, before the constitutional referendum and the elections for a new government. The stakes are much higher now, those insurgents still under arms reject the entire institutional order that is being put in place in Baghdad. Though it would be silly to deny that many militants did take up arms because of the U.S., it would be equally silly to assume that they will lay down their arms and go home once the U.S. has withdrawn. Once U.S. troops are gone the real contest will begin over who assumes genuine power in the post-Coalition Iraq, and the greatest likelihood is that under those conditions the insurgency will initially get WORSE, not better.

As for the foreign militants, it is true that Bush's ridiculous rhetoric "invited" them to Iraq, but the fact is that they did not need much cajoling. The highest goal of groups like Al Qaeda is to overthrow secular regimes in the ISLAMIC world and begin building the caliphate in the Muslim heartland. The U.S. invasion gave Islamists the opportunity to achieve a strategic purchase in Iraq, but almost as many would have gravitated to Iraq if Saddam's regime had collapsed for internal reasons.

Again, I point to the Samarra attack and ask, why would an Iraqi whose sole quarrel was with the U.S. commit such an act? Do you really believe that those who did this would have refrained if U.S. troops had already withdrawn?

Anonymous said...

Meyer you sound like a neocon hiding behind some ying yang obscurantist nonsense. You mention left-right as though they were some thesis antithesis polar concepts. This is a trivialization.
There are people who believe that the cause of hostilities toward the US is because of US covert and corporate meddling in other nations affairs. These people are on the left and the right but the neocons are a whole other cut of cloth they are imperialists, and great many of them have a special place in their hearts for the zionist movement. They are not patriots they are globalists who stab America in the back in a heart beat if it furthered their real cause.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Anonymous,

If I am a neocon then I've done a very good job of hiding it, since it has been a mystery even to myself. As for you, you sound like an anti-Semite hiding behind some anti-neocon anger. I'm angry at the neocons too, it doesn't stand as an excuse for bigotry.