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The Iraq War and Academia’s Faustian Pact

How have warnings of geopolitical chaos in Iraq proven prescient?

September 19, 2007

How have warnings of geopolitical chaos in Iraq proven prescient?

Our soldiers in Iraq have been brave. With some honorable exceptions, our politicians have been cowardly. Belatedly, the scholarly community is now speaking uncomfortable truths about the Middle East.

When the war’s opening shots were fired in 2003, a few scholars joined the United States’ weak and fragmented domestic opposition to the war, perhaps because only tenured academics could protest without fear of reprisal.

We professors have a Faustian pact with civil society. In return for the right to think the unthinkable, we accept miserly salaries, minimal social status and the sullen realization that no one listens — unless there is going to be a quiz.

While most Middle East academic specialists were privately horrified, however, there was only a limited amount of public pre-war dissent from the professoriat. In the post-9/11 furor, opposition to the war may have seemed unpatriotic.

Universities reward professors for winning grants and writing articles in peer-reviewed journals, not for irritating the politicians upon whom we depend for financing. In our desire to connect with the communities we serve, universities may have grown uncomfortable with our historic mission of speaking truth to the powerful.

Nor was anyone particularly interested in our views. With the unhappy exception of Princeton’s pro-war neo-con, Bernard Lewis, Middle Eastern specialists were unable to attract the attention of either the media or the government. This is understandable.

Lacking a knack for the sound-bite, professors do not make good television commentators. We are accustomed to lecturing uninterruptedly for an hour or more. On television, if you are very lucky, you get ninety seconds to explain the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites before the network cuts to a commercial.

Instead, the media consulted the usual think-tank talking heads, most of whom are self-appointed “national security” experts with little deep knowledge of Middle Eastern languages and religions and political passions.

After four years of war, Middle Eastern academic specialists are still generally shunned by government and media, but this scholarly community is now speaking with unaccustomed unity, clarity and vigor, albeit mostly in academic publications. And they are painting a portrait of the Middle East that is significantly at odds with the visions of both Republican and Democratic leaders.

What are the scholars saying? From the very beginning, virtually all students of the Middle East saw Iraq as an artificial and ethnically fragmented time-bomb of a country. The loathsome Saddam was an inevitable by-product of Iraqi society rather than its creator, the pin in this Mesopotamian hand grenade.

With his skillful and remorseless use of domestic terror, Saddam monopolized wealth and political power in the hands of a tiny and secularized Sunni minority, despite the fact that most Iraqis were neither secular nor Sunni.

It was a kind of institutionalized and systemic armed robbery that could only be accomplished by the determined application of violence and fear. In March of 2003, we Americans and Britons, collectively, pulled the Saddam pin and threw it away. When you release the handle, the hand grenade will explode.

Most Middle Eastern academic specialists agree with the Democratic Party that U.S. military forces in Iraq, “surged” or not, will be unable to stabilize this turbulent and hostile land, much less deliver democracy.

American public support for the war is plummeting so dramatically that withdrawal of U.S. forces at some point in the short- or medium-term is inevitable, whatever the consequences for the Middle East.

The U.S. presence in Iraq is barely moderating a burgeoning ethnic conflict, but our departure will allow the explosion of a full-scale five-sided civil war involving Kurds, secular Shi’ites, Islamist Shi’ites, nationalist Sunnis and jihadist Sunnis influenced by al-Qaeda — a militia-driven conflict that most experts agree could last a decade or more.

If we are looking for historical comparisons, it is worth noting that violent Sunni Arab resistance to Israel began in 1947, 60 years ago.

Students of the region perceive the emergence of an inescapable no-win situation. If U.S. public opinion translates into pro-peace votes in the 2008 election, a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress will withdraw the bulk of our troops, barring some unforeseeable event like another major terrorist attack on U.S. territory.

Even if a Republican manages to capture the White House, Congress will almost certainly be controlled by an enhanced majority of Democrats who will use legislative means to shut down the war. As the last U.S. combat units depart, Iraq will dissolve into chaos, perhaps accompanied by much of the Middle East.

