Night Thoughts About Iraq

by Jonathan Wallace

Now that the Democrats have taken control of Congress, in an election largely driven by the Iraq fiasco, it is a good time for some free-floating reconsideration of issues like the reasons we are there, what it all means, and what to do about it.

Why Are We There?

There have been a lot of explanations, official, speculative and theoretical, ranging from WMD to personal revenge to oil, but some (WMD) have proven patently false and none of them have the undeniable ring of truth. I think there was a policy basis which has never been elucidated which may emerge in future decades. As dumb as I think the president is, I think the people running him are not stupid; they have behaved stupidly based on arrogance. So they wouldn't simply have gone in to Iraq on a "whoopee" or "gee whiz" impulse. There has to have been some policy grounding for it, even if based on false or dishonest premises.

Something about the Iraq incursion has always reminded me of the story of the Wise Man of Chelm who lost his keys in the darkest part of town but looked for them in the town square. When asked why, he replied, "Because the light is better here." I wonder whether, seeking an effective demonstration of force to back off the unruly elements of the Arab and Middle Eastern world, we didn't (foolishly) consider it easier to depose Saddam and "clean up" Iraq than to find and kill Bin Laden et al. There is a closely related concept of using Iraq as the point to insert a "viral" load of democracy that would then spread through the Middle East like wildfire. This too has proven to be based on wildly wrong assumptions. These two linked explanations, though brutal, arrogant and dishonest, make more sense to me than any of the others. Although our president clearly has had a boner for Saddam at least since he tried to assassinate Bush Sr., I don't believe that the real powers behind the throne (Cheney/Rumsfeld et al) would have permitted a war for this reason. For some reason, I also can't wrap my mind around the possibility that we would have gone to war at this precise moment simply to control more of the oil supply, without some other motive, but perhaps I am naive about this.

Why Can't We Get Bin Laden?

I have spent a lot of time listening to people (and I am related to some of them) saying that Bin Laden got to skate away because he knows where the bodies are buried (based on documented years of business dealings between big oil, including the Bush dynasty, and the Bin Laden family). I think in general throughout history, people who know damning stuff get killed for it more often than they succeed in buying themselves immunity.

There has been remarkably little discussion in the press of the reasons we haven't been able to get near Bin Laden since Tora Bora, and what there has been has concentrated on small tactical issues, like the CIA's lack of Arabic-speaking agents and sources in the Arab world. Not that these failings are unimportant. However, I suspect that the real reason we haven't gone after Bin Laden is because we know he is living in the lawless part of Pakistan near the Afghan border, where the resurgent Taliban are also based. This has rapidly become a new rogue state, not really under any kind of Pakistani military or political control. In addition, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are allegedly sheltered and supported by renegade elements of Pakistani intelligence who originally worked with them on the anti-Soviet effort and haven't given them up in the post-9/11 world.

If this part of Pakistan had been a completely independent state, it would have made a lot of sense to invade it instead of Iraq (I believe we don't have a large enough military to do both). I suspect that the reason we can't do this is that the minute US troops land on Pakistani territory (even such independent and lawless territory) there would be a huge popular uprising in Pakistan, overthrowing our nominal ally the weak dictator-president Musharraf. The result of the incursion would be to drive a huge country with nuclear weapons over to the other side, giving Al Qaeda a large powerful playground instead of a small weak one. If I'm right about this, then the Bush administration could not really afford to elucidate this thinking publicly either. We have certainly tolerated a lot of frightening shit from Pakistan, including clear involvement in acts of mass terror in India and growing a large number of suicide bombers who have inflicted losses on NATO troops and civilians in Afghanistan. We have stood by with public complacency while Pakistan first failed to police its own border areas and then even made a one sided and weak treaty with the tribal factions sheltering the Taliban. The only rational explanation for any of this is that Pakistan is hanging by a thread and we know it--but don't want to say it.

This explanation supports my first point above. Because we couldn't go into Pakistan, where all our 9/11 enemies fled, the Bush administration had a choice: to do nothing at all after the end of the active part of the Afghan incursion-- or to create a diversion in Iraq, in the hope it would start a viral spread of democracy in the Middle East while scaring other insurgent elements and creating a domestic perception of power and decisiveness.

Is this a new world war?

Its starting to feel like it. Radical Islamic forces seem to be fighting everywhere--striking as terrorists in England, Spain, Indonesia and elsewhere; fighting actual land wars in places like Somalia. The number of countries that have active Islamic insurgencies is much greater than most Americans know. Think Thailand, for example. The only definition of a world war that I know is that you suddenly find yourself fighting everyplace. That's happening, and there isn't any clear end in sight.

