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.