Irrespective of party, American political leaders are positioning themselves to survive the domestic political consequences of the coming catastrophe, rather than dealing with the catastrophe itself. The Democrats are insisting upon a phased withdrawal that would begin in 2007 — and this timing can hardly be accidental.

If the departure of U.S. troops sparks a Mesopotamian meltdown, Mr. Bush and his colleagues will still be in office, available to take the blame and suffer the electoral consequences of disaster when voters go to the polls in November 2008.

Reluctant to go down with this particular sinking ship, a significant number of Republican heavy-weights who supported the war when it was popular are now criticizing its “mismanagement.”

If staying in Iraq amounts to the perpetuation of a slow catastrophe, and departure could bring on a quick catastrophe, what kind of minimal options do we have?

First, it would be both useful and healthy to acknowledge openly that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a grotesque mistake and perhaps even a crime, dishonestly sold to a gullible public during the post-9/11 hysteria.

The war was both illegal under international law and a strategic error of monumental proportions. The current crisis may have been exacerbated by Iraqi political failures, Iranian interference and epic mismanagement by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, but the war was never really winnable. We lost the day we thought we won.

Second, our political leaders need to let the public know that there is going to be no happy ending. Our endgame options are severely limited, and it is the function of political parties to offer alternative public policy choices — not to recite fairy tales.

A future President Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama might manage the catastrophe better than the hopeless George W. Bush, but the next president is not going to find any good options on the table. Our troops will come out soon because of the way our political system works.

When we leave, a bad situation will become worse because of Iraq’s political culture. We lack any real ability to change these facts on the ground, and the phrase “culpability without capability” has been making the rounds of the academic community.

Third, the United States needs to devise ways of saving what little is salvageable from the situation in an orderly and coherent fashion. The great danger is that we will suffer some Iraqi version of the October 1993 “Mogadishu Moment” when the massacre of U.S. troops led to the abrupt abandonment of the U.S. position in Somalia.

Some equivalent incident in Iraq might create an overwhelmingly powerful public demand for a precipitous withdrawal, complete with the American ambassador departing via helicopter from the roof of a besieged U.S. embassy.

Arguments can be made for leaving a small residual military force in Kurdistan to help protect the one corner of Iraq where we are actually welcome. Once the Iraqis are clearly aware that we are departing on a fixed timetable, they may improve their performance. If this improvement is significant, we may wish to leave a few troops behind to train and equip, but not to fight.

If and when the Iraqi government collapses, we need to honor our responsibility to that large cadre of Iraqi government servants, translators and others who have played Sancho Panza to our Don Quixote.

We should provide a safe haven for these people, rather than deserting them as we did our South Vietnamese allies in 1975. This may involve a considerable number of angry Iraqis coming to the United States as immigrants.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that there are two million Iraqis already in exile, and just under two million internally displaced persons. Do we have a responsibility for these people? Or are they merely collateral damage?

We need to get our troops out safely and treat them decently when they return. With a few unhappy exceptions, American servicemen in Iraq have performed well under impossible conditions. When they come home, many of them will have financial, physical and psychological problems, and we will need to care for them appropriately.

And finally, as we abandon the military solution, we should shift to humanitarian operations, something we should have done at the very beginning. Data researched by Johns Hopkins University and published in January 2006 by The Lancet suggested that Iraq is suffering from a public health emergency of Biblical proportions.

A widely reported Save the Children report of May 2007 establishes that the Under Five Mortality Rate (U5MR) has tripled from 50 Iraqi children per thousand in 1990 to 150 per thousand today, which amounts to about 122,000 very young Iraqis dying per year.

Helping the Iraqi medical profession deal with this public health catastrophe would be much cheaper than surging more combat troops into Baghdad, and would win more hearts and minds than shooting people. There is a primal, universal truth about parents, Iraqi or American. Hurt my child and I hate you to the end of my days. Save my child and I cherish you forever.

Our endgame moves are far more limited than our political leaders would like us to believe, but we still have a few options, and we need to plan them carefully and quickly. The Mogadishu Moment could be only a minute away.