Sunday, September 11, 2005

Ode to 9/11

Via Laura Rosen:

Mark Danner:

...Four years after we watched the towers fall, Americans have not succeeded in "ridding the world of evil." We have managed to show ourselves, our friends and most of all our enemies the limits of American power. Instead of fighting the real war that was thrust upon us on that incomprehensible morning four years ago, we stubbornly insisted on fighting a war of the imagination, an ideological struggle that we defined not by frankly appraising the real enemy before us but by focusing on the mirror of our own obsessions. And we have finished - as the escalating numbers of terrorist attacks, the grinding Iraq insurgency, the overstretched American military and the increasing political dissatisfaction at home show - by fighting precisely the kind of war they wanted us to fight...

In Iraq, the insurgents have presided over a catastrophic collapse in confidence in the Americans and a concomitant fall in their power. It is difficult to think of a place in which terror has been deployed on such a scale: there have been suicide truck bombs, suicide tanker bombs, suicide police cars, suicide bombers on foot, suicide bombers posing as police officers, suicide bombers posing as soldiers, even suicide bombers on bicycles. While the American death toll climbs steadily toward 2,000, the number of Iraqi dead probably stands at 10 times that and perhaps many more; no one knows. Conservative unofficial counts put the number of Iraqi dead in the war at somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000, in a country a tenth the size of the United States.

Civil wars, of course, are especially bloody, and a civil war is now being fought in Iraq. The country is slowly splitting apart along the lines where French and British negotiators stitched it together early in the last century out of three Ottoman provinces - Mosul, Baghdad and Basra - and it is doing so with the enthusiastic help of the Islamists, who are doing all they can to provoke a Shia-Sunni regionwide war...

In the midst of it all, increasingly irrelevant, are the Americans, who have the fanciest weapons but have never had sufficient troops, or political will, to assert effective control over the country. If political authority comes from achieving a monopoly on legitimate violence, then the Americans, from those early days when they sat in their tanks and watched over the wholesale looting of public institutions, never did achieve political authority in Iraq. They fussed over liberalizing the economy and writing constitutions and achieving democracy in the Middle East when in fact there was really only one question in Iraq, emerging again and again in each successive political struggle, most recently in the disastrously managed writing of the constitution: how to shape a new political dispensation in which the age-old majority Shia can take control from the minority Sunni and do it in a way that minimized violence and insecurity - do it in a way, that is, that the Sunnis would be willing to accept, however reluctantly, without resorting to armed resistance. This might have been accomplished with hundreds of thousands of troops, iron control and a clear sense of purpose. The Americans had none of these. Instead they relied first on a policy of faith and then on one of improvisation, driven in part by the advice of Iraqi exile "friends" who used the Americans for their own purposes. Some of the most strikingly ideological decisions, like abruptly firing and humiliating the entire Iraqi Army and purging from their jobs many hundreds of thousands of Baath Party members, seemed designed to alienate and antagonize a Sunni population already terrified of its security in the new Iraq. "You Americans," one Sunni businessman said to me in Baghdad last February, shaking his head in wonder, "you have created your own enemies here."

The United States never used what authority it had to do more than pretend to control the gathering chaos, never managed to look clearly at the country and confront Iraq's underlying political dysfunction, of which the tyranny of Saddam Hussein was the product, not the cause. "The illusionists," Ambassador John Negroponte's people called their predecessors, the officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer III. Now, day by day, the illusion is slipping away, and with it what authority the Americans had in Iraq. What is coming to take its place looks increasingly like a failed state...

American power, however, is not limitless. Armies can destroy and occupy, but it takes much more to build a lasting order, especially on the shifting sands of a violent political struggle: another Vietnam echo. Learning the lesson this time around may prove more costly, for dominoes can fall both ways. "Political engineering on this scale could easily go awry," Stephen D. Biddle, a U.S. Army War College analyst, wrote this past April in a shrewd analysis. "If a democratic Iraq can catalyze reform elsewhere, so a failed Iraq could presumably export chaos to its neighbors. A regionwide Lebanon might well prove beyond our capacity to police, regardless of effort expended. And if so, then we will have replaced a region of police states with a region of warlords and chronic instability. This could easily prove to be an easier operating environment for terrorism than the police states it replaces."

The sun is setting on American dreams in Iraq; what remains now to be worked out are the modalities of withdrawal, which depend on the powers of forbearance in the American body politic. But the dynamic has already been set in place. The United States is running out of troops. By the spring of 2006, nearly every active-duty combat unit is likely to have been deployed twice. The National Guard and Reserves, meanwhile, make up an unprecedented 40 percent of the force, and the Guard is in the "stage of meltdown," as Gen. Barry McCaffrey, retired, recently told Congress. Within 24 months, "the wheels are coming off." For all the apocalyptic importance President Bush and his administration ascribed to the Iraq war, they made virtually no move to expand the military, no decision to restore the draft. In the end, the president judged his tax cuts more important than his vision of a "democratic Middle East." The administration's relentless political style, integral to both its strength and its weakness, left it wholly unable to change course and to add more troops when they might have made a difference. That moment is long past; the widespread unpopularity of the occupation in Iraq and in the Islamic world is now critical to insurgent recruitment and makes it possible for a growing insurgent force numbering in the tens of thousands to conceal itself within the broader population...



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