Monday, January 22, 2007

The fall to barbarism

A day doesn't go by without some sort of killing, bombing or other attrocity in Iraq. Normally I don't mention them, since I have little to add beyond the excellent Informed Comment website.

However, on this occasion I will comment. This is how a relatively modern (by Third World standards) country sinks into barbarism: first the upper and middle class flee the country, and then those few who remain become targets to be killed. Last Tuesday, unknown terrorists used a car bomb and a suicide bomber to kill at least seventy students, mostly girls, at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University. Mustansiriya University is one of the oldest universities in the world, founded in 1232 by the Caliph al-Mustansir. (The University hasn't had an uninterrupted existence for the entire 770 years, but even so, that's quite impressive.)

As Juan Cole explains, Iraq's status as a (relatively) literate, educated nation is not just at risk but grievously harmed. Education, particularly of women, is essential for any nation wanting to climb out of poverty. Unfortunately, Iraq's women have gone from a respectable 75% literacy rate (by Middle East standards) to a cripplingly low 25%. With terrorists now deliberately targeting University women for kidnapping and murder, and now bombings, few families are prepared to let their daughters go to school, let alone college. This bodes badly for the future of Iraq. So much for Bush's vision of Iraq as a shining beacon of democracy and civilization in the Middle East.

Cole explains:

We should be clear why these bombings are taking place. It is because Bush's policy in Iraq was total victory, along with his Shiite and Kurdish allies, over the previously dominant Sunni Arabs. Bush did this thing as a zero sum game, one where there is only one pie and if one person gets a bigger piece, someone else gets a tiny sliver. The Sunni Arabs-- among the best educated and most capable people in the country-- were offered the tiny sliver. They won't accept US troops in their country for the most part, and won't accept reduction to a small powerless minority. They have succeeded in provoking the Shiites to form guerrilla groups and engage in reprisal killings, as well, as a way of destabilizing the country. Bush's allies won't share power and wealth with them, and Bush himself keeps pushing for what he calls "victory." Today is what his victory looks like after nearly 4 years, and it is highly unlikely to look different any time soon.

The mess of Iraq is what happens when hard-nosed, hard-hearted, hard-headed so-called "realists" treat international relations as a game of football: if one side wins, the other must lose. Only a small minority of non-trivial interactions between people and countries are zero-sum in this way. Virtually all of human history has been the slow but steady increase in the number of positive-sum interactions, and yet world leaders who treat international relations as a poker game (or worse, a boxing match) are treated as intelligent "realists" who understand how the world works. And those who understand the principles of cooperation and compromise are denigrated as soft, touchy-feelie, fuzzy-headed, "Give Peace A Chance"-singing, naive liberals.

What nonsense this is. Consider Iraq's hypothetical weapons of mass destruction. I think we all agree that, had Iraq really been in league with terrorists (they weren't) and had they actually had WMD (they didn't) it would have been worrying, dangerous or even deadly for Western democracies.

Imagine that everything the Bush administration said was true actually was true. Which solution would have been smarter -- for the US to shoulder the burden on their own by insisting on a unilateral decision to invade? Of for them to cooperate with their allies, make it an international effort, so that the burden was shared by the benefactors?

Daddy Bush handled the first Iraq War the second way, and look how well it turned out: a clear plan with a clear mission. (You may not agree with the mission, think it didn't go far enough, but they did what they set out to do.) The UN was, if not completely united, at least united enough.

Junior Bush, on the other hand, told the rest of the world "my way or the highway" and, predictably, the rest of the world (with a few exceptions) left the US to carry the can. The US pays the cost of making the world safe (ha!) for democracy, effectively saying "Stand back France, we'll throw our boys into the quagmire of Iraq so you can be safe! No, don't thank us, it's a dirty job but somebody has to do it."

And that, according to the "realists" and neo-cons and hawks, is the smart solution.

On the other hand, if we assume the American government knew what they were doing, then it puts a different perspective on the whole sorry story. If the talk about democracy and international security was just a cover for an old-fashioned power grab -- controlling the oil -- then it makes sense for the US to have treated it as a zero-sum game. Control of the oil is zero-sum: Iraq had it, now they don't and America has it instead. Security, peace, trade and democracy are all non-zero, and it is stupid for America to bleed for the benefit of others without expecting them to cooperate in return. A cooperative, multinational force grudgingly invited by Saddam into Iraq would have given the nations of the world security, but would not have given the USA control of the oil.

If the neo-cons knew what they were doing, then talk of combating terrorism was a sham, and the chaos and instability caused by the invasion were side-effects: America gets the benefits (control of the strategic oil fields) and the whole world shares the costs of terrorism -- especially those Iraqi women blown up for the heinous act of trying to get an education.

Are the neo-cons behind this stupid, wicked war stupid or wicked? Me, my money is on both.

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