07 January 2008

Taps in Iraq

If you are at all interested in the U.S. war in Iraq during the last two or three years, and have an hour and a half to spare, go right now to view Stephen Biddle's lecture at the University of California Berkeley in November of last year. You will need to scroll down the list on the page I've linked to, in order to find Biddle's entry. (I clicked on the left-most of the three icons, but you might find one of the others suits your needs better.)

I found the lecture interesting for two reasons. One is that it outlines part of what astute readers had already identified as the "official" American history of the war. I refer not to some wild conspiracy theory that hides the truth, but rather an attempt by American institutions themselves to describe what happened as they saw it, just as we have official histories of the Second World War. These works always carry great prestige, but in their nature are prey to the "Whig Interpretation of History". (I see I am not the first to identify Bush administration analysis in Iraq with Butterfield's critique.)

Biddle cites three turning points as having contributed to the reduction in American discomfort about Iraq as of Fall 2007. The first he cites is what he calls "the battle of Baghdad" in February 2006. This was less of a battle than the kind of systematic murder by death squads that all too often arises where American military force intervenes directly (see El Salvador, Colombia and dirty wars in Chile and Argentina). Biddle's argument is that the Sunni death squads suffered a major defeat there, from which all else develops. I'm not directly challenging Biddle's analysis. He knows far more than I do about Iraq. However, from an Iraqi point of view things may look different. They may see the Battle of Baghdad as an intermediate stage, because their decision-making cycle may not be so dependent on the electoral metronome that beats time for American decision-makers.

More worryingly for the future, Biddle talks about the way Sunni and Shia death squads have been bribed to stop fighting. He doesn't actually describe it in such bold language, but basically that's what happening. Gang leaders sign deals in which they agree to stop fighting in return for $300 a month for each gangster on their rosters. Basically, a substantial number of bilateral cease-fires is gradually spreading an armed peace across Iraq.

A sadly overlooked film (at least to my knowledge) that is useful here is Taps. Taps as a document predicting the cultural tensions of America under Reagan both at home and abroad was prescient. President Bush II has inherited these tensions to some extent in his own political coalition. Toward the end of the film, the cadet major is urged to "declare a victory". The $300-man policy in Iraq offers a foundation for just such a declared victory. The stipend buys a reduction in violence. At this point, a subsequent administration can choose whether to continue the Bush policy of stationing troops in Iraq in the way we did in Germany and Korea during the Cold War; or to leave after negotiating some kind of exit deal with Iraqi leaders that continues the death squads' subsidy for an indeterminate time.

The problem with hurrying to declare a victory is that it might not happen soon enough. It won't be long before leaders on both sides will find younger fellows putting them under pressure to act more radically. That's what young, ambitious people do - demand more, looking for signs of weakness. At some point, sooner or later, a U.S. administration is going to have to confront what it is trying to avoid at the moment - a government in Baghdad that is not sympathetic to American interests in the Middle East. A nationalist leader with a real democratic mandate would be America's biggest nightmare in Iraq. (See Chavez, Hugo.) What then? It wouldn't be the first time for a Western state to leave a Middle Eastern protectorate of strategic value after a controversial war, only to see it fall into the hands of the men they were fighting, who subsequently attempt to export their revolution to a neighbor, thus causing a new war involving the Western state.

Biddle talks about us needing a moratorium on Vietnam analogies. I've got a better one for him. Aden.

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