David Brooks; Reinventing the Wheel
David Brooks writes in his column today that Iraq should undergo a ‘soft partition’ (The New York Times, ‘Breaking the Clinch,’ January 25, 2007—full text in the comments section).
Brooks makes the case that Iraq is currently in the opening stages of a Rwanda-style civil war. For this, he cites, among others (…all non-Iraqis), someone of the stature of John F. Burns, the long-serving New York Times bureau chief in Baghdad, who is quoted as saying (on the Charlie Rose show): “Friends of mine who are Iraqis—Shiite, Sunni, Kurd—all foresee a civil war on a scale with bloodshed that would absolutely dwarf what we’re seeing now.”
Has anyone seen what Burns looks like recently? He is occasionally hosted on CNN’s Wolf Blitzer show. There is something funny about his hair; and it cannot be dismissed off hand as run-of-the-mill British/Canadian eccentricity. I mean, I have a hard time taking anyone with a clownish hairdo seriously. It would be like taking policy advice from Bozo. And then, what Iraqi “friends” is he talking about? Burns is infamous among Iraqi stringers working for western news bureaus as being callous, demeaning and downright rude and imperious to Iraqis.
Brooks’ column is rife with oversimplifications: everything is boiled down to Sunnis vs. Shi'as, which seems as far as his intellectual curiosity on Iraq is willing to take him. This is a symptom that many commentators suffer from when writing about Iraq: when you can’t make sense of the details, just ignore them. So then, “the Shiite finance ministries now close banks that may finance Sunni investments.” Come again? Do you know anything about how Iraq is running? How contracts are being awarded? How banks function? It isn’t a pretty picture, but the Sunnis are certainly not getting shafted. Corruption hovers above sectarianism, and when anti-corruption measures are taken, the corrupt claim to be victims of sectarianism. An example would be Aiham Alsamarrae, a Sunni whose wife is a Shi'a lady from Najaf. Details, shmetails!
Then, as a way of fixing things, Brooks gives us the Grand Idea: Soft Partition. Just what is Soft Partition supposed to look like? Brooks promises more in next Sunday’s column, but for now, he tells us about a “central government to handle oil revenues and manage the currency, etc., but a country divided into separate sectarian areas to reduce contact and conflict.”
Yeah, it’s called federalism, with a healthy dollop of central control over resources and national security. The Iraqi opposition, which at the time encompassed most of the major players on the scene today, agreed on this back in 1992. After liberation, these ideas were worked into the constitution, which passed by a two thirds majority in a nationwide referendum. Now, these clauses are getting fine-tuned by the parliament, and are being debated and worked out; the oil law is almost ready, for example. All this has already been done, Mr. Brooks, and it didn’t need your gracious prompting.
Maybe if your newspaper had done a better job of covering these developments and highlighting why they’re so important, then you wouldn’t have gotten so ahead of yourself.
Brooks promises us that he will discuss the ideas of Soft Partition as enunciated by the likes of Senator Joe Biden and Peter Galbraith. I wrote a column (read it here, ‘What About the Druze?’) back when Joe ‘Hair-Plug’ Biden first made his ideas known. (On a side note, you have read Dana Milbank’s hilarious article on Biden and his proclivity to be full of himself in today’s Washington Post).
Peter Galbraith, a man I respect for all that he’s done for Iraq (…I even volunteered for his failed congressional bid), should be introduced today as a lobbyist for the Kurds. Today, this is his money-making profession, and his ideas about Iraqi partition (see his book, The End of Iraq, 2006) should be judged in that light.
Just one more unrelated thing I saw today in the NYTimes: a macabre practical joke by an Iraqi private probably led the embedded reporters to write a negative story about Iraqi troops. Damien Cave and James Glanz (‘In a New Joint U.S.-Iraqi Patrol, the Americans Go First,’ January 25, 2007) write that “One Iraqi soldier in the alley pointed his rifle at an American reporter and pulled the trigger. There was only a click: the weapon had no ammunition. The soldier laughed at his joke.”
One can see how a reporter would be spooked by this. And one can also see the psychological cascade that would lead the traumatized reporter to exact revenge by badmouthing the Iraqi troops. Memo to the Iraqi Defense Minister: Remind your officers that western reporters have brittle egos. No more horsing around with guns.