Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

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.


Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

The New York Times

January 25, 2007

Breaking the Clinch


Iraq is at the beginning of a civil war fought using the tactics of genocide, and it has all the conditions to get much worse. As a Newsweek correspondent, Christian Caryl, wrote recently from Baghdad, ''What's clear is that we're far closer to the beginning of this cycle of violence than to its end.'' As John Burns of The Times said on ''Charlie Rose'' last night, ''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.''
Iraq already has the warlord structures that caused mass murder in Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Violent, stupid men who would be the dregs of society under normal conditions rise amid the trauma, chaos and stress and become revered leaders.

They command squads of young men who leave the moral universe and have no future in a peacetime world. They kill for fun, faith and profit -- because they find it more rewarding to massacre and loot than to farm or labor. They are manipulated by political leaders with a savage zero-sum mind-set, who know they must kill or be killed, and who are instituting strategic ethnic cleansing campaigns to expand their turf.
Worse, Iraq already has the psychological conditions that have undergirded the great bloodbaths of recent years. Iraqi minds, according to the most sensitive reporting, have already been rewired by the experiences of trauma and extreme stress.
Some people become hyperaggressive and turn into perfect killers. Others endure a phased mental shutdown that looks like severe depression. They lose their memory and become passive and fatalistic. They become perfect victims.
Amid the turmoil, the complexity of life falls away, and things are reduced to stark polarities: Sunni-Shiite or Shiite-Sunni, human-subhuman. Once this mental descent has begun, it is possible to kill without compunction.
In Rwanda, for example, the journalist Jean Hatzfeld interviewed a Hutu man who had killed his Tutsi neighbor. ''At the fatal instant,'' the man recalled, ''I did not see in him what he had been before. His features were indeed similar to those of the person I knew, but nothing firmly reminded me that I had lived beside him for a long time.''
The weakness of the Bush surge plan is that it relies on the Maliki government to somehow be above this vortex. But there are no impartial institutions in Iraq, ready to foster reconciliation. As ABC's Jonathan Karl notes in The Weekly Standard, the Shiite finance ministries now close banks that may finance Sunni investments. The Saadrist health ministries dismiss Sunni doctors. The sectarian vortex is not fomented by extremists who are appendages to society. The vortex is through and through.
The Democratic approach, as articulated by Senator Jim Webb -- simply get out of Iraq ''in short order'' -- is a howl of pain that takes no note of the long-term political and humanitarian consequences. Does the party that still talks piously about ending bloodshed in Darfur really want to walk away from a genocide the U.S. is partly responsible for? Are U.S. troops going to be pulled back to secure bases to watch passively while rivers of Iraqi blood lap at their gates? How many decades will Americans be fighting to quell the cycle of regional violence set loose by a transnational Sunni-Shiite explosion?
I for one have become disillusioned with dreams of transforming Iraqi society from the top down. But it's not too late to steer the situation in a less bad direction. Increased American forces can do good -- they are still, as David Ignatius says, the biggest militia on the block -- provided they are directed toward realistic goals.
There is one option that does approach Iraqi reality from the bottom up. That option recognizes that Iraq is broken and that its people are fleeing their homes to survive. It calls for a ''soft partition'' of Iraq in order to bring political institutions into accord with the social facts -- 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. When the various groups in Bosnia finally separated, it became possible to negotiate a cold (if miserable) peace.
Soft partition has been advocated in different ways by Joe Biden and Les Gelb, by Michael O'Hanlon and Edward Joseph, by Pauline Baker at the Fund for Peace, and in a more extreme version, by Peter Galbraith.
On Sunday, I'll give further publicity to their recommendations.

10:31 AM, January 25, 2007


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