I cannot answer the question about the nature of the conflict as an expert or even as the second rate historian I used to be. This will be summary and superficial at best. It issues from reading, conversations with smart and not so smart people, and the vagaries of daily life. I need to make a couple of other disclaimers: First, I am an idealist and patriot who has a disproportionate belief that I can in some way institute those ideals– which puts me closer to the administration than I might like to admit. Next, I am opinionated and my opinions about things are not the same as the waffling ones I held when I came, but I feel strongly about them now. Third, the forces I describe below are large, and the Americans I have met at every level are honest, sincere, well meaning, generous people. In my saner moments I must admit we are all caught up in something larger than any our individual wills and talents, though it is the product of choices we have made as a people and responsibility we must bear as a people.
Whatever you may think of Saddam, at least up until the Iran war and even through the early parts of the embargo imposed after 1991, Iraq was a secular society with a secular government. It had an active and effective social and economic safety net. It was the most highly educated country in the Middle East after Israel, and Arab countries sent their children here for post-secondary education. Women had a much more lively role than in almost any other Arab country. Families were extended and close and clan affiliation mattered more than religious affiliation. That does not mean there were not serious problems. Iraq’s economy was almost exclusively oil driven. Relatively prosperous, it was driven by large ministry controlled state owned industries and subject to the weaknesses of command economies and single product economies when under stress. Social order was kept by force.
Although a minority, Sunnis were mostly in control. Sunni control was more an artifact of Saddam’s paranoia, their generally more educated status and more secular approach, and the luck of history, rather than the product of religious interest or motivation. Remember, Baathism is a philosophy that stresses secularism and equality, and originally comes from outside Iraq. Much of the safety net Saddam and Baath created eroded with increasing impact after 1991, but the secularism stayed largely intact.
Several elements brought out and honed the religious tensions that now seem to characterize life here. First, there is the stress, depression, and hopelessness induced by occupation. We became an occupying force almost immediately, in our imposition of a free market ideology foreign to the standing and historic culture and economy. We established a military presence that Bush’s father and his advisors were wise enough not to impose. We appointed a viceroy to administer the region who was first a dictator himself, and second an ideologue. (Henry Kissinger, for whom he worked and who was the world’s most intense micro-manager, called Bremer worse than himself in this regard.) We destroyed the administrative and bureaucratic apparatus, talent, and “soft” infrastructure, etc. Because a kind of macho honor is an important cultural element, these factors associated with pure overlordship became even more distressing to Iraqis, the feeling among them more hopeless. Forgive my possible prejudice for saying so, but I see fundamentalist Islam as a religion that accommodates well to the hopeless and distressed. What other religion makes suicide, the very symbol of hopelessness, a blessing?
Outside of Iraq, other examples of the phenomenon abound: the Palestinians, the other great secular society in the region, have turned toward fundamentalism with increasing passion as occupation and loss of control and sense of personal and family honor have become overwhelming in their lives; Black Muslimism begins in jails, etc. I am not Sam Harris, but to be fair, I also should say that I see fundamentalist Christianity in the US increasingly as a religion that nicely accommodates with the aims of a social elite to control morality on the hoi poloi “below” for its own purposes. We are not talking religion here, but the politics of power.
A second element was that we gave impetus to this burgeoning shift toward fundamentalism in several ways. For one, we forced on Iraqis a notion of religious-based quotas in government when the constitution was being discussed. From the outset our policies promoted religious intolerance. They tended to unite religions with political power in direct proportion to their numerical strength. In the name of protecting the Sunni minority by guaranteeing it parliamentary seats, the constitution and ultimately the vote gave Shiites, who had been shut out of power and now were the majority, the ability to wreak vengeance on political enemies who happened mostly to be Sunni. It gave the official sanction of the occupying authority to the “sectarianization” of politics. It encouraged Sunnis, who knew what was coming, to dig in their heels and seek “extragovernmental ways” of protecting themselves, ultimately turning to Al Qaeda because our forces were not able to protect them against government sanctioned death squads. The problem turned back on itself over and over.
Why did we do what we did? Partly arrogance– Bremer made decisions for Iraqis that cut them out of making decisions for themselves– he knew what was good for them– we all did. Partly American anti-terrorist politics– Al Qaeda is a Sunni movement and we wanted it neutralized. Partly ignorance– key American decision-makers, even today, are political appointees rewarded for contributions to the party, rather than as a result of a relevant professional career.
