Friday, June 5, 2015

All the fault of those liberal Iraqis. Redux.

Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (George Melford, 1921).
Taking advice from David Brooks on Iraq, obviously, is like taking advice from Elizabeth Taylor on keeping your marriage stable. No, wait, that's cheap, Taylor never went around posing as an expert; make that taking advice from David Brooks on keeping your marriage stable. Or on anything.

Today he goes back to a theme he first broached a year ago, that the regime installed in Iraq by the Bush administration is just too damn big-government liberal, with its insistence on centralized decision-making, and what they need is some of that federalism (meaning, as ever, anti-federalism). This time he seems to have been spurred by a report in yesterday's Times noting how the Da'esh organization in Syria exploits the rage of the Sunni majority against the Assad regime to make itself an acceptable alternative:
They are hijacking legitimate demands,” Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist and political analyst from the restive Syrian province of Idlib, said of the Islamic State. He has long argued that without more forceful international action against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and a political program to empower Sunnis, support for the extremists will grow. “This is part of what makes them so dangerous,” he said. “Defeating them needs a comprehensive approach.”
Or as Brooks puts it,
ISIS is hijacking legitimate Sunni grievances. Many Sunnis would apparently rather be ruled by their own kind, even if they are barbaric, than by Shiites, who rob them of their dignity.
Typically not noticing that the paragraph isn't about Iraq. His Iraq column has been unexpectedly hijacked and forced to land in Aleppo!

To be fair, the argument does apply mutatis mutandis to the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq as well. It just doesn't apply very well. It's not in either place a matter so much of robbing them of their dignity, or submitting them to "one-size-fits-all" regulations from the states'-righter "federalist" point of view; in Syria of course it's mainly a matter of mass murder and oppression on a near-genocidal level by the Assad regime (with which we are forced by the consequences of Bush insanity to cooperate), in Iraq it's Prime Minister Abadi failing to keep the commitments he made when he replaced the vile old Maliki last year: as Michael Gordon was reporting three weeks ago,
“Are we part of Iraq?” Rafe al-Essawi, a former deputy prime minister and one of the leading Sunni figures in Iraq, said in an address at the Brookings Institution. Sunnis are looking to see “if there is any benefit in political participation.” Appearing at the same event, Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of the embattled Nineveh Province, complained that the Iraqi government had yet to provide weapons to thousands of Sunni fighters eager to join an eventual military operation to retake Mosul, the provincial capital, from the Islamic State militant group.
But it's not the case that Abadi is forcing health insurance and uniform academic standards on the embattled Sunnis of western Iraq. He's abandoned them. They don't need "federalism" quite as much as they need to not be a combat zone.

Anyway, Brooks is now proposing the revival of the program put forth by then-Senator Joe Biden and the Council on Foreign Relations emeritus president Leslie Gelb in 2006, to partition Iraq. As he puts it,
The grand strategy should be to help the two sides separate as much as possible while containing the radicals on each side. The tactic should be devolution. Give as much local control to different groups in different nations. Let them run their own affairs as much as possible. Encourage them to create space between the sectarian populations so that hatreds can cool.
As much local control as what, copy editor?

There are a few things I think he hasn't quite realized, starting with the fact that it isn't 2006 at the moment. Brooks himself decided to back the Biden plan in June 2007, along with a big Senate majority in a nonbinding resolution that September, but President Bush went with General Petraeus and Surging instead; Brooks doesn't mention that, as usual he' s more or less pretending he wasn't even there. But if you haven't heard, there have been some changes since then.

Joe Biden (condolences on the terrible loss of his son Beau) has been running Iraq policy for the past six years, between the Pentagon (Gates was not pleased) and the State Department (Clinton and Kerry have appreciated the knowledge and diplomatic skill he brings), and he's moved on from the partition plan to something I think is likely to work better in the long run, although the obstacles for now and the bad behavior from so many parties inside Iraq and out make it hard to imagine how long that run is going to be.

If anything, the partition plan has kind of realized itself, as Kurdish regional president Barzani has been saying (Brooks has finally learned that Iraqi "populations are intermingled" just as the ethnic cleansing has been pretty much completed and they aren't intermingled any more). But there were never just two sides, and now there are at least six, so that the partition into three parts has a built-in war or three inside it, especially if you understand that the multiple conflicts in Syria, largely brought about by the 2003 Iraq invasion, are intrinsic parts of the stituation.

I don't know how Brooks thinks the US is going to "give" anybody "local control"—it's not ours to give, in the first place. And I don't know how he thinks the problem is "hatreds", like the whole thing is one big bar fight. The problem is bad people who believe God is backing them, coldly exploiting the power vacuum created when Brooks's friends went in and broke the place.

Leslie Gelb has moved on too, and when last heard from on the subject, in October, was asking the Obama administration to treat Iraq and Syria as a single huge problem, and to build policy out of recognizing the need to work with Iran and Iran's clients to achieve a political settlement (which in my view they have been doing, both of the above, with appropriate quietness, all along). You can disagree with where Biden and Gelb are now, if you want, for all sorts of reasons, but you can't just pop in to advocate their 2006 proposals as if nothing had changed over the past almost decade, that's beyond stupid.

Brooks concludes,
separation and containment are still the least terrible of the bad options. The U.S. could begin by arming Iraqi Sunnis directly and helping Sunnis take back their own homeland from the terrorists, with the assurance that they could actually run the place once they retook it.
That doesn't even rise to the level of being wrong. For one thing, the US has already decided to arm Iraqi Sunnis directly, as was announced a week ago in The Hill after the loss of Ramadi when the Shi'ite troops (or their officers) ran away,
The Pentagon has plans to provide military equipment to Sunni tribal fighters, a Defense spokeswoman said on Wednesday, a shift from its current policy to provide the equipment only through the central government in Baghdad.
They were already arming the tribes in theory, but the Abadi government wasn't carrying out its responsibilities under the plan. On the other hand, it's not the case that the Sunni tribes fear they won't be allowed to govern themselves; Baghdad hasn't shown any interest in providing them with any government at all. The problem is that they won't be able to "run the place once they retake it" any more than a bunch of Arkansas Second Amendment freaks could run their state after the devolution wingers are always calling for, because they haven't got anything to live on, no oil and no agriculture and no imaginable industry; they're not a sustainable unit on their own unless they conquer some oil wells, as the Da'esh has done. So they will be dependent on Baghdad for a long time no matter what, or else they won't be "contained" (one of the problems with the Brooks approach is that he can't say what or whom the objects of containment are going to be—go back and look at the paragraph and try to pin it down, I'm pretty sure he wants to "contain" the whole country in imperial pieces, but it's a pretty tall order unless you start another war, and a sure failure if you do).

I don't know why I'm even bothering to argue with Brooks here. He's as ignorant in principle as he was 13 years ago (even if he's caught up to 2007, the rest of us are eight years ahead), and he wasn't relevant when he started. I'm supposing his agenda is making a claim that he somehow still has a right to talk about Iraq because time-has-passed and emotions-have-cooled, but he never had one. This is Driftglass's beat—exposing the great Brooksian Project of pretending the Bush administration didn't exist, and therefore I Never Failed—not mine. But I do get so pissed off I have to say something.

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