The 100 Years War

Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are,
Now good or bad, 'tis but the chance of war.
--Wm. Shakespeare, Troilus & Cressida

John McCain has recently tied success in his presidential bid to the success of the surge in Iraq. It took him about two milliseconds for him to realize his mistake, and he attempted to take it back. But whether he takes it back or no, it is likely to be at least partially true. Success in the surge may not be enough to carry him to the White House, but failure in Iraq is likely to defeat him all by itself; as one of Cheney's strongest allies in this war, McCain's fortunes are tied to Iraq, and he has said that he is willing for the United States to stay 100 years if that is what it takes to “win” (whatever “win” means in a place like Iraq.)

Right now, the War Party is in somewhat of an “I-told-you-so” mood over the “success” of the surge. The grounds for this claim of success is that there are fewer bodies bleeding on the ground. This cannot be denied. But the reasons for it are not good reasons, and began before the surge. Long before the surge, the Sunnis found friends against the American-backed government (or for what passes for government in Iraq) among Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda gave them arms against the government or rather against the Shiites, which is largely the same thing. But shortly before the surge, they found better friends with better arms: The Americans. Just as once we backed the Taliban against a foreign-backed government in Afghanistan, so now we are backing “The Awakening” against another foreign-backed government in Iraq. The difference is that this time, we are the foreigners backing the government. For all the stupidity of the Soviets in Afghanistan, they were never quite stupid enough to back their own assassins. Our government, such as it is, is fond of blaming Al Qaeda for arming the Sunnis and Iran for arming the Shiites. We have driven them both out of business by arming Sunni and Shia against each other, leaving little room (or need) for the competition. And it is not look before we will unite them in the only cause that can unite them: driving out the Americans, along with their puppet government in the Green Zone. As for the puppet government itself, it really doesn't care; its only care is to loot the American aid as long as the money lasts, and then make their way out of that God-forsaken country.

On such a cause, John McCain has staked his cause, and wants the rest of us to stake him to the presidency, even if it means a hundred-years war. Senator McCain would do well to pick up the latest issue of Rolling Stone and read Nir Rosen's account of The Myth of the Surge . Rosen is qualified to write this because he actually speaks Arabic; that is to say, he can actually do what the American commanders cannot do: listen directly to the people. Some quotes from his article:

"We are essentially supporting a quasi-feudal devolution of authority to armed enclaves, which exist at the expense of central government authority," says Chas Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. "Those we are arming and training are arming and training themselves not to facilitate our objectives but to pursue their own objectives vis-a-vis other Iraqis. It means that the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are now suppressed are likely to burst out with even greater ferocity in the future."

Osama [an Awakening commander] himself makes no secret of his hatred for the Shiite government and its security forces. As we walk by a checkpoint manned by the Iraqi National Police, which is comprised almost entirely of Shiites, Osama looks at the uniformed officers in disgust. "I want to kill them," he tells me, "but the Americans make us work together."

Most Shiites I speak with believe that the same Sunnis who have been slaughtering Shiites throughout Iraq are now being empowered and legitimized by the Americans as members of the ISVs. On one raid with U.S. troops, I see children chasing after the soldiers, asking them for candy. But when they learn I speak Arabic, they tell me how much they like the Mahdi Army and Muqtada al-Sadr. "The Americans are donkeys," one boy says. "When they are here we say, 'I love you,' but when they leave we say, 'Fuck you.'"

Gottlieb had recently conducted an inventory of the weapons assigned to the 172 INP — short for 1st Battalion, 7th Brigade, 2nd Division. There were 550 weapons missing, including pistols, rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. "Guys take weapons when they go AWOL," he says. The police were also reporting fake engagements and then transferring to Shiite militias the ammunition they had supposedly fired. "It was funny how they always expended 400 rounds of ammunition," Gottlieb says.”

With American forces now arming both sides in the civil war, the violence in Iraq has once again started to escalate. In January, some 100 members of the new Sunni militias — whom the Americans have now taken to calling "the Sons of Iraq" — were assassinated in Baghdad and other urban areas. In one attack, a teenage bomber blew himself up at a meeting of Awakening leaders in Anbar Province, killing several members of the group. Most of the attacks came from Al Qaeda and other Sunni factions, some of whom are fighting for positions of power in the new militias.”

The saddest comment comes from Captain Arkan Hashim Ali, a member of the Iraqi National Police:

"Before the war, it was just one party," Arkan tells me. "Now we have 100,000 parties. I have Sunni officer friends, but nobody lets them get back into service. First they take money, then they ask if you are Sunni or Shiite. If you are Shiite, good." He dreams of returning to the days when the Iraqi army served the entire country. "In Saddam's time, nobody knew what is Sunni and what is Shiite," he says. The Bush administration based its strategy in Iraq on the mistaken notion that, under Saddam, the Sunni minority ruled the Shiite majority. In fact, Iraq had no history of serious sectarian violence or civil war between the two groups until the Americans invaded. Most Iraqis viewed themselves as Iraqis first, with their religious sects having only personal importance. Intermarriage was widespread, and many Iraqi tribes included both Sunnis and Shiites. Under Saddam, both the ruling Baath Party and the Iraqi army were majority Shiite."

