Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Straws in the wind

It appears that for the fall-winter season, in addition to the exciting new PTB/PTA line, we are going to be offered two somewhat refurbished lines of argument (refurbished from earlier, similar arguments, that is) in support of continued American military involvement in Iraq: (1) The argument that Iraqi nationalism means nothing in terms of domestic Iraqi politics, because those groups that appeal to that idea are at loggerheads among themselves; see the meager legislative accomplishments of the so-called July 22 Front. So there will be a continuing need for the moderating influence of America. (2) Maliki is becoming a "strongman" (!) and more and more beholden to Iran, so in the interests of moderating that influence, and protecting regional stability, there will be a continuing need for involvement by a completely impartial military force such as only the United States can provide.

Sam Parker of the United States Institute for Peace has outlined most of the first point, as well as he was able, in a little essay recently, and as for the second point, I think he is working up to it, noting today an escalation in tension between ISCI and strongman-Maliki, and concluding with the melodramatically raised eyebrow: "I wonder where Iran stands?" (Personally I wonder where Washington stands, but I guess he doesn't know anything about that)

So you have the story of strongman-Maliki the increasingly-Iranian, against the background-story of a sham, or at least a weak-to-negligible Iraqi nationalist movement.

The difficulty, in the story-telling sense, comes to light when you try to put these stories together and use both of them to justify the continued US military involvement in Iraq: Argument 1: Political "nationalist" unity can't hold Iraq together (this is a modified version of the earlier "inevitable civil war" story, so it has good pedigree) meaning that the US is morally obligated to do so "for the time being"; and at the same time, Argument 2: The US is also morally obligated to protect regional stability against excessive Iranian incursions in Iraqi politics.

So what's wrong with that? Two moral obligations--are they not better than one? The point is that each one works okay as a source for manipulative sound-bites: Squabbling Iraqis, calming Americans. Destabilizing Iranian influence that needs to be moderated, in the interests of stability. Both under the overall rubric of conditional engagement; responsible withdrawal, etcetera.

The problem for the military-apologists* is that you can't put these two story-lines together into a coherent position, because then they both fall apart. In his most recent attack on Iraqi nationalism Parker quite understandably left out any reference to external influences (no mention of the Kurdish parties' reliance on their privileged position with the Americans; ditto the SupremeCouncil; no mention either of Shiite anxiety about American cooperation with former-regime military and intelligence people; not even any mention of the famous Maliki-Iran connection that has the starring role in his other story). That is because of the nature of what he has to show: namely that Iraqi nationalism is in and of itself negligible or a sham. American or Iranian or any other external influences have no place in that story. It has to be kept simple. No to Iraqi nationalism. It doesn't exist and it will never exist. And this has nothing to do with the fact that Iraq was invaded by the Americans in 2003 and continues to be occupied by a 140,000 person military force, along with an "embassy" that is reportedly about the size of the Vatican, with all the fixings and all the influence that go with it.

When he attacks Iraqi nationalism, it is as if Parker was talking about Switzerland. Because if Iraqi nationalism cannot be ruled out in the simplistic way that Parker outlines, the result would be to leave the door open to an argument for troop-withdrawal and let Iraqis sort out their own affairs. But they can't have that. So you have to keep all of the issues relating to American, Iranian or any other influence out of that story. Iraqi nationalism is a sham, and it can never be a reason for American troop-withdrawal. And in the telling of that pure and simple story, there are no American machinations or influences whatsoever. Not to mention, anyway.

Then when they turn to the Iranian-influence/regional-stability story, it is all American machinations and influences. This has yet to be fleshed out, but certainly Colin Kahl, to name only the most famous of the group, keeps telling us that America has to stop writing a blank check to the Maliki administration. How exactly do you do that? Turn up or down the volume of American support for the Kurdish parties? Turn up or down the American support for other parties or groups? Who knows? All we know from Kahl is that America has to do something to rein in Maliki.

And just to repeat, the attack on Iraqi nationalism depends on assuming that all of the influence that America has wielded in the country since 2003 didn't mean a thing in terms of Iraqi politics. America, in that story, is and has always been a complete bystander.

Of course, when you look at it this way, both story-lines are essentially propaganda. Increased American machinations and influence, along the lines Kahl wants to see, will obviously not lead to peace or stability, not least given the revulsion that the American occupation, machinations and influence have already (after five and a half years of it!) earned from Iraqis. And the idea that you call for this kind of thing, then turn around and dismiss Iraqi nationalism without paying any attention to those American and other external influences, boggles the mind. Or as the young people say WTF.

