Strategy, Strategy Everywhere…

…but not a drop of memory.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

In widespread public exasperation, everyone now has the answer for Iraq, but also a strange amnesia about why we are doing what we are doing.


The trisectionists are again making their case. They urge the creation of three separate de facto countries — Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni. The apparently logical and appealing argument is that a friendly Kurdistan and more or less neutral Shiite south could better protect themselves from an angry anti-American, pro-terrorist Sunni Triangle. We could back one, come to terms with a second, and consider the third an overt enemy along the lines of a Syria.

But the existing problem in the Middle East stems from too much sectarian tribalism, not an excess of nationhood. How critical Iraqi resources would be split up, or how the peace would be kept by simply repackaging the problem, is never explained. Would Baghdad become another divided Jerusalem? Would populations be exchanged in the manner of Cyprus? Or would old land claims be perennially pressed as on the West Bank? In a cosmopolitan Baghdad, would someone of mixed parentage be considered a Shiite or Sunni?

If the three sects cannot get along with each other inside Iraq, why would they outside when interested neighbors would draw them into their respective orbits to renew and expand the conflict on international terms?

A Sunni/Zarqawi state would be hyper-Wahhabist in the manner of the Shiite south becoming ultra-theocratic, as any internal moderating force on the majority populations would be lost.

India has far fewer problems from its own multimillion-person Muslim minority than from neighboring Islamic and nuclear Pakistan. A result of partition was to radicalize Muslims in their own country and give India a lifelong problem on its border. India is a success because it has more or less embraced pluralism and allowed Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians to live tolerably with one another — in a way that a nearly uniformly Islamic Pakistan never cared to achieve with non-Muslims either inside or outside its borders.

The dismemberment of Yugoslavia in retrospect does not seem such a good idea. We almost destroyed the United States in 1861-5, and would again if we ever carved out separate White, Hispanic, and African-American states.

Even an independent Kurdistan would not be for Iraqis only, but would soon draw in Turkish and Iranian Kurds as well — and thus might well incite a regional war that would destroy the prosperity well under way in northern Iraq today. And there is also no reason why an independent Kurdistan would not itself resume its long-standing civil war between various leftist and rightist factions.

Divide et Impera

The Romans’ old mantra of “divide and conquer” is also being raised. Apparently we are to modulate Shiite-Sunni hostility, in the hopes that the Shiites would counter Wahhabi-inspired terrorism, each side wearing the other out — and leaving us pleasantly out of the fray.

But how forcing Iraqi Shiites further into the Iranian camp is a good thing escapes logic. I don’t see much difference between a theocratic nuclear Shiite Iran subsidizing Hezbollah and terrorist Wahhabis — but a great deal of difference between those extremists and Shiite and Sunni legislators now working out a compromise in Iraq. For all the present and legitimate criticism of our war, Iraq and Afghanistan are about the only places in the Middle East where Muslims are seriously fighting terrorists every day — and that is only because they are slowly becoming constitutional and trying to avoid descending into sectarian fiefdoms.

We are still living down our earlier attempt during the Iran-Iraq War to play the two sides off each other while a million died. The legacy of that earlier cynicism was Iran-Contra, embarrassing feelers put out to Saddam that may have emboldened him later to take Kuwait, and general Arab distrust of American motives. Allowing Saddam to survive in 1991 (“to keep order”), and then letting him butcher rebellious Kurds and Shiites was a tragic mistake. In the 1980s giving a blank check in arms supplies to Islamists to stop the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan proved a wise short-term move — but a foolhardy long-term strategic gambit.

In short, divide and conquer simply embodies an updated version of the Cold War Realpolitik strategy of letting surrogates wear themselves out to our advantage. It is precisely that policy — however seductive to our own interests — that helped to bring us to our current dilemma.


A timetable for withdrawal before Iraq is acknowledged as secure is said to be soon on the Democratic agenda — a sure way to cut American losses, expenditures, and worry over Iraqis for quite some time.

Nevertheless, why this “out of sight-out of mind” policy has not been quite yet raised by mainstream Democrats is obvious: Even the most diehard critics accept something positive is going on in Iraq that is a far cry from Vietnam.