"Arkan knows that the U.S. "surge" has succeeded only in exacerbating the tension among Iraq's warring parties and bickering politicians. The Iraqi government is still nonexistent outside the Green Zone. While U.S.-built walls have sealed off neighborhoods in Baghdad, Shiite militias are battling one another in the south over oil and control of the lucrative pilgrimage industry. Anbar Province is in the hands of Sunni militias who battle each other, and the north is the scene of a nascent civil war between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.”

Personally, I have a great deal of respect for Senator McCain, but in all honesty I must say that he scares me. Like too many veterans of my generation, he wants to re-fight the Vietnam War; he is convinced that we lost that war through a failure of will and resolve. We lost it because of Jane Fonda, or the New York Times, or the liberals, or whatever. But in fact, the American public stayed with their government and displayed remarkable patience. The war lasted from 1959 to 1975 and cost 55,000 American lives, not to mention uncounted Vietnamese lives and vast amounts of treasure. We even imposed an income-tax surcharge on ourselves to pay for the war (can you imagine either Cheney or McCain doing that?) It was not a failure of will, but a failure of arms. And arms will always fail in such a war, where the population does not support us. But we had great support among the Vietnamese compared to the support that we now have among Sunni and Shiite alike. In such circumstances, there is no way to win. And frankly, no real reason to “win.” When we have “won,” what precisely is it that will have gained? Stopping Al Qaeda? That is an organization we created in Afghanistan and the Iraqis really want no part in it; they were just temporary allies against the Americans. A Democracy in the Middle East? And that will get us what exactly? Securing our oil supplies? Both sides in the civil war want nothing more than to sell us oil. We can get out of Iraq precisely the same thing we would have gotten out of a “victory” in Vietnam: nothing.

1959-1975 is only 16 years, not quite McCain's 100-year war. But the Middle East is a larger place and a tougher problem. And it is not really our problem. Those concerned will have to work things out for themselves; the American were not appointed by God to be either their judge or their rulers. Those who would have us rule in the East do well to tell us that it will be a 100-years war. Oh well. Five years down already; only 95 to go.


John Kindley Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 7:53:00 AM CST  

Have you seen this anti-McCain parody of that pro-Obama video that's been sweeping the web?

Jesse Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 12:05:00 PM CST  

To be fair to McCain, his "hundred years of war" comment was qualified: he said that 100 years of war would be fine with him "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed". He references occupations like those in Korea and Japan as examples. Of course Pat Buchanan points out that this hypothetical is very unlikely to obtain in Iraq: “If we're in Iraq 100 years”, he says, “we'll be fighting 100 years of war, just as the British, if they stayed in our country 100 years.”

I find it interesting that the war debate has been framed around questions of effectiveness. “Will the surge succeed in suppressing the Iraqi insurgency?”. “Will the cost of our continued presence outweigh the rewards?” The activist anti-war left, now as in Vietnam, has been pushed into taking a side on these sorts of question. While these are indeed important questions, framing the debate around them suppresses certain other more questions that are both more fundamental and more difficult. We do not hear arguments against the war from serious commentators with respect to the war's moral legitimacy, except from the “lunatic fringe”.

It’s important to ask about when it is Just to wage war with another country, and in particular, when it is Just to invade another country. There were (and still are) charges that the justifications for this war were spurious; but there was never a serious debate about what actions these purported justification, if assumed true, actually justify. However the time for that debate has, for the moment, passed – at least as a matter of practical politics. The debate that this country needs to have now is this: At what point does a legitimate government gain the statue of sovereign nation-state? – and that isn’t a trivial question.

If there is good reason to accept that the Iraqi government is not yet the sovereign agency of a full fledged nation-state, then McCain may be quiet right to look at the war policy in terms of effectiveness in securing stability and peace because the relevant moral commitments are to the troops and the Iraqi people. But if at this moment Iraq is a sovereign nation-state then that changes things significantly. In such case a new constraint is places on any discussion about the war policy; the policy cannot merely be about effectiveness, for it is limited by those moral imposition incumbent on the policy from sovereign state that is dealing with the internal affairs of another such state.

Consider it this way. Whenever the new Iraqi government reaches the point where it represents a nation-state, the question about the war authorization’s moral legitimacy returns to a state of primary importance, because the legislation would be authorizing the violation of a second sovereign entity. Even without being asked to leave by Iraq at that point, in fact even if asked to stay, the president, congress and American people would have to decide under what authority we could presume to interfere with the internal affairs of another country, and in particular, another country with whom we have no formal treaties of alliance.

My point here is that there are some challenging and philosophically complex moral debates that this country needs to be having right now. Instead, the presidential candidates (and the political community at large) are distracted -- and distracting others – by arguments that assume far more than is obvious.

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