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November 02, 2006

Who "lost" Iraq?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

As much as I cheer every time another prominent cheerleader for the Iraq war leaves the ship, I kind of wish conservative military commentator Ralph Peters had stayed where he was. 

Today he fires an impressive and dismaying salvo on the topic in USA TODAY.  He describes the invasion as "noble," but incompetently done.  But then comes this:

...for all our errors, we did give the Iraqis a unique chance to build a rule-of-law democracy. They preferred to indulge in old hatreds, confessional violence, ethnic bigotry and a culture of corruption. It appears that the cynics were right: Arab societies can't support democracy as we know it. And people get the government they deserve.

For us, Iraq's impending failure is an embarrassment. For the Iraqis — and other Arabs — it's a disaster the dimensions of which they do not yet comprehend. They're gleeful at the prospect of America's humiliation. But it's their tragedy, not ours.

That's not "the soft bigotry of low expectations."  That's just bigotry.  Does what happened in the American South after the Civil War prove that the South "can't support democracy as we know it?"  No.  Latin America has a number of rather solid democracies today that looked quite dubious 20 years ago.  Israel didn't spring from 1948 a fully-formed democracy, to choose a Middle Eastern example.

What did all those places have that Iraq hasn't had?  Years -- decades, in fact -- of relative peace, strong external support and internal cohesion.  (Obviously, Israel had less of the first and more of the last.) Institutions that developed internally and indigenously.  Functioning economies and national institutions.

For consistency's sake, I should point out that this is also why I'm dubious about Shadi's democracy-building agenda

But it's sheer self-delusion to think that this all went astray because of the Iraqis, and not because of our failure to understand how difficult this would be for us and the Iraqis to pull off after all Iraq's existing institutions were destroyed -- an understanding that, in my opinion, should have led us not to try it in the first place.

I'm guessing that conservatives will go through a lot of this among themselves.  That's not in itself a bad thing, but let's set the bar a little higher than this, shall we?

Besides, Ralph, if "people get the government they deserve," what does that say about you and me?

He does have one very thought-provoking line.  I suspect it's an over-simplification, but one worth considering.

And contrary to the prophets of doom, the United States wouldn't be weakened by our withdrawal, should it come to that. Iraq was never our Vietnam. It's al-Qaeda's Vietnam. They're the ones who can't leave and who can't win.

** Addition 3pm:  Just found this link to a CNN clip of House Majority Leader Boehner blaming... our generals!  Who says defeat is an orphan?

An apology "to my fans" for my long absence from the site -- the good news is that there's been lots of work out there for progressives lately.


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Israel didn't spring from 1948 a fully-formed democracy, to choose a Middle Eastern example.

How was Israel's democracy not 'fully-formed'?

It's my impression that the yishuv was a fully-formed democracy before 1948, when it declared independence and took the name 'Israel'.

For example, in 1937 the Peel Commisstion reported: 'The contrast between the modern democratic and primarily European character of the National Home and that of the Arab world around it is striking. . . . Crown Colony government is not suitable for such a highly educated, democratic community as the National Home and fosters an unhealthy irresponsibility.'

Does what happened in the American South after the Civil War prove that the South "can't support democracy as we know it?"

Actually, yes. But your larger point is well-taken. We (or rather, the clowns chosen to represent us) screwed up Iraq.

The bit about Iraq being al Qaeda's Vietnam is nonsense. If we withdraw from Iraq, what compelling reason would they have to continue operations there?

Taking Heather Hurlburt's rhetorical points in order:

What happened in the American South after the Civil War is irrelevant. What's happened in Latin America in the last 20 years is irrelevant. What happened in Israel is irrelevant. None of these places had cultures predominantly Arab; none of them had had that disadvantage compounded by decades of totalitarian rule comparable to that of Iraq's Baath Party.

Within the United States it is awkward, and often unwise, to dwell on cultural differences among people. A diverse society with legal and political structures designed over the centuries to accomodate diversity, the United States is able to maintain a humane social order that requires of its citizens only that they obey its laws -- laws that are themselves outgrowths of American culture.

Even the toleration of cultural differences thereby made possible has limits, and rightly so. The critical point is that this toleration, those legal and political structures, and the traditions of this country are exceptional in the world today and in human history. They are not things to be taken for granted, as George W. Bush and Heather Hurlburt do.

Taking them for granted can lead to the conclusion that what is possible in the United States is possible anywhere -- today, right now -- as long as we keep at it long enough and are not deterred by those at home who would weaken our will. It can also lead to the conclusion that what is possible in the United States is possible anywhere -- today, right now -- as we long as we approach the problem with greater sensitivity and sophistication than those at home who would expect right to flow from might.

Both branches of this school of thought have their adherents; each takes it on faith that the other is, in some sense, not truly committed to the spread of freedom. Both branches are loath to concede that things do not always happen in the world just because people are reacting to the United States. Both are inclined, indeed eager to project domestic political differences into the field of foreign affairs, and both are prone to suggest that doubt of their core assumptions about democracy overseas must be the product of nothing more worthy of consideration than bigotry.

Look at what Peters says about Iraq from the Iraqi point of view. Did Iraqis after 2003 NOT "...indulge in old hatreds"? Did they not engage in "confessional violence, ethnic bigotry and a culture of corruption"? (Similar questions might be asked about Iraqis before 2003. Saddam Hussein did not impose a comprehensive police state and commit the Anfal by himself). Is what has happened to Iraq more a disaster and tragedy for Arabs, or for Americans?

Anyone can see that what Peters says has happened, has happened; neither is great perspicacity required to discern that the bloodshed, and the missed opportunity, in Iraq, is more disastrous for Arabs who have to live in the Middle East than for Americans who can leave. The issue is where the blame should go. Americans like George Bush and Heather Hurlburt find other Americans to blame -- domestic political differences will endure, after all, long after the Iraq war has like Vietnam been forgotten here. And most Arabs, certainly Arabs in Iraq, will blame Americans as well. Talk about self-delusion.

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