Sunday, April 23, 2006

As Iraq fractures along multiple religious and ethnic lines, only one force seems to be holding it together: American involvement.

'Compassionate Colonialism'
As Iraq fractures along multiple religious and ethnic lines, only one force seems to be holding it together: American involvement. So what might this future look like?
By Michael Hirsh

April 19, 2006 - When most Americans look at Iraq, they see a frightening faraway chaos, howling on the horizon like a desert dust storm. But U.S. Army Spc. Rocio Lucero has been in the eye of the storm, and she knows its nature as well as anyone. As we sit in an Iraqi police station in the Bab al Sheikh district of Baghdad, she looks around and notes casually, without a smidgeon of nostalgia, that this dingy office was her home for a year. From the beginning of the invasion in March 2003 until March of the following year, her military police unit was based here 24-7, ducking mortars and regularly taking fire.

Now her platoon comes here to check on things every few days. Their mission has been narrowed to backing up Iraqi police patrols that drive out in front, 100 yards ahead, while trying to persuade the locals that their own government, not Washington, now supplies their guns and uniforms. The insurgents and the Shiite death squads still grip many neighborhoods, but in between bombings and shootings, the throngs on Palestine Street—a main boulevard through Baghdad—continue to crowd into well-stocked shops that are open late into the evening. It's a far cry from Lucero's early days, when there were no police at all. "It's coming along," she says.

Yes, America's remaking of Iraq is a mess. But it's a mess with a slight forward motion; nothing about it is pretty or safe. To get to the Bab al Sheikh police station—this little patch of order surrounded by concrete chicanes—our convoy wends a crooked path through several "hot" zones, nerves on hair-trigger alert. At one point Staff Sgt. Ruben Diaz, looking to me very much like a fearless lion tamer entering a cage full of man-killers, gets out and leads the convoy on foot through a large Iraqi crowd. This is Diaz's fourth overseas deployment, beginning with Kosovo. When we get back to the Green Zone the veneer of courage-under-fire gives way to hoots of relief. Another day, another reprieve from death or maiming. "Whoooo!" Diaz shouts. "It's like Russian roulette, every day." As we pass through the well-lit checkpoint, Lucero says, "The lights of hope.”

What's clear to me after two weeks here is that despite some success at handing off matters to the Iraqis, progress is so frustratingly slow that we Americans may never be able to leave. The new Iraq is growing up around our presence and is as dependent as a child. Nothing illustrates this better than the endless bickering over the new Iraqi government. This is what the Americans and British have been calling for, agitating for, and banking all their hopes on. If only the Iraqis would "get governing," President Bush said recently, then the U.S. withdrawal timetable and hopes for a Mideast model could still be borne out.

Yet the more the parliamentary stalemate drags on—and make no mistake, even if a new prime minister is announced soon, the haggling will continue over myriad cabinet posts—the more it becomes clear the center may not hold in Iraq without a long-term American presence. Not necessarily the 140,000 troops we have now, but at least a core force that's left behind. Why? Because the centrifugal forces that are tearing the country apart are moving faster than our laggard efforts to keep up. On the ground here, you can feel this society fissuring every day, as you watch the Americans desperately try to paper over the cracks. And what the American people need to understand is that there is really only one dominant cohering force left in the country: the American presence.

We need to adjust our expectations accordingly. After a four-month political vacuum, what we're seeing is no longer just "sectarian war"—the catchword of the day—between Shiites and Sunnis, with the Kurds sitting it out for the moment. The new emerging issue (it's always something) is tensions within the sects, among Shiite groups and Sunni groups, or intra-sectarian war. Hence the badly misnamed United Iraqi Alliance, the group of Shiite parties that won nearly half the votes in last December's election, has been at each other's throats for months, unable to agree on a prime minister. The Sunni community too is engaged in vicious infighting (and in some cases actual firefights) over support for the insurgency. The different government ministries are devolving into mini-fiefdoms, each protected by its own mysterious Facilities Protection Service, a guard force that the Americans intended to be about 4,000 in number but has mushroomed on its own to an estimated 150,000.

Arab commentators typically raise fears of the "Lebanonization" of Iraq, or prolonged civil war. But that's not quite what is happening here. The difference is that Lebanon, like Bosnia, was a small space, and each group fought over the same tract of land. Iraq has a large space into which there's plenty of room for separation (except for Baghdad itself, which could in fact come to resemble Beirut). What may be a bigger fear than Lebanonization—groups fighting for the same space—is atomization, a breakdown to the warlord and fief level. "You could have Iraq 1914," says a U.S. military analyst, referring to the old Mesopotamia that was organized around three major cities, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, before the British created Iraq out of whole cloth in the aftermath of World War I. "But you could also have Somalia in the 1990s." The danger in other words is that Iraq's devolution into "regionalization" doesn't stop there but keeps on going, breaking up slowly like fractured glass.

The logical conclusion is that Iraq may no longer be able to exist, as Iraq, without the glue of American involvement—in politics, in security, in Iraq's very sense of national identity. This is especially true considering that any new unity government is virtually doomed to be weak. The prime ministerial candidate, a compromise choice, is certain to be hamstrung as well by the vested interests that chose him. Only if he were a charismatic figure with extraordinary persuasive powers could he transcend that fate. But no one currently in the running for the job fits that description.

So perhaps this isn't going to be a model of democracy after all. Instead it's more likely to be—if it works out—a model for post-colonial imperialism. It's a new kind of colonialism, in other words, one that dare not speak its name. But let's give it one anyway: "compassionate colonialism." Perhaps this is the inevitable evolution of Bush's world view from a stay-at-home "compassionate conservative"—which is how he began his presidency—to a change-the-world neocon convert.

How does compassionate colonialism work? First, you create an Iraqi army that will never be able to stand on its own (the postwar Japan and Germany model)—an army as addicted to U.S. logistical support and know-how as any junkie on heroin. Washington just recently awarded humvees to the Iraqi Army as its "heavy armor." But forget about tanks ("[The Iraqis] shoot at everything and anything," says a frustrated Sgt. Diaz). American helicopters and planes rule the skies here, and that's not going to change for many years. Then, you insist on a friendly government, while letting the Iraqis think it is they who are deciding to be friendly (though this "good will" is driven by the always hovering threat of a withdrawal of support). And finally, you give your companies an inside track on long-term oil contracts—again by noting that their presence in Iraq guarantees U.S. support—without actually expropriating the oil.

It is an interesting, but too little noted, fact that Iraq's borders were always defined by oil—today more than ever. (Some geologists now say the biggest potential fields may not lie in the oil-producing south and north but in the Sunni middle). After World War I, the British, French and Russians were all scrambling to grab the land where the stuff was thought to exist. Kurdistan, especially, was on the verge of being granted independence by the British after World War I. But as historian William R. Polk writes in his fine 2005 primer, "Understanding Iraq," "What would ultimately decide the fate of Kurdistan had little to do with Kurds; it would be decided by the fact that a huge deposit of oil was known to exist in what might have become a separate Kurdish state." As a result, the British at the last minute simply lumped Kurdistan into British-controlled Iraq. "Oil made Kurdistan Iraqi," Polk writes. And oil, while it was not the reason for this latest war (or perhaps only a small part of the reason), may end up being the reason we too decide to stay and force Iraq to remain Iraq. That's OK with me, I guess, as long as it's OK with Spc. Lucero and Staff Sgt. Diaz and the others who are putting their lives on the line for this cause.