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Syllabus of Errors, Part Three


Read parts one and two.

A profound strategic conundrum faces the United States. It does not and has never had the ability to impose its will upon the country at large. It therefore must choose its allies from within Iraqi society. Hitherto, the de facto allies of America were the Shi’a of SCIRI, which were happy to let Americans fight the Sunni insurgency by keeping the Shi’a majority broadly governable. This enabled the Shi’a majority to maintain a claim to pan-Iraqi leadership; and the Americans in turn were able to maintain a claim to supporting a pan-Iraqi political consensus in the form of the Iraqi government. The de facto break between SCIRI, in the form of the Badrist militias, and the Iraqi government ends this fiction.

Support for the Iraqi government now must mean suppression of the Shi’a militias — not merely the Sadrists, whom the Americans have faced down before, but the Badrists as well. The contention that the United States can quell the bulk of armed Iraqi Shi’ism is a tenuous one indeed. If the whole country devolves into al Anbar, the strain upon the American Army will become intolerable.

The saving grace — of sorts — of this situation is that the Badrists, at least, don’t particularly want to fight Americans. The confrontation between the Shi’a at large and the Americans thus becomes purely optional for the latter. Optional, that is, so long as the Americans acquiesce to the slaughter of the Sunnis and the inevitable delegitimization of the government of Iraq. The logical end of this is a slow-motion bloodbath, in which the Sunnis receive in full the treatment they have meted out to Shi’a, Kurd and Assyrian over most of the past century; in which Shi’a militia eventually force a contest with the Kurds for Kirkuk and the borderlands; and in which the controlling power of Iraq sits in Tehran.

This is, for now, the course of action that the Americans have been following. Even if there was political will to enforce the will of a government lacking the basic mechanisms of state power — most fundamentally, the monopoly on violence within its borders — the military capacity is simply not there. Furthermore, the Americans utterly lack the stomach for a true communal war. They will not be able to sustain any serious campaign against the Shi’a as such: face-saving evasions will be sought, and foolish allowances like those enjoyed by the Fallujah imams and Moqtada al Sadr will be made.

But if the Americans cannot stomach communal war against the Shi’a, neither can they fully acquiesce in the same against the Sunnis. This is assuredly happening, and that’s largely why you see the rhetoric that you do coming out of CENTCOM and the White House: outright denials that civil war is imminent, coupled with gauzy assurances that the Iraqi government is effective. Self-deception puts off the need for hard choices — most especially the need to figure out what needs to happen for saving the Sunnis of Iraq from the fate they have aggressively tempted for so very long.

Herein is an amoral and pragmatic rationale for standing aside: the Shi’a can almost certainly end the insurgency that the Americans have not. Of course, the Americans will not ultimately do this. They cannot. It is not in their character — for all the foul deeds committed by the United States in wartime, it remains one of the most moral nations of history — and it utterly negates, fully and finally, the public reasons offered for having gone to war.

We stand at the precipice. Civil war in Iraq is upon us, and there are no good options. Acquiescing to the probable victor brings us grave moral compromise. Protection of the probable loser brings us a conflict we cannot afford. Withdrawal from the scene brings us yet more terrible dangers further down the road. It is a sorry situation in which the American Army and Marines are reduced to yet another militia in the Mesopotamian cauldron. The pity is that this was all avoidable. Every misstep that brought us to it was foreseeable and preventable. General Shinseki warned us about the undermanning. The world cried out against the precedent-setting looting. Many informed observers denounced the disbanding of the old Iraqi Army. And I was appalled at the repeated escapes, which we allowed, of Moqtada al Sadr.

We went to Iraq for the best of reasons. I believe that. I believe the mission was moral and achievable one. But it is as I wrote: I was wrong to think that the Administration of George W. Bush was competent to act upon any of the given beliefs. As we look into the abyss, we are forced to remember that someone had to dig it.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 6:53 PM | Permalink

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