Galbraith on Iraq

The most recent New York Review of Books contains the usual selection of excellent articles. (Regretably, they firewalled a review of Wilfrid Sheed's new book, so read Garrison Keillor's NY Times review instead.) But before you dip into the somewhat less depressing fare, be sure to read Peter Galbraith's "Iraq: The Way to Go"--a sobering resume of the situation in Iraq. The headline may overpromise, however, since the bulk of the essay is taken up with explaining how the situation was allowed to deteriorate and what hope we can have for improvement (precious little). Some excerpts:

Although reliable statistics about Iraq are notoriously hard to comeby, it does appear that the overall civilian death toll in Baghdad hasdeclined from its pre-surge peak, although it is still at the extremelyhigh levels of the summer of 2006. Moreover, the number of unidentifiedbodiesusually the victims of Shiite death squadshas risen in May andJune to pre-surge levels. How much of the modest decline in civiliandeaths in Baghdad is attributable to the surge is not knowable, nor isthere any way to know if it will last.

The developments in Anbar are more significant. Tribesmen who hadbeen attacking US troops in support of the insurgency are now taking USweapons to fight al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. Unfortunately,the Sunni fundamentalists are not the only enemy of these newUS-sponsored militias. The Sunni tribes also regard Iraq's Shiite-ledgovernment as an enemy, and the US appears now to be in the business ofarming both the Sunni and Shiite factions in what has long since becomea civil war.

(...)

Iraq's government has not met one of the benchmarks, and, with theexception of the revenue-sharing law, most are unlikely to happen. Buteven if they were all enacted, it would not help. Provincial electionswill make Iraq less governable while the process of constitutionalrevision could break the country apart.

Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Baghdad, likes to talk of thedisparity between the Iraqi clock and the US clock, suggesting thatIraqis believe they have more time to reach agreement than the Americanpolitical calendar will tolerate. Crocker is the State Department'sforemost Iraq hand but, more generally, American impatience oftenreflects ignorance. For example, both Congress and the administrationhave expressed frustration that the ban on public service byex-Baathists has not been relaxed, since this appears to be astraightforward change, easily accomplished and already promised byIraq's leaders.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim leads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC,previously known as SCIRI), which is Iraq's leading Shiite party and acritical component of Prime Minister al-Maliki's coalition. He is thesole survivor of eight brothers. During Saddam's rule Baathistsexecuted six of them. On August 29, 2003, a suicide bomber, possiblylinked to the Baathists, blew up his last surviving brother, andpredecessor as SCIRI leader, at the shrine of Ali in Najaf. Moqtadaal-Sadr, Hakim's main rival, comes from Iraq's other prominent Shiitereligious family. Saddam's Baath regime murdered his father and twobrothers in 1999. Earlier, in April 1980, the regime had arrestedMoqtada's father-in-law and the father-in-law's sisterthe GrandAyatollah Baqir al-Sadr and Bint al-Huda. While the ayatollah watched,the Baath security men raped and killed his sister. They then set fireto the ayatollah's beard before driving nails into his head.De-Baathification is an intensely personal issue for Iraq's two mostpowerful Shiite political leaders, as it is to hundreds of thousands oftheir followers who suffered similar atrocities.

(...)

But even if Iraq's politicians could agree to the benchmarks, thiswouldn't end the insurgency or the civil war. Sunni insurgents objectto Iraq being run by Shiite religious parties, which they see asinstalled by the Americans, loyal to Iran, and wanting to define Iraqin a way that excludes the Sunnis. Sunni fundamentalists consider theShiites apostates who deserve death, not power. The Shiites believethat their democratic majority and their historical suffering under theBaathist dictatorship entitle them to rule. They are not inclined tocompromise with Sunnis, whom they see as their longstanding oppressors,especially when they believe most Iraqi Sunnis are sympathetic to thesuicide bombers that have killed thousands of ordinary Shiites. Thedifferences are fundamental and cannot be papered over by sharing oilrevenues, reemploying ex-Baathists, or revising the constitution. Thewar is not about those things.

(...)

Lugar's focus on the achievable runs against main currents of opinionin a nation increasingly polarized between the growing number who wantto withdraw from Iraq and the die-hard defenders of a failure. We needto recognize, as Lugar implicitly does, that Iraq no longer exists as aunified country. In the parts where we can accomplish nothing, weshould withdraw. But there are still three missions that may beachievabledisrupting al-Qaeda, preserving Kurdistan's democracy, andlimiting Iran's increasing domination. These can all be served by amodest US presence in Kurdistan. We need an Iraq policy with sufficientnuance to protect American interests.Unfortunately, we probably won'tget it.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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