Time See What’s Become of Me

Iraq’s future is in the hands of long-time now.

There’s no need now to rush to the blog or the column, the talk show or the speech, to mark and masticate the meaning of each and every event. Listening to Swarthmore’s War News Radio (the last four programs have been really excellent), I heard one student summarize a suicide bombing from this week by saying that it was the worst attack since…the previous week.

Listening to the reporting of American casualties, I don’t hear more significance in a week of 20 dead than a week of 5 dead: it is an oscillation within an established register. Reading of American participation in the beating, torture and murder of a Ba’athist military officer and insurgent I don’t think, “Now there’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, which proves Abu Ghraib was not an isolated case”. That has already been proven: the new story is merely more demonstration of a pattern. Reading of Steven Vincent’s death, I wonder why some of his readers do not see the careful attention he was giving to the underlying pressures shaping Iraq’s evolution and the American involvement, the slow movement of events in one direction and away from the direction he believed in and cherished, a perception which led to his murder.

The determining structures are hardening in place, made as they always are by the accumulation of the choices of many people and institutions. Some choices made clearly, with foresight of their consequences. Many choices made hastily, without contemplation, in response to directives and impulses coming from far outside the heat and dust of the war itself. What Iraq is becoming is not just what America is making of it. It is not just what Iraqis are making of it. It is not just what the insurgents are making of it. No one has a god’s eye view, but anyone who thinks there is a good and desirable goal here beyond bolstering some bullshit partisan advantage has to at least try to look at the track that the train is travelling upon. If they’re not happy with the destination, they need to try desperately to pull the switch and move it onto a new one. A train track that’s just a single degree of angle away from another can lead, far later, to a radically different place.

No one knows what the insurgency wants, probably not even the insurgents. Partly because there is more than one insurgency: there are those who just want a better cut of the action in a corrupt postwar US client state, and those who think they can only get a better cut of the action by cutting out the “US client state” part and being just an ordinary corrupt Third World state. There are young jihadists who are the 21st Century’s Lincoln Brigades, restless young men who fuse romance and nihilism and treasure a chance to matter now rather than simply settle into the ordinariness of middle-aged anomie. What could satisfy them but death and killing, unless they somehow live long enough to see through the haze and their own narcissism to the lives they destroy and the futures they strangle? There are the flinty old manipulators and grand dreamers of Islamist movements trying to make moves on a global chessboard, with as little ability to tangibly grasp and hold onto the whole of the game as wonks in Washingtonian think tanks and Pentagon situation rooms. Different insurgencies, adding up to a complex sum far greater than any of its parts, pushing Iraq one way. Perhaps some insurgents do not want it to go that way, but given the incoherence of the overall situation and their own efforts, any direction except improvement of the American situation will do well enough.

There’s the Americans, trying hard to master a messy political situation with largely military means. Some dreamers who truly want a democratic and free society, with little thought to grand geopolitical plotting about Israel or oil. But the dreamers are mostly sleepwalking past what is happening: past the torture (“merely a few bad people, and we caught them”), past the shootings of innocents at checkpoints (“understandable error”), past the dirty deals with death squads (“counter-insurgency is all about breaking eggs to make omelets”), past the easy slide towards accomodating kleptocrats and ‘our-bastards’ in order to establish order. These are not single decisions, single events, with one turning point. That’s the real dreamers: there are also fake ones, who don’t actually care much about Iraq, just about gaining advantage within the United States or even just within the factions of the federal bureaucracy.

These are structures of decision, driven by the confluence of political expediency, the cycle of the American presidency, and more crucially, the deeply rooted and muddled instrumentalism of the war’s planners. The planners have unfocused eyes on the prize because they’ve never been honest with themselves or with the American public about what the prize was, save the unseating of Saddam Hussein. Yes, they did that, and we’re all quite happy about it. But if they want more, they’re going to have to move the train one angle away, shift the structures of decision, move the long-time. More American men and women in Iraq, soldiers and civilians, are going to die in the long-time between now and the day they are no longer there. If their deaths are ever to mean more than, “We got that bastard Hussein”, the logics of the long-time are going to need to push away from torture, away from expediency, away from backroom deals with people who have no more interest in democracy than the insurgents do.

