The Lessons Of Iraq
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.
This weekend marked the third anniversary of the war against Iraq that toppled the Baathist regime, and, not surprisingly, most key dimensions of that country's future remain clouded. Will Iraq remain as a single country? Will it enjoy real sovereignty, or unofficially become a sort of Islamic Puerto Rico—a new, long-distance American protectorate? Will Iraq enjoy security and stability soon under a legitimate national government? How will the violence in Iraq impact other hot regional issues in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Saudi Arabia?
Following Washington's cue, there is a tendency these days to assess Iraq through three main lenses, none of which are the most important ones. At the same time, the three historically significant issues at hand are not widely discussed—and are almost never raised in public in the United States and much of the Western world.
The first lens through which the world discusses Iraq is that of imminent American withdrawal. This is a non-story precisely because withdrawal is imminent, and now desirable for both Americans and Iraqis. As happened in Vietnam three decades ago, the United States will withdraw mainly due to its own domestic considerations, while real conditions or prospects on the ground in Iraq take second fiddle. After all, America started the war, not Iraq, and therefore America decides when the mission is accomplished—or hopelessly confounded—and thus when it's time to leave.
The second lens is that of the capability and assertive deployment of the new Iraqi army and internal security forces. This has been designated by President George W. Bush as the litmus test and trigger of American military withdrawal. So square-jawed, self-confident, able American colonels on the ground will sign off on the capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces, just as American generals did in South Vietnam. This is a done deal.
The third lens is the American-declared "global war on terror"—a fundamentally sound idea that has been fundamentally turned on its head by the impact of the American-ordained raid on Iraq. Terrorism continues to confound and plague much of the world, especially pro-American Arab allies in the Middle East, in large part because of the unintended consequences of the Iraq war. Iraq is now the world's greatest motivator, training ground, and dispatching station for bin Laden-type terrorists, and for the widespread anti-American grassroots political environment around the world in which such terrorism breeds so easily.
The Western media will speak much these days and weeks of improved counter-insurgency tactics in Iraq, increasingly managed by Iraq forces, signaling an improved security situation that opens the way for an American withdrawal and a stable, unified, democratic Iraq. I sincerely hope this is true. Yet, having grown up with the realities of foreign military adventures and occupations in Vietnam and Israel-Palestine-Lebanon, I think some skepticism is warranted.
When foreign armies are sent halfway around the world or next door to fight in an alien land, the occupied natives inevitably become hostile in response to the mere presence and conduct of the foreign troops that rule them. Iraq is only the most recent affirmation of this universal fact. The double resentments of Iraqis against the long brutality of Baathist rule and the more recent American-led experiment in designer democracy will take some time to dissipate, with unknown results when the dust settles.
Three other issues may prove to be more historic in Iraq in the medium and long run. The first is about the fragility of the modern Arab state. Iraq has revealed that people's allegiances to tribal, religious, ethnic and communal identities are often much stronger and more durable than their sense of citizenship to the Iraqi state. This is not just an Iraqi problem: It is a common Arab problem that plagues most of this region, but it has been exposed most visibly in Iraq.
The second, related, important development has been the collective Arab inaction or impotence in the face of events in Iraq (or, worse yet, some direct Arab involvement in stoking the conflicts within Iraq). This adds to the already glum reality of thin, vulnerable, often low-legitimacy Arab states the further ignominy of collective weakness and ineptitude by the entire Arab polity. This is a cruel and unusual case of the Arabs simultaneously sinking alone and sinking together.
The third big issue that has been highlighted by the Iraq war is about the use of American troops around the world. This issue gains added important because the United States is likely to remain the world's sole truly global power for some years to come, and it continues to say that military action is not ruled out as an option to achieve political goals, in Iran and other such lands. Most countries around the world still ask important questions about the legitimacy, appropriateness, efficacy and consequences of American military intervention, especially when such militarism is largely unilateral and not formally sanctioned by a U.N. Security Council mandate.
Iraq will clear up and settle down in a few years. These other three issues will not.
Copyright ©2006 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global