The Other Catastrophe

One hopes that the latest Washington Post editorial on Iraq will go unnoticed in the midst of the bailout debacle. Here’s their conclusion:

More steps are needed — most important, agreement on a law distributing Iraqi oil revenue among provinces and allowing for new investment. But it’s now clear that the political progress that the Bush administration hoped would follow the surge of U.S. forces in Iraq has finally begun. How can the next president preserve that momentum? Democrat Barack Obama continues to argue that only the systematic withdrawal of U.S. combat units will force Iraqi leaders to compromise. Yet the empirical evidence of the past year suggests the opposite: that only the greater security produced and guaranteed by American troops allows a political environment in which legislative deals and free elections are feasible.

The article leaves out a few relevant details: that another US contractor is claiming immunity from torture lawsuits, that American soldiers continue to be killed on Iraqi soil, that Turkish warplanes are evidently bombing Kurdish separatists to the North, and that Iraq’s electoral gains are tenuous at best (from the CS Monitor, emphasis mine):

Scheduled to take place by Jan. 31, 2009, the vote has the potential to create major change. One of the central issues stemming from the elections may be the question of who controls political appointments, says Glen Rangwala, a lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at Cambridge University in England. As new local leaders take the helm, new questions will arise about who controls everything from the police to exports.

Debate over these issues “will lead to a period of particular instability as different groups within Iraq – national government, local government, mayors – each stake their claim to being the legitimate authority for who should be in charge of the reappointment or the renewal of the positions of government officials,” says Dr. Rangwala.

“Democracy does not only mean having an election or passing a law in the legislature,” says Abdul Jabbar Ahmad, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “A real government provides services.”

While he acknowledges the new law is progress, Dr. Ahmad says it “is not a permanent solution.” Many Iraqis have criticized parliament over the law for sidestepping the central issue and excluding an article that would have created a minority quota.

One of the Administration’s signal failures in Iraq was its insistence on confusing representative government with elections. Now we learn that the Iraqi parliament still hasn’t formulated a workable approach to sectarian power-sharing. How is a multi-ethnic democracy supposed function without a working framework for political co-existence?

The answer: it doesn’t. The government’s efforts to integrate Sunni militiamen into its own security forces has also run afoul of ethnic tensions. Wasn’t Sunni collaboration one of the cornerstones of our recent success? (Emphasis mine)

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has vowed to reward those who joined in the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq, which lost most of its Sunni strongholds when local tribesmen turned against the extremist group and joined the U.S. payroll. The U.S. considers the initiative a test of the government’s willingness to reconcile with Sunnis.

But tens of thousands of mostly Sunni neighborhood guards — a key element in the sharp drop in attacks in Iraq since last year — are deeply uneasy about the Iraqi government. Some Sons of Iraq groups, also labeled Awakening Councils, have complained about arrests and harassment by police and soldiers.

“They want to occupy checkpoints instead of us,” said Wahab al-Zubaie, an Awakening Council spokesman in the western Baghdad district of Abu Ghraib, where the weekend dispute took place in the neighborhood of al-Hamdaniya.

Al-Zubaie warned that security could deteriorate if Sunni fighters are sidelined because they know “movements of al-Qaida members and their whereabouts” better than government forces do.

Of course, the Sunnis owe no great loyalty to the United States or the Iraqi government. Their collaboration was purely transactional – they received money and guns in return for fighting a common enemy (Al-Qaeda). Does their mercenary behavior imply any deeper bond with the United States or the central government? Of course not, which is why all this talk of electoral reconciliation rings so hollow.

In a larger sense, however, the debate over the particulars of occupation is increasingly irrelevant. I’m prepared to concede that the surge has reduced violence and, to some extent, ameliorated sectarian tensions. So why stay? The Washington Post editorial bravely ignores the real opportunity cost of remaining in favor of harping on ephemeral security gains. The question of whether we should be expending all these resources (not to mention lives) on an occupation that has no tangible benefit (contra the increasingly buffoonish Sarah Palin) never seems to get addressed.

The debate over the surge’s success also exposes the real danger of turning our military into a glorified colonial constabulary. If the Army becomes increasingly adept at counter-insurgency operations, recent experience suggests that the public simply doesn’t care about the invisible costs of occupation. As long as the body count remains reasonably low, no one seems interested in questioning the justifications behind our strategic presence.

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Filed under Conservatism, The Media

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