Wayne O’Leary

A Gift from Bad Santa

It’s that time of year again, and the big fellow in red — or, in this case, his alter ego — has pulled from his sleigh an enticingly wrapped Yuletide present for the American people. Bad Santa has a perverse sense of humor, however, so the gift should be opened carefully.

The package under the tree is from Iraq, and it contains the news that “the surge” is working. Since the new tactic’s inception earlier this year, monthly troop deaths have fallen by two-thirds (from four a day to between one and two), while the toll on Iraqi civilians has been cut in half, dropping from 2,000 every 30 days to around 1,000. This has been hailed as a great accomplishment; it is, if assessing progress is merely a numbers game in the manner of Vietnam body counts. Sadly, the Bush administration and its supporters have been reduced to measuring victory in terms of defeat like old-time Chicago White Sox baseball fans. As humorist and native Chicagoan Jean Shepherd described it, winning for the denizens of Comiskey Park was when their beloved but hapless cellar dwellers lost 2 to 1 instead of 10 to 1.

That’s what the so-called success of the surge amounts to in Iraq. Nothing fundamental has changed. Political benchmarks have not been met. The compromise and cooperation between Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds required to stabilize the country and institutionalize a plural democracy does not exist. According to veteran New Yorker journalist Jon Lee Anderson, perhaps the most perceptive Western observer on Iraq — he knows the people, speaks the language, and actually gets into the field — the various Iraqi factions are simply biding their time and positioning themselves for the next round in an ongoing sectarian conflict.

Sunni insurgents are working with Americans against al-Qaeda elements in Anbar province to solidify their regional control and strengthen their future hand against the Shi’ites. Shi’ite militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, have temporarily pulled back in Baghdad to reorganize and resolve internal rivalries, before resuming ethnic cleansing in the capital. The Kurds are following their own course, forging an independent country, baiting the Turks, and making separate oil deals with American companies that disregard the wishes of the presumed national government in Baghdad.

Altogether, it’s a prescription for a coming explosion once the surge winds down sometime next year. The American military is like a cover placed over a boiling pot; it can’t keep the pot from spilling over indefinitely. The question is whether it should even try. When the US effectively decapitated the former Ba’athist ruling class in Iraq, it created a power vacuum and the perfect conditions for a civil war, which almost certainly will burst out full-blown at some point. There is no government of national reconciliation in Baghdad; there is instead a US puppet regime dominated by one of the three contending groups — a government of, by, and for Shi’ites. It, too, is playing for time, solidifying its sectarian position under American auspices.

American options in this situation come down to two unappetizing choices: stay in Iraq indefinitely to hold the cover down on the simmering pot until the fire under it somehow dies out, or leave and let the opposing sides reach a resolution by force of arms. The first is out of the question; voters in this country won’t allow it. As to the second, there is an imperfect but instructive analogy we might consider: Ireland in the 1920s.

After ridding themselves of their unwanted imperial occupiers (the British) in 1921 following years of struggle, the Irish proceeded to fight a bitter civil war over the future status of their new nation — whether home rule under Britain’s Commonwealth or a pure independent republic. Historian Abram Sachar described it thusly: “The fighting of 1922 and 1923 was shocking in its ruthlessness and implacability. The state that had been conceived in violence was now baptized in blood, and the blood was all Irish.” There were three times as many executions in this fratricide, Sachar noted, as the British had carried out during their years of control. Yet, the issue was ultimately decided, and Ireland joined the community of democratic nations.

The point is that the Irish had to fight their civil war before achieving mature statehood and establishing their national identity. There was no other way to settle fundamental differences that couldn’t be compromised. Many other countries have worked their way through the same process, including our own (belatedly) in 1861-65. It may be that in trying to prevent an Iraqi civil war, in trying to force-feed a westernized form of popular government to a country just emerging from autocracy and tribalism, in trying to plan and direct Iraq’s future development just as the British tried (and failed) to do in their imperial moment, the Bush administration is not riding history’s wave, but trying to hold it back.

The Bush neocons are fond of saying they can create new realities in the world, that they are not bound by the mundane realities perceived by others. But this is hubris in its most overbearing if not frightening form. Iraqis may well achieve stable democracy at some future time, but not on George W. Bush’s timetable. And they may have to go through a horrific bloodletting to do it. If Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds want to set aside ancient enmities and join hands in communal brotherhood, we should by all means cheer them on and provide whatever help we can. On the other hand, if they are determined to fight it out amongst themselves, perhaps we should just get out of the way.

Americans can’t direct another people’s history and make it turn out according to our plan. Besides, we have our own looming history to worry about — one of a nation verging on decline because of excessive war spending, chronic indebtedness, environmental degradation and a neglect of the social and economic needs of its own citizenry. No matter. The surge, we are told, is a success because casualties in a war we should never have waged are down. The mainstream media, fooled over WMDs, are buying the new line as well, if Charles Gibson’s fawning and apologetic interview with the president in late November on ABC News is any indication. Bad Santa’s dubious gift for Christmas 2007 looks as though it will keep on giving well into the new year.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2008

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