Friday, January 05, 2007

Flinch Mob

No matter how slowly you speak to them, or how clearly you pre-empt their cheap caveats with obvious "couldn't have happened to a nicer guy" declarations, people will continue to miss the point about the criticism of how Saddam's execution was handled.

Within hours of Saddam Hussein's hanging, the drumbeat began -- as cable-news sages pronounced that the Iraqi scourge's execution will not improve the situation in Iraq. Or, as Newsweek intoned, "Little is gained by Saddam's demise."

These days, the first rule of war coverage is that nothing -- not even military victory -- will improve Iraq's prospects.

Of course, she neglects to mention the obvious -- that the overall situation has deteriorated to such a dismal extent, that "military victory" can no longer even be clearly defined without a lot of "collateral damage". And we are no longer remotely in a position to justify that. We don't even seem to be able to gather and train an Iraqi army that isn't going to start murdering every Sunni in sight the day after we back out of there.

If "victory" can be properly defined, then by all means do so in the current context, and lead us through the prospective steps. No one seems to be able to do those things, not even the people in charge of making the actual plans.

Indeed, critics are so busy trying to transform Iraqi prosecutions into an O.J. Simpson trial that they fail to notice that the families of Kurds and Shiites who were tortured and murdered for rebelling against Hussein now know that the Butcher of Baghdad can no longer hurt them. That's why there was dancing in Dearborn, Mich., home to a large community of Iraqi Americans who fled their homeland while under Hussein's rule. Hussein cannot come back, as he did in 1963 after he fled to Syria and Egypt. He will never terrorize his countrymen again. He will hold no more power on this earth. Somehow, that's no biggie.

When you think of all the innocent people who have perished during the war in Iraq, there is something refreshing about seeing the most guilty Iraqi meet his maker. Opinion Journal's James Taranto used the headline: "The World's Smallest Violin."

Oddly, some human-rights groups have their big fiddles out. Or as Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program, said in a press statement: "The test of a government's commitment to human rights is measured by the way it treats its worst offenders. History will judge these actions harshly."

Well, human rights groups also have their (frequently spiritually-based) missions as well. But taken strictly from a practical, utilitarian standpoint, it is still hardly disputable that the execution was a debacle. Given the circumstances, there's probably nothing we could have done "right" -- the Shi'a government was hell-bent on exacting revenge, making an example, and sending a message to the Sunnis. Given half a chance, they would probably have ended Saddam the way the Taliban ended the Afghan Soviet puppet Najibullah -- castrated, genitals stuffed in his mouth, strung up from a traffic light for several days so the birds could have a crack at the corpse. And from the emotional, vengeance-based point of view, fine. I get that, I sympathize with it.

But if the foremost desire is that the killing and violence stop, somehow, some way, then there was no good way to carry it out, because the prime backers of this government are the very same thugs we're fighting in the streets. This was the Mahdi Army's kill, and they wanted everyone to know that. And we should have seen that coming.

This is a much bigger, much more practically-based dissent than Saunders and the rest of the too-clever-by-half snark merchants pretend to believe. They have to know better by now; they can't really be dim enough to think that there was no strategic flaw in how this played out, only the expected whinging from lefty human-rights groups. That's too asinine an assumption, even for them.

Hell, maybe it's not an assumption; maybe, as O.G. nerd warrior Steven den Beste used to insist, regional destabilization was really a feature rather than a flaw.

We keep hearing from Democratic critics of the war that the Bush administration has "failed," because we can't keep order in Baghdad and the Iranians are in a position of unparalleled influence not only in Iraq but throughout the region. Yet this evaluation is based on a series of remarkably naïve assumptions, all of which have been proven utterly wrong.

The announced war aim of the Bush administration was to rid Saddam of his alleged "weapons of mass destruction," and when the WMD myth was finally and definitively debunked, they told us we were there to install a functioning democracy. That didn't pan out, either – unless one considers Shi'ite death squads, and a campaign of ethnic cleansing that puts the one supposedly initiated by Slobodan Milosevic to shame, legitimate expressions of the demos.

