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What If We Would Seriously Ponder the Unthinkable?
by George de Poor Handlery
13 May 2004Iraqi Flag

A case can be made that accomplishing our post-war goals has encountered barriers that make further persevering of questionable value.


The ideas to be formulated below extend beyond the limits of the “box” within which we inadvertently constrain ourselves to move about as we seek solutions. As the writer prepares to climb outside these self-constructed confines, he is well aware that his unusual considerations will not be entirely in tune with his own earlier stand. Worse than that, they are also likely to upset the reader. For this reason he plans to hide in a garbage can for a fortnight after the publication of this essay. Re-emerging thereafter will be safe. It is an adage that in two weeks everything is forgotten. Think of what you used to know but have by now forgotten about Clinton, Saddam, the assorted candidates for whatever, and the great causes of yesteryear.

The USA entered the Middle East to remove some actual and suspected staging areas for the 9/11s of the future. The initial goal of American action was to deal through short term military measures with the threat directed against her, well, yes, existence. With a logic that had passed its practical test after the last World War, US policy had attempted to follow up its military actions by laying foundations for general long term political security. Thusly, US goals went beyond the physical elimination of the Taliban and Saddamite threats. This took its cue from the reconstruction of Japan and Germany after 1945. Security against the terrorist threat reoccurring was to be provided for by the facilitation of the emergence of a political democracy. It was to be embedded in a progressive economic order. These were justified, laudable and reasonable policies confirmed in the practical realm in seemingly analogous instances.

As matters stand early in May 2004, it seems that a serious discussion of the latter part of the two-stage policy and its premises is warranted. Whatever judgment is passed on the merits or the practicality of the “impertinent(?)” proposition that follows might be, the very fact of considering alternatives should help to leave us with a considered course that we therefore should be willing to carry out.

As an American patriot the writer has an understandable aversion to waive American failures like a flag while braying the usual “non-negotiable” demand that we run. (Fast, far and most importantly, immediately.) Naturally, while performing as described, we must also incant apologies about anything, everything, addressed to anybody who might demand a knee-jerk. Well, what follows is none of the above. This will only be a suggestion that we admit that something we have undertaken did not work. In case you become inclined to accept that the general proposition to be argued is of merit you do not imply that our original cause is a generic result of American guilt that led to moral turpitude and the unfair handling of the often mentioned “Iraqi People.”

To pathological anti-Americans the challenge to Hussein and the intervention that followed were wrong from the outset because America was about to do it. Prior to the outbreak of the hostilities, the same people proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the war would be lost in a blood bath. And so it went. This is no attempt to join such choirs. (So, if that is what you were shopping for, stop reading here.)

Good politics imply the readiness to advance and to retreat whenever the circumstances -- especially when these contradict favorite theories -- demand it. The issue is not what one would, in another world than the one we have, prefer. The question must always be what can be done while the costs and the results remain in balance. Needless to say, the desired “result” must be makeable. Furthermore, the “price” should be commensurate with what we are ready to sacrifice before the costs infringe on values that are of a higher general order than the specific case at hand. It is in this spirit that the Iraq matter in its current state should be approached.

While there are sharp and well intentioned disagreements possible regarding what the real facts are, it appears to this writer that our post-war reconstruction project is in about as bad a shape as is the peace between Israel and the Palestine Entity. (That patient has been sick for the last six decades.) America undertook a noble effort that could, as precedents demonstrate, succeed. Creating a stable, democratic sovereign Iraq with rights and at least a modicum of wealth for all has never been the politically easiest of undertakings. The “oil thesis,” had it really been a motive of US actions, would certainly have counseled for (1) smashing Baathism, (2) installing a strong and stable dictatorship without Saddam, and (3) going home while promising to return in case further spanking would become necessary. The benefits would have been the end of a hostile régime, the lifting of sanctions followed by plenty of oil on the world market and victory parades State Side. Instead, America chose to help the Iraqis. Many at home and most foreign governments did not believe this. Their reservation has little to do with their sense of realism or their knowledge of how America works. On the other hand it betrays a lot about what sounds good and what they would have done had they had the power.