This creates more than a conflict--its almost a fatal allergic reaction--between present day geopolitical needs and old liberal concepts of self-determination. What if a people overwhelmingly, by powerful impulse and majority political acclaim, want to transform themselves into a platform for launching massive terrorist attacks against the west? According to the New York Times this week, the attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Uganda were planned and supplied from Islamic-held parts of Somalia. As libertarians are fond of saying, your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. I think under any concept of self-preservation as embodied in international law, we have a right not to permit this. We are not obligated to die. This is NOT an argument that we can act brutally, illegally or stupidly, or need not correct our own mistakes, moral or practical. But we aren't required, while doing this, to lie down for terrorism.

The problem is a practical one: how do you fight a world-wide guerilla war? In this sense only, we are facing a new animal, and experience in the First and Second World Wars is not very relevant. As was demonstrated this week in Somalia, and five years ago in Afghanistan, radical Islam is easily defeatible in conventional land wars. The problem is that, unlike the Nazis, radical Islam, once beaten, does not stay defeated. The next step in Somalia will undoubtedly be the war of suicide bombing, IED's and attrition that we are already fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The unique, viral nature of the enemy became evident on September 11. To attack Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had to train and arm thousands of men, build and equip aircraft carriers, destroyers, fighter and bomber planes, at a cost (in modern money) of billions of dollars. To inflict a related amount of damage and a larger number of casualties, Al Qaeda had to train and support nineteen men at a cost of less than $200,000. And they didn't need to build any planes or ships whatever.

It is a related feature of radical Islam that it keeps fighting. I spent a lot of time this week wondering why the Nazis didn't. I came up with several overlapping possibilities. One, Nazism was much more a personality cult based on a single leader. By contrast, Bin Laden is becoming less important to radical Islam every day-- he is almost irrelevant now. Two, though it had its own ideology, for a lot of senior Nazis the ideology was more of an excuse than an obsession. Despite all the hoo-ha about bookburning, Nazis were better known for stealing art than destroying it. The Taliban dynamited Buddhist antiquities they could have sold to the West for millions of badly needed dollars. Three, ideologies probably are (as persistent "memes") much more dangerous when they claim to be actively backed by God. Radical Wahabism holds that you can do absolutely anything--lie, steal, kill children, kill your fellow Sunnis--with God's approval if it is in pursuit of "jihad". There is a brutal, simplistic appeal in this kind of a religion--you can satisfy all the basest impulses with God's permission and gratitude. Four, and possibly most significant, Nazis and fellow travelers denied a clear field of political endeavor after the war, but who avoided being killed or jailed, could go into business, raise families, and live rewarding middle class lives (or better). Much of radical Islam simply doesn't have a competing powerful meme, such as capitalism, to fall back upon. It would be overly simplistic to say none do; most of the 9/11 hijackers, with Mohammed Atta a prime example, were middle class men from countries with capitalist opportunities such as Egypt. In these cases, they were sufficiently raducalized that they emphatically ruled out competing lifestyles available to them.

What is to be Done?

Iraq, if I am correct in most of the foregoing analysis, is not simply a misguided, stupid war fought in a vacuum. It is the wrong battle against the wrong target in a world war. Pulling out now will accomplish the opposite of what we set out to do; we will ultimately see the creation of yet another powerful country supporting terrorism against the US. There are various scenarios that may play out. Since there is a Shi'ite majority, maybe we will not see another Afghanistan; although Shi'ites are killing American soldiers too, they may be less interested in doing so once we pull out. However, there will be Sunni held areas (Anbar province) and lawless areas which may support Al Qaeda operations as effectively as the Pakistan border area.

Because I think that our security situation has been vastly worsened by the war in Iraq, and will become worse still if we withdraw, I have come close to thinking and saying that we have to stay and finish a job we shouldn't have started. I have little sense how to do that except reinstitute the draft and insert a million troops if necessary. (I believe we won World War II not because we were morally superior, smarter, or had better strategy than the Germans, but because we could keep sending men and making machines when they ran out of both.) However, seeing the war against radical Islam as a world war, and Iraq as just one misplanned battle, raises a different approach. Sometimes you lose battles in a war. You retreat, lick your wounds, and try again somewhere else, more intelligently. Operation Market Garden, the attempt to open an invasion route to Nazi Germany through Belgium, was notoriously poorly thought-out and badly managed, and it failed. So we pulled our forces out, and went in somewhere else. Lets get out of Iraq now, and concentrate on fighting someplace else and in another way.