*Again, in the story-telling sense. For the general hypocrisy involved, see the comments of Alex and an anonymous followup on the first of the above-cited Parker posts.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

namely that Iraqi nationalism is in and of itself negligible or a sham.

i think there is a certain rhetoric missing in the full picture of this statement. for example, this parker statement

Very few, if any, Arab Iraqis will ever openly acknowledge that their political ambitions are not directed toward the unity of Iraq.

aside from the obvious doublespeak, note the 'arab iraqis'. a neocon blogger recently called my attention to a book by the neocon author Pryce-Jones , The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.

without specifically addressing nationalism wrt race the book seeks to establish how arabs are incapable of it. ie

TRIBALISM. Pryce-Jones argues that Arab culture doesn't encourage Arabs to identify themselves as members of a state, but as members of a family or tribe. Arab political life therefore consists of a multitude of warring factions, none of whom seeks the good of the nation as a whole.


THE POWER-CHALLENGE DIALECTIC. You're either in power in the Arab world, in which case you're paranoid and watching your subordinates and allies as closely as your enemies, or you're no, in which case you lurk in the shadows, plot and scheme until your hand is ready and you make your move to challenge the power holder.

the list goes on. the premise being of course that arabs by nature are unique and different from other people which any observer of our national elections are not supposed to notice that many people who seek power all over the globe have these same charactaristics (identify themselves as members of a party, either in power or scheming to be there).

this meme is buttressed w/the muslin arab bashing be it from memri or obama bin ladin speak or the family values forum or palin and her 'islamist' re bush doctrin. just a continual onslaught of arab/muslim/different than us.

the whole concept of arab/iraqi nationalism (capability) completely blows this propaganda to smithereens. it is absolutely paramount that the idea that iraqis could ever hold common interest, and that interests might superseed their desire to be at eachother's throat must at all costs be quelched, by any means available.

it is so culturally embedded it is presumably racial in nature.

what are we to do w/them!?! for mankind to face the gravest threat (islamic/arab terror) we must be there at the core of their disputes for if we don't contain them at their source, it will spill over the borders and infest/threaten all mankind.

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In his most recent posting Visser seems to think that Iraqui political institutions can only be repaired through American power. Do you think this is accurate? Or should the US just completely withdraw as soon as possible and let the Iraquis work it out for good or ill?

12:13 PM  
Blogger badger said...

Anon # 2: I should let Visser speak for himself, but I think his point has been that the Americans have so skewed the Iraqi political system via the 2005 Constitution and other means (the result being in favor of America's allies the two Kurdish parties and the ISCI/Dawa pair) that the system cannot correct itself via that same skewed political process. Which seems to be quite true.

That's the context where, according to that latest post, he writes the legacy of mistakes in terms of institution-building during the Bush era in Iraq is so extensive that it is probably only American power (or UN power with US support) that can reverse it. So for Visser: The big problem with Democrats when it comes to policy on Iraq is that they either focus exclusively on withdrawal (and thereby close their eyes entirely to the mistakes of the Bush administration in shaping Iraq’s political system between 2003 and 2008), or they engage with questions regarding choice of political system but do so in a manner that is even less in harmony with Iraqi traditions than Republican policy is.

There are two different ideas here. One is that the US-sponsored political process has created a dead-end for Iraqis, so that it is going to be problematic fixing or re-creating it peacefully or otherwise. But the other is that even though the beneficiaries of the screwed-up system are America's traditional friends and collaborators, somehow the Americans might have a change of heart and help re-draw the system to the better advantage of their traditional enemies.

That part seems to me to be unlikely to say the least. I think one of Visser's advantages is in being outside the gravitational pull of Washington when it comes to analyzing the problems, and that is a great advantage, but by the same token I wonder if he has really plumbed the depths when it comes to Washington.

Anyway, I'm for letting the Iraqis sort this out.

Anon #1: You're right, I didn't go into that part of it, and I could have. I think you read that absolutely right. Probably we will be treated to more of the same in the coming period of time...

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The White Man's Burden has become a cliche, but it describes them very well. I expect the rhetoric with regard to Iraq to follow the poem.

12:55 PM  

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