A case can be made that accomplishing our post war goals has encountered barriers that make further persevering of questionable value. To be sure, Saddam Hussein has given a persuasive demonstration that Iraq can be controlled. America, however, is neither Hussein nor the equal of any one of the dictators who keep their order in the region. Quite possibly, helping Iraq against herself involves a whole cluster of actions that we can not implement. There are two reasons for this. One is that, as the scandal involving the treatment of some of the “detainees” shows, the political culture of the United States does not permit their application as a policy. An even more important case can be made: recall that the country is inclined to pursue a moral goal for itself and the world in its foreign policy. This goal and the only means left to us in the current situation lack a common denominator. Lastly, “civilizing” Iraq “with the Crag” implies nowadays that America, ultimately to serve others too, must sacrifice on the altar of a false God the inner core of its defining values. To sum up: we can win but we are in danger of losing ourselves.

So, assuming that the above is essentially true, the question is, “what to do?” Here follows an immodest proposal. Consider it to be the rough and short draft with plenty of gaps and issues left open. What follows is unusual. Certainly no conqueror has ever addressed the subjugated in the manner suggested. But then, the whole situation is atypical, for win we did, but for conquest we had no desire. 

What if America would issue a proclamation addressed to the Iraqis and also the world? In it the original goals of the war in our perceived interest and for a subsequent peace that extends Iraqis a chance for a better life would be reasserted.

What if this would continue: “We have given you the lives of our precious youth and the wealth of our country. We were willing to absorb risks, guaranteed losses and the critique of foes and ex-friends. Instead of simply smashing, winning and conquering, we were determined not to abandon you amidst the shambles brought upon you by your dictator who, by his threats, forced us to into war.

"So, in order to help, we promised to stay on as long as you would need our succor. In doing so, at the time farsightedly, we endeavored to supply you not only with the physical means of the reconstruction of what three wars and especially decades of tyrannical neglect bequeathed to you. We also tried to help you to lay the tested political, social and economic foundations of a progressive society that could give its members political and social democracy.

"Not being Iraqis, our commitment had limits. What we were unprepared to do was to rule over you the way your own oppressors have dominated you in the past. For this we were not equipped while we also lacked the need to steer this course. This being so it has been a shock to our people at home and to our soldiers in your country when isolated attacks against our people began to occur. We have, it would appear mistakenly, at first, taken these assassinations as acts perpetrated by incurable extremists committed to the régime we had overthrown. Therefore, we under-reacted to this challenge. We have also failed to retaliate when on top of ordnance destroyed in such attacks hostile crowds began to dance approvingly. Then these attacks against our military, civilians and even Iraqis helping to re-connect the country’s public services and organs of self government increased in frequency and gained in their brutality.

"In retrospect, for quite some time, our response proved to be inadequate. We have never retaliated to the extent of our means because we did not wish to hurt those we generously assumed to be innocent in these assassinations. We have, as in the case of the Cleric Al-Sadr, been reluctant to retaliate by destroying the locations you regard as Holy Places. This we did even though he -- and his likes -- have repeatedly misused sanctuaries to serve as the bases of his declared war against us. In general, we have done all we could not to violate your supposed sensibilities as we undertook to protect the lives of our personnel. Nevertheless, our missions to eliminate the organizations that have oppressed you in the past and which will, if they attain power, undoubtedly coerce most of you in the future, you have chosen to regard, irrespective of our restraint, as violations of your collective honor.

