Pierre Tristam: Iraq’s Cambodian Jungle
Iraq’s Cambodian Jungle
‘Nation-Building’ Fueled Civil War
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks
\February 24, 2006
The standard line about Iraq right now is that the country is on the verge of civil war. That “simmering hatreds” are boiling to the surface. That “sectarianism” is to blame. All those regurgitated clichés of the Orientalist canon may well be true. But what convenient detractions from a three-year-old certainty rendered by the American invasion. What ideal way to shift the blame, indemnify the invader, and make this third anniversary of Iraq’s “liberation,” approaching at the speed of a panicked Bradley Fighting Vehicle, look like a job gone awry only because Iraqis couldn’t get along. Sure, the destruction of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra, allegedly by Sunni militants, was not going to get a kinder reception than the destruction of the 16 th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya, in India, by Hindus, in December 1992. That barbaric eruption led to riots across India and Pakistan that left more than 1,000 people dead and renewed fears of a sectarian breakdown on the subcontinent, possibly even another reason for India and Pakistan to go at it a fourth time in six decades. The fears were exaggerated. The discovery that religion is south Asia’s radioactive variant was not. It’s that very variant the neo-cons ignored when they celebrated the invasion of Iraq as a turning point in Mideastern destiny.
It has been a turning point, with the wrong assumptions at gunpoint. The problem wasn’t Iraq’s WMDs or Iran’s nukes. It’s the region’s religious warheads. There’s no easier way to arm them than with Western-fueled resentment, no quicker way to set them off than with the permanent reminder of an alien army of provocateurs, the same Anglo provocateurs whose boots not so long ago, in every grandfather’s memory, flattened the culture with colonialism and called it progress. Conversely, there are more credible, more Wilsonian ways to diffuse the warheads, beginning with Woodrow Wilson’s aversion to assuming mandates and protectorates over regions better left to sort out their issues on their own, but with available help when requested.
That’s the approach Francis Fukuyama, the ex-neocon, is now advocating in his belated berating of the neocon catastrophe in Iraq: “[T]he United States does not get to decide when and where democracy comes about. By definition, outsiders can’t ‘impose’ democracy on a country that doesn’t want it; demand for democracy and reform must be domestic. Democracy promotion is therefore a long-term and opportunistic process that has to await the gradual ripening of political and economic conditions to be effective.” In other words, the so-called “liberal” approach advocated all along by those who don’t see bombs as quite compatiblke with democratic nation-building..
The strength of the West in relation to the East has never been in its impositions and colonialisms. That’s when it’s been at its weakest, at its most repugnant, morally and politically. Western strength has been derived, paradoxically, from restraint: by valuing example above force, persuasion above imposition. (World War I and II were not battles between East and West but primarily within the West.) That strength, at the moment, has been made null and void by the American occupation of Iraq—by Abu Ghraib, by Guantanamo, by the parody of democracy in Afghanistan and the emerging tragedy of democracy in Iraq, Iran and Palestine, where extremism is not only ascendant, but triumphant and virtually unrivaled.
Iraq is not “on the verge” of civil war. It has been at war the moment Americans replaced one tyranny with a pluralism of tyrannies three years ago. Iran blamed the explosion in Samarra on Israel and the United States. Israel, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with Iraq. But American responsibility for Samarra is as evident as American responsibility for the looting and chaos that followed the early days of the occupation—and of course the chaos and low-grade civil war that hasn’t stopped since. The powder keg was always there. It was to be a sign of American wiles and strategy—of foresight or ignorance—either to diffuse the keg or light the match. With Bush at the helm, the American occupation had no choice but to suck fire. That fuse is what the Anglo-American occupation force represents in Iraq. The Orientalist narrative of Muslim-on-Muslim violence happening as if in a vacuum all its own is the expedient way for Western conservatives to translate the latest events to their convenience. It’s also an opportunity. Here’s the Bush administration’s chance to claim that it’s done all it could. Sectarian battles aren’t its game ( South Carolina’s Republican primary fatwa against John McCain notwithstanding). Time to go. Time to let them sort it out. The going won’t be literal, to be sure: The administration isn’t oiling those permanent military bases for nothing, nor does it want to have an Arab Yalta tattooed on its retreating rear. No, this would be a stealth retreat from the turbulence of the Iraqi street to the safety of U.S. garrisons on the barbarians’ rims, something even John Murtha could applaud. No retreat, no surrender, but redeployment. At least for now.
But it’s the Cambodian get-away scheme all over again: Nixon bombs Cambodia back to the Neolithic from 1970 to 1973, killing somewhere in the six figures, destabilizing the country with Lon Nol’s complicity and setting the stage for the Khmer take-over and ensuing genocide. Nixon shrugs, acts blameless. It was a civil war, after all, and he had his own civil war on his hands, compliments of a couple of reporters from the Washington Post. With Kissinger as his Oz, Nixon spun Cambodia into just another American attempt at battling Communism in the name of freedom. The Khmers mucked it up. And by 1973, Kissinger was throwing in the towel, Nixon was facing impeachment, and the Khmers were biding their time until their final, if brief, victory in 1975 (until the Vietnamese finally ended their killing spree in 1978). A similar scenario is unfolding in Iraq. The United States has done nothing if not destabilize the country under the guise of building up democracy for the last three years. Bombings and night raids tend not to do democracy’s bidding. Insurgents have picked up strength. On both sides. A Khmer-like genocide might not be in the offing, although with Lebanon and the Balkans in recent memory, and with Saddam’s tradition of facile massacres still humidifying the Mesopotamian air with the scent of unavenged blood, you never know: a genocide may well result still, giving the region’s Vietnam—Iran—an opportunity to intervene. The moment the United States invaded the way it did and occupied the nation as boorishly as it did, the outcome couldn’t have been any different than it is now. It isn’t the Arabs who are repeating history. It is the United States repeating its own, a few time zones to the east. Same continent. Same errors, same Nixonian hubris.
Naturally, Arabs — those “barbaric” Sunnis and Shiites — will get all the blame. But the vilest fanatics are in the White House, comfortably enabling destruction from their “situation room.” The only difference between them and the barbarians who blow up mosques is a matter of dress and language, and, of course, method. The results are the same.
Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona
Fla., News-Journal, and editor of Candide's Notebooks. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org