November 23, 2007

Quiet Days in Baghdad

It is a right-wing canard that those on the "left" (I love how we use these political designations borrowed directly from the despised French) revel in the daily reports of mass carnage from Iraq. No doubt among the true political die-hards on the liberal side, especially those who in some way have tied their livelihoods to opposition to the Bush regime, there is an element of barely-suppressed glee at a picture of another red and black cloud erupting on a Baghdad street. I have never felt that way myself. I have always hoped that Iraqis might some day live in peace and prosperity. The idea that thousands of Iraqis, men, women, children, have been slaughtered in the anarchy unleashed by the American invasion has always made me sick. As it would be for us, each one of those deaths was endured by someone with one life.

So if things are genuinely quieter in Iraq now, that's okay with me. It might discomfit factions of the Democratic opposition, especially those like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer who have in some sense entangled themselves in the simplistic calculations of Bush himself. If violence has decreased, then the war was always a good idea, according to Bush. I saw this coming a long time ago, if I may say so now. That's what the war had become "about;" Reid insisted the war was "lost," but those words can have only one meaning to the barely-discerning general American public: the mighty U.S. military had been defeated in battle. The conniving George Bush, whose own intellectual limitations place him closer to the general perceptions of average Americans, saw his opening. Of course, we hadn't "lost." There was no combination of Iraqi regular army, home-grown insurgents or foreign jihadists who could actually defeat the American military. And John Q. Public measures success or failure by one "metric," and by one metric only: how many American soldiers are being killed.

I imagine this statistic can be manipulated. For example, the unctuous and importuning little commander on the ground, Gen. David Petraeus, could limit American casualties simply by curtailing street patrols where Americans get blown up. He could use aerial bombing more, and there is evidence this is exactly what he's doing. He could arm and bribe local Sunnis into directing their general antipathy toward changed circumstances against foreign jihadists and "al-Qaeda in Iraq," and this is announced official policy. All of these things dial down the American death-o-meter

Still, things do seem generally quieter in Baghdad and elsewhere, and that's a good thing that may be separate and apart from anything the Americans have done or not done. I would imagine, for example, that a young Iraqi insurgent, Sunni or Shiite, would simply tire of battle. It's been going on for several years, and it's a lousy way to live. It's made thousands of American soldiers completely crazy and dysfunctional, and compared to an Iraqi fighter, Americans have layers and layers of social and medical support. From the Sunni perspective, the ascendancy of the Shia is now a fait accompli; they greatly outnumber the Sunni and they dominate the army, police and militias. One of their number, Nouri al-Maliki, an old anti-Sunni guerrilla fighter, leads the notional Iraqi government, and no progress is being made toward power-sharing. The Sunni, on the other hand, have consolidated their control of western Iraq, and the independence of Kurdistan in the north (where they don't even bother to fly the Iraqi flag over government buildings) is another accomplished fact. So the remaining question, really, is Baghdad, a city which is likely to be embroiled in turmoil much as other multi-ethnic and -sectarian cities in the Middle East, including Jerusalem and Beirut, have been for decades. It's quieter, but it will never be completely quiet.

So maybe before too long we can actually assess the Iraq War as a crystallized experience, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It was a war the true purpose of which, gaining enhanced access to huge oil reserves, was camouflaged behind talk of weapons, al-Qaeda and regime change. After a relatively easy military victory (not unexpected), the occupation was completely botched, leading to the loss of thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and maybe $2 trillion in war-related costs before all is said and done. America, it might be said, has tremendous brute force but little finesse, as can be confirmed in any American parking lot of any NFL football stadium a few hours before kickoff. Loutish? Yes. Competent? No. The opportunity cost to the USA in spending all that money on one project, the true purpose of which has not been realized, is real and gigantic (possibly decisive), but no one will ever bother to measure it. We don't do body counts, and we don't calculate squandered resources.

More likely, in this dumbed-down country of ours, the Iraq war will be chalked up as a "win" for George W. Bush. To figure it out any other way is just too subtle and too mentally taxing. But I'm still glad if an Iraqi family somewhere in Baghdad today can enjoy their Friday as much as I'm enjoying mine.

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