August 25, 2005

Night Draws Near

Spencer Ackerman's review of Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near draws out a few of the books more important points, and is worth reading. For one, Shadid gives the sense that Ayatollah Sistani no longer sits at the center of the Shiite community—he may garner respect, but Muqtada al-Sadr's political antics over the past year have launched the young cleric to prominence. Especially since Muqtada wants the US out now while Sistani, from all appearances, doesn't. Now I don't know what to make of the recent clashes between rival Shiite militias, but it seems very likely that the two groups in quest—SCIRI and the Sadrists, both Iranian-style extremists—will become Iraq's dominant Shiite groups long into the future. Eventually, Sistani will die, and with him, possibly, the dream that the an-Najaf religious community will become some sort "moderating" influence on the Shiite world.

Ackerman/Shadid also make the case for why the Iraq war, unlike (some) other wars, had such a small margin for error:
Night Draws Near will not resolve the debate over whether the Iraq War was destined to fail. At times, Shadid suggests potential mitigating factors: if only U.S. troops had immediately provided public security, if only a massive aid package had arrived, etc. But, as Iraqis tell him, Arabs are taught from birth that the suffering of the Palestinians is the ultimate responsibility of the United States, Israel’s patron, meaning that the United States has had very little margin for the errors that are inevitable in occupations.
Would have been nice to know beforehand, eh? But "Arab perceptions of the United States" probably didn't make it into the prewar briefing room—certainly not the ones where the hawks predicted flowers and candy. Ignorance like this is exactly why we never should have gone in. On the other hand, let's not pretend these sort of "misunderstandings" are just a Bush administration problem, limited to people named Feith or Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz. For a fun exercise sometime, read the 1995 Dayton Accords, negotiated in part by Richard Holbrooke and Gen. Wesley Clark. It's hard to decide which administration was more misguided about the region it was dealing with, Clinton's or Bush's. Okay, fine, Bush's by quite a bit, but still. As it happened, the fallout from the mess in the Balkans turned out to be less severe than that in Iraq, but chalking the difference up to competence seems like a dangerous mistake. Assume that all American governments will intervene abroad with breathtaking ignorance in tow.

Meanwhile, Ackerman argues that a prolonged US occupation will increase the chance of civil war: "[Shadid's book makes] clear that the longer the United States occupies Iraq, the greater is the chance that the Sunnis will transfer their hatred to the occupation’s perceived Shia and Kurdish beneficiaries, leading to even greater bloodshed." That's the sense I get, too, from reading Shadid's book, and it's a strong case for pulling out as quickly as possible, or at least to announce right now that we're leaving ASAP and plopping the Shiites and Kurds down on their own feet. (That seems to be what the military wants, at any rate.) Doing so might—might—avert some of that "greater bloodshed." Or perhaps inter-sectarian hatred's at its peak and anything we do won't make a shred of difference.
-- Brad Plumer 10:04 AM || ||