I also think an overlooked factor has been the contradictions of our own fundamentalism in politics. This is no small deal. It is a mindset that conditioned the other more local and immediate factors. Neocons proclaimed the importance of a secular democracy at the top of their lungs, but really never believed in either secularism or democracy. Not in the beginning, but certainly by 2003-04, in the U.S. by and large these were the same people we like to call social conservatives because they believe in the moral state, not the separation of church and state, and because their definition of morality is crabbed and self-serving. They were willing to let Iraqis have elections, but only insofar as the constitution that bound them was consistent with neocons’ view of rectitude, religion, and society.
Coupled with the unwitting (or witting) perpetuation of religious intolerance, sharpening of fundamentalist distinctions, and linking of religious preference with power, was the massive incompetence of the administration in its Katrina-like ignorance of details, short sightedness, ideological isolation, contempt for people not like them, and blindness to realities on the ground. When they wreaked havoc on the infrastructure of the current Iraqi administration, they destroyed the ability of the Iraqis to rebuild the physical infrastructure that had been destroyed, made it possible for second rate Iraqi politicians and bureaucrats to rise, and most important, confirmed the necessity for us to stay as occupiers. Whether these policies grew out of a fear of a countercoup against us, a desire for greater control over reconstruction, venality in maintaining our contracting presence so that the oil kept flowing to the “right” folks, as a housecleaning to prepare the country for democracy, or whatever, the result was the disaster we have foist on the Iraqis and the dilemma we have put ourselves into. I tend to believe in the proposition that it is difficult to tell the difference between incompetence and malice or conspiracy, and that when in doubt bet on incompetence.
Admittedly, the situation is complex. Iraqi law has had to be built from the ground up. Iraqis have no history of self-governance. State owned enterprises and corruption have led to difficulties that US advisors could never reasonably have anticipated. Intricate social and political tensions going back generations that were kept suppressed by force under Saddam now exploded to the surface. But let’s face it, surely nobody believes that we could not train an Iraqi takeover force in three years when we take ex-criminals and high school dropouts from Mississippi and make them armed services technical specialists in 6 months. Surely, nobody believes there is not sufficient talent and education in the whole country to make wise decisions for itself, or that the Iraqi political talent was so lacking over the years that we not only had to have the largest embassy in the world to help, but now have to build a bigger one.
Iraqi politicians are not that dumb. They understood where the power was and they have pandered to it. You find a way to live in jail by intuiting what the jailer’s needs are and anticipating them. An obsequious “Yes Massa” plus broken tools gets you farther than “No Massa” or “You have a screw loose, Massa.” “Yes Massa” also results in fewer beatings, and allows you to retain at least some self-respect. It is a basic survival technique. Businessmen and people of means were not dumb, either. They understood that their best chance of surviving social disorder– with their wealth, families, and private parts intact– was to leave the country and either direct their interests from abroad or abandon Iraq altogether. Two million have done so.
The Iraqis most capable of directing the reconstruction are neutralized (read emasculated) or gone. Militarily and politically, by design or buffoonery, we keep Iraq in an occupied state. We cannot escape responsibility for that, because we continue to do it and now perpetuate the idea that we must do it to save Iraqis from themselves. At worst, we have become nineteenth-century colonialists. At best, we have built a bizarre box for ourselves. We cannot keep it closed or we will suffocate. We cannot open it or it will explode. Pandora had it good.
So, I do not believe this is a religious fight, but a fight for political control. I believe that religion has been exploited cynically by Iraqi politicians with our support — propagated perhaps cynically, perhaps naively, perhaps deliberately, but more likely through incompetence and a failure to understand our own cultural contradictions as much as a failure to understand Iraqis’. I also believe that things will not get worse if we leave. The worst elements of the current situation are those we are propping up. Our leaving will not be good for the Iraqis either, but could not injure the situation more. Iraqis will have their bloodbath in resolving their leadership and social justice issues anyway. It will be terrible. Staying or leaving slowly, is simply a way to avoid an embarrassment for the occupying force. We can only save American and Iraqi lives by getting out immediately.
In that sense, my project is simply a part of the hopeful irrelevance. And I have become a twenty-first century political/economic version of the lead character in one of the world’s worst novels– Goethe’s mooning and moronic young Werther. All of this, you may conclude, is heartbreaking to me at my worst moments, but I can no more squelch my hope than can so many other Americans here.
I am well aware of the mistaken view that the sectarian tensions were always primary and the release from tyranny just exacerbated them. I hope I have shown that that is a red herring and that our politics and policies ran the game. I also am aware of the Iran argument– that we will cede hegemony in the region to them if we go. I see this as a special case of the general view that our leaving would embolden terrorists everywhere, which is a special case of the domino theory, which is a special case of our particular form of national paranoia. I reject both the general and specific cases.