In The Bonfire of the Vanities Tom Wolfe described a New York City awash in what could be called "sectarian" tension. The city trooped along in its day-to-day, glossy existence, seemingly unaware of the racial divisions and class separations that prevailed, and the white-hot caldera they fueled below the city's fault lines. In the midst of the erupting tensions, one of Wolfe's characters (a black preacher, actually, how timely!) introduced a concept that has resurfaced in my memory from the moment it seemed clear that we were bent on a course to depose Saddam Hussein and assume responsibility for the future of Iraq.
That concept? Steam control. The idea being that Gotham was a boiler, perpetually on the edge of explosion, that was only kept intact through a thousand tiny adjustments. This was the arduous, unappealing work of managing this particular polis -- backroom promises, compromises, and buy-offs helped to reduce the pressure and keep the peace, and it did so at the expense of higher-minded principles. The need for "steam control" overrode the need for justice, or truth, or the curing of society's ills. Instead of solving the root of the tension, the tensions were leveraged against one another until a stalemate was achieved.
What happens when you apply the same ideas Wolfe ascribed to New York City in a place where the tensions are even deeper, the divisions more entrenched, everyone is armed to the teeth, and there is no tradition of the sort of democratic institutions that could maintain order in the wake of a blooming power vacuum?
You get Iraq, circa 2008. And you have American soldiers managing the valves on a boiler that's constantly on the verge of eruption.
The email of one such soldier made its way to the blog of Spencer Ackerman today, and every single one of his keen insights are worthy of digestion. There's one in particular I find worthy of highlighting. After summarizing what he sees as the only plausible way forward -- "We need to ask 'if we left tomorrow, what would happen in Iraq?' and from there, we need to determine which of those anticipated results are unacceptable to us. Then we must aim our efforts on making sure those unacceptable results do not occur" -- he reaches this conclusion (emphasis mine):
When I look at the problem that way, it becomes almost impossible to find a purpose in what we do. Regardless of what we do, the Shia are going to take control. They have completely infiltrated all the security forces. The only kind of leader who could keep them in check was a tyrant like Saddam. And when the Shia take control, as soon as we leave, they are going to be as brutal as they like against the Sunni and there will be little we can do about it. That is what will happen whether we leave tomorrow or in ten years.
When it comes to whether or not deposing Hussein was for good or ill, a discouraging word is seldom heard. This is mainly because critics are often shamed with the admonishment: "Surely you must admit that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein!" In the strict terms of a game of moral checkers, one is hard pressed to admit otherwise. And if it turns out that our efforts in Iraq manage to kill and harm Iraqis at a slower rate than Hussein killed and harmed Iraqis, we might be able to one day back up our moral certainty with statistics.
Still, I hardly think it's out of bounds to appreciate just how bad ol' Saddam had it during the last years of his rule. It cannot be surprising to hear this soldier note Saddam's ability to keep Iraq "in check" -- after all, it's men and women like him who have essentially assumed Hussein's daily tasks of "steam control." Our troops handle Iraq's valves in an endless process of managing sectarian tensions, while working to keep regional rivals from asserting their claim over Iraq's sovereignty. Our soldiers have a keen view of how hard it was for Saddam to keep the threats, both within (the Shia and Kurds) and without (al Qaeda and Iran) at bay. And they have had to manage the fractured state without indulging in Hussein's brand of unrelenting brutality (though, sadly, there have not been a complete absence of incidents of same).
And "steam control" is about the only thing we are achieving in Iraq. This was never more evident than the past week, where Muqtada al Sadr rather effortlessly demonstrated how much more influence he has over the state of play than we do. I'll not soon forget those chants -- "Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!" -- that preceded Hussein's hanging. Any illusion that the United States had control of Iraq should have ended right then and there. It's pretty clear that despite all the good press the "Surge" gets at home, the relative peace Iraq has lately enjoyed has been achieved at the whim of al Sadr and his loyalists, to say nothing of Iran, whose fingerprints are ubiquitous as well.
Meanwhile, we're consigned to the boiler room, frantically attempting to stave off the inevitable -- something John McCain says we could be doing for the next American century. Senator McCain claims that he is a break from the flawed strategy of the Bush administration. But the Iraq miasma is not the result of a flawed strategy. It is the result of a flawed concept to begin with, and the notion that "better" strategy is going to remove the mistakes at the root are delusional. This soldier's assessment of the role Saddam Hussein played in the great scheme of things is central to exposing one of the Iraq War's great flaws: having assuming the responsibility of "steam control," we can see just how badly Hussein was hogtied and hamstrung in maintaining his own power, and how little capability he had where posing an imminent threat to the United States is concerned.
I don't think this metaphor is a bad one. "Things are heating up," the email reads. "We're facing a high risk with very little potential payoff." Somewhere in Hell, Saddam Hussein's ears are ringing.