A Nation Adrift

The ultimate consequences of the bombing of the Shia Muslim shrine in Samarra, and the subsequent retaliatory killings that took more than a thousand lives of mostly Sunni Arabs, are unclear. Presumably, the bombers hoped to precipitate an outright civil war. So far, Iraqis have backed away from that abyss.

There are good reasons why. A civil war between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite populations would draw Iran into the conflict on the Shiite side, plunging the wider region into chaos. In this worst-case scenario, Iran’s nuclear ambitions would compel the Sunni-dominated states, especially Saudi Arabia, to acquire nuclear weapons as well. With nuclear-armed Pakistan and Israel already positioned at the region’s edges, the consequences of an Arab nuclear-arms race are almost too terrible to think about.

Certain observers have noted that civil war is not in the interest of either the Sunnis or the Shiites. Despite being the overwhelming majority, the Shiites are deeply divided. A quick or clear-cut victory over the more cohesive, and technologically and militarily more sophisticated Sunni community is not a given. At the same time, the Sunnis know the cost of civil war would be high and the likely outcome inconclusive. As Lawrence Kaplan reports in the New Republic (March 6), the Sunnis, once bitterly opposed to the U.S. presence, now look to the U.S. military to protect them from the death squads of renegade Shiite militias. Kaplan warns that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would leave both Sunnis and Shiites vulnerable, and make civil war unavoidable. Nevertheless, the Bush administration is determined to bring about a significant reduction in U.S. forces by the end of the year. Having lost the trust and patience of the American people regarding Iraq, and with his party facing midterm congressional elections, is the president getting ready to declare “victory” and withdraw?

Admittedly, there are few good options left for the United States in Iraq. Nearly everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. As many predicted, Bush’s actions have unleashed dormant religious, ethnic, and regional conflicts that may be impossible to contain. He should be held responsible for this, and for any further destabilization of the Middle East and the world economy.

Needless to say, failure does little to alter the thinking of this administration. In February, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld released his proposed 2007 military budget as well as the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDF). The QDF is an assessment of the threats facing the nation and the military strategy needed to counter them. In presenting the QDF and the military budget to Congress, Rumsfeld has recast the “war on terror” as “the long war,” but he might have called it the endless war, for that is the logic of the policy. Initially, victory in Iraq was sold to the American people as a sure thing. Now the battle against “Islamic extremism” is seen as a “generational struggle,” one best compared to the cold war. And like cold-war military budgets, no weapons system goes unfunded-no matter how superfluous in a “war” against an enemy who holds no territory and fields no army. The nearly half-trillion-dollar military budget, which does not even include the $130-billion cost of operations in Afghanistan and the Iraq occupation, will provide for a very long war indeed. This kind of spending is more saber-rattling and boondoggle than convincing strategy.

The administration has, at best, willfully misunderstood the threat of Islamic extremism and the complexity of the situation in the Middle East. Yes, terrorists could again inflict a terrible blow against the United States. But the terrorists are not a threat to the existence of the United States in anything like the way the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany was. Nor does defeating Islamic terrorism require the suspension of civil liberties and habeas corpus, or the use of torture. Osama bin Laden’s following is miniscule, and almost universally condemned-even after all the missteps of the United States. The world is on our side in this battle. At the same time, however, sorting out the competing claims of the Sunnis and the Shiites, or even the Palestinians and the Israelis, has been made much more difficult. In facing up to the challenges of Islamic discontent, comparisons to the cold war are simply false. Yet Bush continues to resort to Manichean rhetoric and scaremongering to silence his critics. To the nation’s shame, the bullying has worked. And as the fiasco in Iraq and the haphazard implementation of “homeland security” make clear, Bush has in fact made a bad situation worse. When will the Democrats, or some even braver soul within Bush’s own party, hold the president accountable? Changing course will not be possible until and unless the administration accepts responsibility for its failures.

February 28, 2006

Published in the 2006-03-10 issue: 
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