A sequence of planned steps will lead to consensual government: approval of the constitution, national voting for candidates, a public trial of Saddam, and the establishment of a large constitutional military. The Iraqi security forces are getting better, not worse; the population is souring, not sweetening, on Zarqawi; we are becoming wiser, not more ignorant, about fighting the insurgency; and decisions are increasingly made by Iraqis, while Americans have receded into the media shadows.

To depart now would be to put all those scheduled landmark events into jeopardy, calling into question our past sacrifices and giving the enemy something they cannot win on the battlefield. In our despair over the sometimes depressing news from Iraq, and the hysteria of seeing everything from Cindy Sheehan to Hurricane Katrina used to deprecate the war effort, naturally we ignore our progress. We forget that the entire Middle East is not as it once was — whether we look at the Palestinian question, Libya, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Egypt.

Does anyone really believe that Arafat undermining the Oslo accords, Libya with a nuclear weapons program, Dr. Khan operating full blast in Pakistan, thousands of Syrians in Lebanon, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam’s Iraq, or a complete absence of democratic foment in Egypt would be preferable even to the turmoil of today?

Yet these recent shake-ups had their origins only in American resolve. If we should now depart, things would insidiously revert back to the depressing pre-September 11 status quo — or worse yet. We forget that even then “stability” was only a veneer, masking a landscape whose final logic was 9/11.

Stay the Course?

Our current policy is not just correct because we are now wedded to it. In fact, it is a reaction to our past strategy of realpolitik coupled with appeasement. That strategy led us to 9/11 and a quarter century of terror originating in Iran in November 1979 — whether we define that history as cynical support for dictators, leaving after lobbing a few shells and bombs in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia, or Iraq, or allowing wounded tyrants like Saddam to stay in power.

Second, our efforts after 9/11 represent not the worst, but the best of America abroad. Millions just voted yet again in Afghanistan in one of the true revolutionary events of our time — mostly unnoticed by Western media.

We forget that Iraq was not liberated until almost 15 months after Kabul. Yet it is already progressing down the same constitutional road. Despised Kurds and Shiites have achieved equal representation. And that topsy-turvy world has infuriated a once oppressive Sunni minority, formerly associated with Saddam Hussein, now in sympathy with al Zarqawi , the terrorist killer. Once unpopular because we were alleged to be cynical in our support of dictators, we are now even more suspect because we are proven proponents of downtrodden Kurds and Shiites in their efforts for political equality. Most Americans — since they are going to be disliked either way — prefer to be hated for their idealism rather than their cynicism.

Billions in American material aid has flowed to Iraqis, even as the price of oil has skyrocketed, costing us billions more — so much for oil conspiracies and stealing Arab resources. In short, Iraq is not an imperialistic venture, but a messy, unappreciated attempt to make the United States more secure by removing dictators from their petrodollar-funded arsenals and leaving constitutional governments in their wake, while promoting social justice for the formerly marginalized.

Note that so far there are none of the indications that would rightly tell us it is high time to leave Iraq: Polls don’t suggest that Iraqis want us out immediately; the parliament has not asked the United States to depart; President Talabani does not order us home; American military commanders and diplomats on the ground in Iraq have not concluded that success is impossible, and there is not a grassroots popular movement across religious and tribal lines to oppose the American-sponsored democratic reforms.

Even though we have failed so far to marshal the strength to crush the Sunni insurrection, Iraq is still a far better place now than it was in March 2003, as most Iraqis agree. The Middle East is a better place, whether in Palestine, Afghanistan, or Lebanon. And the position of the United States, the object of unprecedented acrimony and invective, is better off — whether we measure that as the absence of another 9/11 attack, strengthening friendships with India, Japan, Eastern Europe, and the English-speaking countries, reforming the anti-American U.N., or making some progress in North Korea.

But who is really angry at America since 2001?

Al Qaeda, of course. Saddamites, especially. Radical Islamicists no doubt.

France and Germany are also apparently unhappy: They lost plenty of oil business and loans in Iraq; they are facing the wages of not assimilating Islamic minorities in their midst; and they are fathoming that socialist and statist policies cannot be salvaged by cheap election-time anti-Americanism in an age when the United States is more eager to keep our distance from them than they us.

Historic changes are underway in Afghanistan and Iraq. While we at home squabble and point fingers, the U.S. military fortunately continues in its difficult but landmark mission — and so far, thankfully, pays us all little heed.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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