THE BLOG

Iraq: Memory and Meaning

The 2003 Iraq alumni association is studded with stars. Its reunion would be a cheerful occasion for mutual congratulations. Donald Rumsfeld is promoting his self-serving memoir on the talk show circuit where he is received as a respected elder statesman. George 'Slam Dunk' Tenet is distinguished professor in Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. Condoleezza Rice of Stanford University has just composed an endearing, skillfully mendacious account of her noble service to the Republic. General Stanley McChrystal, who set up the network of torture facilities in Iraq and then laid the cornerstone of its Begram counterpart, teaches Modern Leadership at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Paul Wolfowitz, spiritual leader of the neo-con pack, is avidly sought by network anchors for sage advice on Egypt, Libya, Bahrain et al. His brother in arms at the Pentagon, Douglas Feith, is also edifying Georgetown youth as professor and distinguished practitioner in National Security Policy -- evidently without a reference letter from General Franks who judged him to be "the f.....g stupidest guy on the face of the earth." (From Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack). Meghan O'Sullivan, right-hand woman to L. Paul Bremer III in the Green Zone, is the Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. There, she invites media inquiries on some 42 topics ranging from accountability through ethics, judgment & decisionmaking to volunteerism and women. Many other less renowned alumni have done commensurately as well.

This recitation of the professional successes racked up by those who produced the catastrophe of Iraq calls our attention to how evanescent memories of that historic exercise in deceit and failure are. It is necessary to point this out because the process of individual rehabilitation is apace with the spreading number of benign retrospectives of Iraq that are drawn upon to offer forecasts for America's future place in an unruly Middle East.

Envisaging the future largely depends on how one understands the past and interprets the present. On Iraq, America's political class lives complacently in a virtual reality of myth and legend. The miraculous 'surge,' Petraeus the Messiah, a vibrant democracy in the land of the three rivers, an abundance of possibilities -- for Iraqis and for us -- beckon: a kindred country and close ally, American bases strategically sprinkled around Mesopotamia, a Vice-Regal Embassy peopled by 1,600 dedicated American officials, 30-50,000 troops cleverly camouflaged as trainers or private security guards, oil gushing from every crevice. All that's missing is a parade down Broadway and a national holiday commemorating our triumph.

However, present this sketch to knowledgeable and experienced people who do not have a personal stake in perpetuating the fantasy and listen to their bellows of sardonic laughter. It is nothing but a tall tale compounded of equal parts studied ignorance, political and intellectual cowardice, public naivete, and the willfulness of the careerists to whom we entrust the Republic's future. Here are a few hard, unpalatable facts that elude the mental grasp of those who dominate and exploit our public discourse.

  1. The United States is viewed throughout the Islamic world (and beyond it) as having savaged a country and a people for its own selfish purposes. We thereby have lost credibility and moral authority throughout the region and are despised or hated by many.
  2. Our inability to own up to the human costs -- especially there but also among Americans -- is seen as further evidence of our coarseness and callousness to human suffering.
  3. Iraq itself is in parlous shape. Most of its citizens still receive less electricity and potable water than they did in February 2003. 40% of the population lives below the poverty line -- as defined by Iraqi standards. The country no longer can feed itself. Its prisons operate in the Saddam mode. Two million of its citizens are in self-imposed exile, including a large slice of its educated elites. Another 2 million are displaced internally.
  4. Iraq's government is corrupt, brutal and incompetent at every level. Mr. Maliki in Baghdad heads a fragile coalition that it took nine months to cobble together. Sectarian hostilities remain barely abated even if violence, for the time being, is not at civil war levels. Civil war between Kurds and Arabs is a distinct possibility, though.
  5. The kingmaker in Baghdad in Moqtada al-Sadr, who has fought the United States occupation from day one. He will not allow Maliki to take up the generous American offer to keep all those trainers and guns for hire in Iraq indefinitely. Mr. Maliki himself has little incentive to do so.
  6. The overriding regional reality is the bitter divide between Sunnis and Shi'ites, which we have done so much to foster. The Khalifa and Saudi clans now have laid down a line of blood that no one dare ignore. Iraq's leadership is Shi'ite (empowered by the American invasion). It has close ties of a religious and political nature with Iran (our No. 2 obsession after the 'War on Terror') whose political influence behind the scenes already surpasses ours. The Saudi-led Sunni states of the Gulf are frightened and gearing up for what they see as a mortal combat with Iranian-led Shi'ites throughout the Middle East. They have supported and will continue to support Iraq's marginalized and estranged Sunnis. The threat that poses to Iraq's Shi'ite leaders pushes them into a tighter embrace of Tehran. None of these parties are inclined to take our advice on matters of life-or-death to them.
  7. Our timid, vacillating and in the end self-serving attitude toward the democratic wave sweeping the region has lost us whatever shreds of credibility we still retained. Equally important, it has lost us the opportunity to be a respected partner of the reformist youth who are destined to be a dominant political force across the Middle East. Large demonstrations in Iraq (mostly unreported by the MSM) railed against elected despotism. They were followed by other large demonstrations (including one this Saturday) that targeted the United States for its tacit complicity in the on-going brutal suppression of democratic Shi'ites in Bahrain. The latter affair has hardened most Iraqis' resentment toward America. Maliki's police killed 30 or so of the former protesters -- an action aligning him with fellow autocrats across the region.
  8. Washington is left with only the grudging partnership of scared potentates, a less pliable if pragmatic Egypt -- and of course the Israelis.

So we have two choices -- join the pageant of praise and celebration for our grand success in Iraq or soberly admit our failings and prepare to endure the bed of nails we have made for ourselves.