And then there’s the Iraqis. Surely none of them, save the insurgents and the people seeking short-term advantage from American intervention, can be hugely satisfied with the situation as it stands, least of all those who believe in and hope for freer, better, safer society. Their hands are far from the train switch. It’s one thing to say that achieving democracy is a bloody and difficult business. Surely that’s so. But if you say it with any sincerity, think at least of the Iraqis as well as you think of Londoners. Mourn as much their dead as the dead in London’s undergrounds. Grant at least the indignity of being chosen to sacrifice your people in the struggle for democracy instead of choosing yourself to do so, the pain of being the proxy battlefield selected by bearded men huddled in caves at the high roof of the world and men gathered in situation rooms in Washington DC. Feel at least a little discomfort at the thought of people without representation or say being volunteered to heroic sacrifice in the global war on terror.

Iraqis most of all live in the long-time now, and most painfully of all of us, know least and fear most about where it is all heading.

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15 Responses to Time See What’s Become of Me

  1. Peter says:

    I really agree with what you’re saying here, depressing as much of it is to admit.

  2. unclewilly says:

    I bet I know one thing that all the insurgents want, in addition to most other Iraqis. They want the Americans GONE, baby.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    See, I don’t think that’s so, necessarily. Some of the jihadists from outside Iraq want American targets, I think. Particularly in a situation where they understand perfectly well that the Americans will intrinsically find it difficult to make progress on their own stated goals (whether the idealistic or realpolitik ones), that the Americans in Iraq are both good literal targets and renewably useful symbolic ones. Basically, if the Americans leave before Iraq is stable and sustainably democratic, the foreign Islamist jihadists can claim a victory. If the Americans don’t leave, whether out of continued support for building a democratic Iraqi government or more self-interested motives, like obtaining military bases in the Middle East, the foreign jihadists can claim victories and gain propaganda value out of the American presence and attacks on Americans. I think this aspect of the conflict is lose-lose for the US, and this is precisely the trap that a lot of us were trying to caution against before the war. The only way out is consistently taking the high road and doing everything we can to avoid providing the foreign jihadists more propaganda material–and the Bush Administration has not made that a priority. If they had, Rumsfeld would have been out of a job a long time ago, Gitmo would be closed, we wouldn’t have been playing footsie with Chalabi while ignoring the Future of Iraq project, etcetera etcetera.

  4. Gary Farber says:

    “There are young jihadists who are the 21st Century’s Lincoln Brigades….”

    An interesting parallel, but possibly not the best. Unfortunate, possibly even.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Just in that sense of young, dumb people drawn to a cause they view with naive idealism and through the lens of propaganda being manipulated by a much colder and more instrumentalist leadership.

  6. Once again, a thoughtful, insightful piece, Tim. Your writings on Iraq over the past two years have done a lot to help me recognize exactly the point you’re making here: that this war was argued for and justified via a tunnel-visioned mentality, one that could see a goal but could not or would not see the long distance between the conception of the goal and its completion. And especially, did not see all the people who are going to go on living (and dying) through that distance.

  7. unclewilly says:

    Everything about the “conflict” is lose-lose for the U.S. I’m still betting that MOST (by that I mean almost all) Iraqis want us out and very quickly. Remember Shelby Foote’s anecdote about a Confederate soldier’s reply to the question “Why are you fighting?”? The answer was, “Because ya’ll are down here.”

  8. Then there is the American opposition, which doesn’t know what it wants, either. I’m a part of that opposition, and I know what I want, but the fact is that there are a number of different strains of opposition, from “withdraw now because it couldn’t be any worse” to “withdraw now because it would be morally superior” to “let someone else handle it because we’ve done the hard work” to “we’re pushing in the wrong direction and need to push harder and smarter” to…. well, there are others. But few of them realize, any more than the “dreamers” that this is a long-term issue, that much good and much damage has already been done, that accomplishing anything (worthwhile) will still require pushing hard and long in some direction, and that changing directions is pretty much as hard as “staying the course” and just as likely to produce both good and bad results.

  9. akotsko says:

    This whole thing reminds me of Don DeLillo’s novel Libra. Putting aside the historical aspects of it, it seemed like a terrifying and plausible account of an event that no one really wants in itself, that’s just a means to an end, and because enough people want it, it happens — but ultimately happens for no reason at all. Or this could also be a very vivid illustration of a Foucauldian “strategy/conspiracy without a subject.”