America's real war aims are another matter entirely, and they are coming into focus as the situation on the ground develops. After all, why assume that what is currently happening in Iraq isn't part of the program? Surely the Americans knew the dismemberment of the Iraqi state would have to mean Shi'ite hegemony, an empowered Iran, and the prospect of a regionalized conflagration. It defies belief that they didn't: our rulers may be evil, but they sure as heck aren't stupid (and I'm not talking about the president, who is a genuine dolt).

We have every reason to believe that the death and decomposition of the Iraqi state is precisely what they had in mind when they decided to invade in the first place. Furthermore, a civil war had to be the outcome of a sudden vacuum of legitimacy, and it was bound to be a religious conflict, pitting Sunnis against Shi'ites. Looked at in a larger context, it makes perfect sense that the War Party is now playing the "Shi'ite card," as the visit of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim to Washington indicates. Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), met with the president, chatted with Condi, and took a tour of the Pentagon. If we're looking for the true origins of the "surge" strategy in Iraq – the prospect of adding some 30,000 troops to "stabilize" Baghdad and rebel provinces – we need look no further than Hakim's Dec. 4 speech [.pdf] to the U.S. Institute of Peace:

"We believe that the deterring factors are not up to the level of their criminal activities. The strikes they are getting from the multinational forces are not hard enough to put an end to their acts, but leave them stand up again to resume their criminal acts. This means that there is something wrong in the policies taken to deal with that danger threatening the lives of the Iraqis. Eliminating the danger of the Civil War in Iraq could only be achieved through directing decisive strikes against terrorist Bathists terrorists [sic] in Iraq. Otherwise we'll continue to witness massacres being committed every now and then against the innocent Iraqis."

Translation: Help us to finally smash the Sunnis by sending more troops.

Taking that polemic at face value, one can at least boil the premise down to its basic yes/no toggle questions. Either they meant to do this shit, or they fucked up royally. The second answer should automatically mean that none of these people should ever again be trusted with our money or our lives, but because their base have their politics inextricably wound up with their personal issues, there is no accountability.

So then we look at the other possibility, that destabilization was not a bug but a feature. That too has its own dichotomous linkage, ascribing intent either to ideology or greed. Take your pick.

Realistically, my guess is that it's all of the above, that the guiding principle was the PNAC premise that we couldn't break that which was already dangerously broken (the destabilization feature), that right-thinking ideological patriots could go over and make a buck in the process (provided that they cleared Jim O'Beirne's loyalty questionnaire), and that they overestimated their juice so monumentally badly in the first place, there was no way this could ever have succeeded.

And nothing bears this out in clearer detail than this -- these guys found a way to make one of the most despicable thugs of the 20th century look like a martyr to the overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims. There is no strategic upside to handing Iraq strictly over to the Shi'a -- from Morocco to Indonesia, only Iran and southern Iraq have majority Shi'a populations. The rest are Sunni, and now they are even more furious. We can keep whistling past the graveyard, telling ourselves that since they're uncivilized wogs, they'll get pissed about something anyway, but how does the reckless incitement of an enormous region of people accrue to our benefit? How does it bring a resolution to the situation, how does it end the slaughter and reduce the danger to our troops and to millions of civilians who just want their lives back? Cui bono, who benefited from this ramshackle gang of masked thugs stringing up the tyrant from a makeshift gallows? Moqtada al-Sadr, mostly. Iran, indirectly. Us, not really at all.

This is how our serious editorial thinkers regularly comport themselves -- they hem and haw over which marginalized stereotype to rail against, as if the principled and predictable dissent of human rights groups trumps had any pull at all, much less the sort of influence that the bumblers at the top have.

But the constant sneering at what used to be unquestioned, exalted principles thinly conceals a deeper resentment at values which we ought to be especially concerned about these days. If we want to be moral leaders, then we have to demand a higher standard of ourselves; we don't act like Saddam precisely because we're better. Either we support tribal barbarity, or institutional barbarity to achieve expedient means, or we don't.

1 comment:

Tehanu said...

This is a great post. Heywood, you are a terrific writer. You should post at Digby more so more people would discover you.