"In time it became apparent and therefore impossible for us to ignore or to excuse: those who behead and dismember their captives and display for public amusement the body parts of the murdered, apparently do not injure your sensibilities, nor does such comportment insult your morals or your often cited code of honor. Any reaction on our part -- such as searches and arrests that risk the lives of our troops and are certainly less destructive than leveling entire neighborhoods -- were taken by what seems to be a majority of you, as justifying further hostile acts against us. All these were taking place while, of our own volition, we have set clear dates for the return of sovereignty and our total withdrawal. This suggests to us that your desire for normality and whatever else that we can assume you might want is less strong than your wish to murder as many of our people as you can. That the diffuse realization of this has in isolated cases brutalized the treatment meted out to suspects by our simple soldiers is as understandable as it is, given our values, deplorable. In this matter, again, besides lives and money, we have paid a price for trying to accomplish more than just conquering you would have been."

What if, at this juncture, America would let Iraq know that while we have paid a price to respect their cultural peculiarities, we have, in doing so, never relinquished our right to consider our traditions, values and interests? Therefore, this having been said, let us continue.

"When we committed ourselves to what we labeled 'to bring democracy' to Iraq we have, admittedly, acted from a cultural prejudice of ours. Its premise, regardless of what you have taught us lately, is that peoples desire liberty and prosperity. We hold that to attain both, certain rules have to be implemented and certain attitudes have to guide the actions of individuals who, together, make up society. You have demonstrated to us that, collectively, you have not yet reached the level of maturity where this is the case. Our presence in your country after defeating Saddam Hussein has revealed to us much about your strengths and weaknesses.

"These are that you have a good understanding of what we might be able to do given our means but what we cannot tackle in view of our traditions. Your resistance fighters have shown that their strength is that they do not care about their own lives. At the same time we learned that many of you do not care about life in general. Those from amidst your people who acted against us have demonstrated a skill to identify our taboos and to hide behind our inhibitions in order to damage us. As we reluctantly complement them, we are forced to conclude that these attacks would have been impossible had the majority of you not been prepared to support actively or tacitly such actions. From our vantage point, you proved to be good at dying against something but unable to live a constructive life for something. We still think that most of mankind strives for liberty. However, in your current state of collective consciousness, you understand under freedom something we do not consider to be a part of it. Meanwhile you expect from liberty something we know it cannot give. Therefore, it is apparent that we cannot help you in the way we are willing to contribute to your 'happiness.'

What if, at this juncture, we would become even more forthright? So let us continue.

"This insight leads us to the conclusion that, in the light of the facts, it is time that our project -- it can be called a partial success for us and for you -- be terminated. We have achieved our original national goal which was to remove a system that was intent on creating the means to threaten us. Now, to look at it from your point of view: you will, by date X, and on your own terms, get your national independence back. We hope it will result in the freedom of the individuals inhabiting your country.

"Herewith, through our withdrawal to which your actions combined with the limitations imposed by our institutions have forced us, your destiny is as of now entirely your business. Whether you will wind up in a civil war, under the control of a new dictator or in a democracy of your own peculiar definition is in your hands and depends from here on fully on what you are able to do with your destiny. Regardless of our doubts, we wish you the best of the good fortune that you will be able to create for yourselves."

What if this explanatory admonition would end by stating that from this moment on, we will take massive retaliatory and preventive actions with the sole purpose of not putting American lives in harms way while we evacuate?

And what if all this would be concluded undiplomatically? Such as by stating that, in the same vein, the USA would be prepared to use all her means, without considering any other factors, to “restrain” any new régime that may emerge in Iraq should it become involved in attempts to imperil America’s homeland security?

Lastly, what if, without trumpeting it, the USA would leave behind those of its means in the region that an openly independent Kurdish state that includes Kirkuk might need to establish itself. Regardless of the expectable displeasure of Turkey, as a component of Iraq, the Kurds are part of that country through the negligent callousness and ignorance of the “peace-makers” of 1919. This would therefore have something to do with belated justice, the probable emergence of a friendly state and the simplification of the problems of a purely Arab new Iraq that might surface after our departure.

George Handlery is an historian. He has lived and taught in Europe since 1976.

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