    I agree with Jonathan Dresner: I don’t know what I want out of the Iraq situation now — personally, I guess I want the impossible, I want it never to have happened, I want Bush never to have been appointed president in the first place, I just would really love to have the “happy 90s” back. Now it seems like things are just way too fucked for anything to help in anything like the short term.

  10. Endie says:

    I can’t help but think that the USA is making downpayments on a decade or more of foreign policy credibility here.

    What I mean is that if the US proves unwilling to pay the current, high price, and leaves Iraq prematurely, then the big stick will look more like a hollow reed. The ability to preserve a pax Americana (which many of us in the rest of the world actually want) will suffer, just as it did after Vietnam. And, incidentally, the bloodletting in Iraq would be horrible.

    (Incidentally, what strikes me as richly ironic is that the Sunni minority who represent almost the entirety of the revolt would be those most like to pay the price of premature US withdrawal.)

    On the other hand, if the US continues with the nation-building process, stays the course, and emerges undefeated (even if not wholly successful), then the power projection of the world’s most powerful democratic state will be undimished.

  11. barry says:

    That’s pretty much the mid-Vietnam theory. The loss of ‘tough guy’ reputation has already occurred; Iraq was supposed to be a cakewalk, not a real war.

  12. Endie says:

    Yes, so it was used during Vietnam. More than a touch of argumentum ignoratio elenchi, there.

    Anyway, the point is not about appearing tough. The point is about being prepared to pay the heavy price of power projection in defence of certain values (and, of course, of strategic interests, as the Realpoliticist in me says). The US has shown they are capable of overthrowing a government. That now seems the easy bit, although I well remember the NYT forecasting Baghdad-as-Stalingrad. Now they are set the test of demonstrating that they are willing to suffer the consequences. As a non-American, I am awfully glad that it seems they still are.

    As discussed on http://drinksoakedtrotsforwar.blogspot.com/ I feel awfully sorry for anyone who watches the attacks and feels a sense of satisfaction that they think they’ve been proved right…

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Proven right in that I thought the main planners for war had lamentably simple-minded understandings of how societies actually change and how accessible to deliberate agency the levers of change actually are: yes, I feel proven right. No satisfaction in that, because I have no long-term objectives in Iraq that I feel any confidence can be achieved by the people presently in power at the top echelons of the US government. I do not feel they are competent or able to do the things which I think might usefully be done. I actually do think there are people lower in the bureaucracy and in the military command structure poised to do productive things, but what they might do will be throttled in its crib as it has been since the war started. It’s one thing to call for the “heavy price of power projection”, but the current political leadership has already defaulted on its first interest payments on that price: the downpayment is in default.

    At this point, I’m where historians usually are: wait and see, wait and see. Because what else is left? The people who can “switch the track” are completely uninterested in advice from anyone.

  14. barry says:

    Endie Says:

    “Yes, so it was used during Vietnam. More than a touch of argumentum ignoratio elenchi, there.”

    Nah, just watching history repeat itself. The ‘stab in the back’ theory is also making a resurgence. And other theories, such as ‘[the anti-war people] want us to lose’, which appears in your post:

    “I feel awfully sorry for anyone who watches the attacks and feels a sense of satisfaction that they think they’ve been proved right… ”

  15. Becket says:

    What I think is curious about the planning for a post-war Iraq is the concept that nationalism and American occupation could coexist easily, that a proud, democratic, and nationalist Iraq could emerge not by resisting, but by aiding a foreign occupation.

    I suppose we could consider the Washington situation room strategists as simply cynical; that nationalism was neither expected nor desired. Maybe they’re right; I certainly don’t know enough about the insurgency to say one way or the other whether we’re looking at nationalism or anti-systemic Islamism or (for lack of a better word, and just to be silly) “Lincoln Brigade-ism” (though I think the three are not exactly incompatible, at least as a working anti-American coalition).

    But basically I’m just curious; should we be looking for the emergence of an Iraqi nationalism? Or is it too early for that; the experience of the formerly colonized world was often a much longer process of transformation (though the effect of the American occupation on the elite has, I imagine, already been profound). Or is there a pre-existing Iraqi nationalism that for rhetorical and ideological reasons has been ignored?

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