I have been reading The Prince of the Marshes, Rory Stewart's incisive and revealing memoir of his year in Iraq as a provincial governor under the auspices of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
It is a masterpiece of storytelling. Each chapter is only a couple of pages long, a literary technique that mirrors the infinitely fragmented nature of reality in Iraq, and the surprises and reversals come not only at chapter's end, but within each paragraph and sentence. Forget the longed-for, comprehensible dichotomy of Sunni and Shiite; Mr. Stewart tells of grappling with an unending array of tribal allegiances, religious divisions within divisions, degrees of affiliation with Iran, modernists vs. traditionalists, the educated vs. the illiterate, and militias run by black marketeers vs. mobs of unemployed youths. Amidst these conflicting agendas, the local actors lie, posture, make and break alliances, and assassinate each other, while the eminently capable and well-intentioned Mr. Stewart and his fellows retile the roof of the local schoolhouse and hope that no one blows it up.
It is the mother of all messes.
And my reaction? Page by page, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief.
Why relief? Certainly not because there can be any satisfaction derived from America's calamitous, drunken misstep into this quagmire. The suffering and death we have brought upon innocent Iraqis--the aged, the children, the families--utterly outweighs whatever price we have paid in lives and treasure. This invasion without provocation or purpose amounts to little more than an arrogant patriotic display, a parade atop the livelihoods and persons of the populace, an independence day celebration in which the fireworks are packed with shrapnel and aimed at civilians, while mainstreet America gawks up at the pretty lights with Oohs! and Ahs!
If we were to look down at the damage we've caused, we'd have no choice but to acknowledge that we have acted monstrously. So we're careful not to look.
No, the relief I feel comes from a different place. It is the relief that comes when our most basic intuitions, assailed by those we are reared to respect, are nonetheless confirmed. Up is not down. Black is not white. And you cannot go to a country in one of the most volatile regions of the world, the justly proud home of the planet's most ancient civilization; a country that has never had a political or ethnic basis for cohesion, and whose modern borders were instead blithely marked by far-off powers as an afterthought of a World War in which Iraqis played no role; a country that has never been stable except under the iron weight of dictatorship... You cannot go into this country, vaporize their physical infrastructure in 15 years of sanctions and war, dismantle every element of the civil administration and security forces, and then send in a handful of soldiers and project managers and fix it in a few years time.
It. Can't. Be. Done.
Did you have a similar thought back in 2003, when this started? Guess what? YOU WERE RIGHT!
As I am so fond of noting in these pages, frequently, we learn more by consulting our own common sense then by listening to the noise around us. Up is not down.
And if this occurred to me, certainly such doubts might have cast a fleeting shadow in the uncluttered minds of luminaries like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et al.? After all, they're getting the big bucks to be on top of this. And yet, as recently as August 2, 2007, we hear Defense Secretary Robert Gates spew this disingenuous bullshit:
I think the developments on the political side are somewhat discouraging at the
I believe Secretary Gates is an intelligent man. Probably even brilliant in his way. So he should know that the word "discouraging" implies that a rational person might have expected a different result. It is inconceivable to me that he doesn't know better.
If there is any shred of solace in this--and a shred is a small thing--it is that America's failure to comprehend and control Iraq's thundering cataract of newly-unleashed human ambition is not in itself the result of a lapse of planning or a lack of expertise. The chaos cannot be mastered because it cannot be understood; not by the world's most experienced diplomats, not even by the Iraqis themselves. It doesn't stand still long enough to be measured or categorized. It is a Chernobyl, and it will have to come to whatever stasis lies ahead in its own time. And if you think the meltdown analogy extreme, consider: the Russians mitigated that disaster by dumping oceans of sand and concrete on the reactor. Isn't that pretty much what Saddam did to keep his people in check? Are we prepared to use the same method?
So what reasonable assumptions can we make regarding the social and political disposition of Iraq? I think we can be sure that what we are witnessing is a great jockeying for position. America's shot clanged off the basket's rim, and every individual or group with pretensions to power is boxing out underneath the backboard and waiting for the rebound. The only factions that have an interest in quick political reconciliation are those that have no power. So in political terms, it doesn't matter what they want anyway. Meanwhile, the other players are in it to win. They have no choice. Every ounce of authority in the country is or will soon be up for grabs.
There are constant, academic-sounding references in the media to the idea of security as the basis for political progress. As if a democratic Iraq will magically blossom if the shooting stops. But willfully or not, the MSM is failing to convey the essence of the matter. The reason we're not seeing political progress right now is not because of the level of violence, and it is not because the elected officials are finding the challenges too great.
The reason there can be no significant political progress in Iraq right now is because America is there, and none of the real powers in Iraq will accept the kind of government the U.S. demands. They are not just being contrary. Rather, they find the idea that Iraq could be effectively ruled by a non-authoritarian government to be absurd. And they are right. Even those elements that might believe that democracy is a noble goal aren't stupid enough to think it will work in Iraq anytime soon.
There are several examples in The Prince of the Marshes where the CPA appoints provincial counsels that represent all the relevant interest groups. The counsel then elects a governor. Inevitably, the governor's first decision is to purge his opponents from the counsel and create a secret police force loyal to his faction alone. The CPA, predictably, vetoes the idea. What is striking and instructive about these episodes, is how confused and stunned the Iraqis are by the CPA's stance. How are they supposed to deliver security with so many constraints upon their power? Even those factions on the losing side don't understand it.
The only reason that the real political powers in Iraq are participating--halfheartedly--in the current charade of national government, is that they thought that if they pantomimed forward political motion, the U.S. might leave. Wouldn't we want to avail ourselves of that welcome political cover? But we're still there, and the national unity government isn't even making an effort to pretend anymore.
So the U.S. has the tiger by the tail, and we don't know how to walk away. Because as politically attractive as troop withdrawal is, we have critical national interests in the political, military and economic stability of the region. The best we can realistically hope for now is to preserve the status quo ante, where Iraq exists as a political entity with it's borders unchanged, serving as a balance and bulwark against the conflicting aims of it's neighbors, and playing its role in the world's fragile oil market. If we stay, we cannot force the outcome we desire. If we leave, who knows what the outcome will be?
And in the meantime it isn't possible to chart a course to reconciliation, because there's no town by that name on the map.