July 24, 2006

Embracing Ignorance on Principle: And Still, We Will Not See

[I first published this essay on May 14, 2005. I offer it again now and place it here, out of date order, for one primary reason: I continue to see many discussions about how the Bush administration has "bungled" the war and occupation of Iraq, and handled this tragic episode "incompetently." I explained in general terms what is dangerously wrong with this approach in, "Trapped in the Wrong Paradigm: Three Handy Rules."

To repeat the first and overriding point: because Iraq was no threat to us, the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country were and are entirely unjustified and immoral. Saddam was a notably vicious, brutal dictator. But so long as Iraq constituted no serious threat to the United States, it was not our government's business. Great evil occurs in many countries throughout the world. Nothing in the Constitution, or in reason, morality or even common sense provides our government a roving warrant to roam the globe, attempting to correct injustices wherever they occur. In foreign affairs, the primary concern of our government is our nation's self-defense, period. If you wish to spend your life battling evil, that is to your credit. Pursue such work as a private citizen, or as part of some non-governmental organization. But do not ask the government to attempt a task that does not rightfully belong to it. Moreover, short of militarizing all of America and destroying our economy forever, the task is an impossible one.

Several readers have written to me indicating that they agree that the invasion of Iraq was fundamentally immoral. But, they ask, can't we still meaningfully point out that the Bush administration has performed and continues to perform in a spectacularly incompetent manner? This question raises certain complex issues of moral and political theory, some of which I'll be discussing in more detail in the future. Such questions relate to the general category of means and ends, and more particularly to whether an immoral end can be pursued in a more or less immoral manner. I've analyzed these issues to some extent in the second part of my series, On Torture. My brief answer is a very strong, No. It is not possible to pursue an immoral goal by certain means that are more "moral" or "competent" than others. Given what has happened in Iraq, we are now entitled to use a very simple example to make the point. Since we have now killed an entire country, ask yourself if it is possible to kill a friend or neighbor -- not in self-defense, but completely gratuitously, for no good reason -- "morally" or "competently." What would those words mean in that context? That you killed your friend quickly and efficiently? To the extent you performed such an evil deed "competently," that makes it worse, not better.

But, you might object, if we had done it "competently," the country would still be alive. Again, we had no right to be there at all in the first place, so whatever might have happened is entirely irrelevant in the most fundamental sense. But the conjecture is invalid for additional reasons. Means and ends cannot be divorced in this manner. Properly viewed, the ends determine the means. Immoral ends will always require immoral means. This is why I have pointed out that to argue that the Bush administration's program could have been carried out more "competently" simply means that we would have replaced Saddam's authoritarian rule with a puppet Iraqi government controlled by an authoritarian occupation authority. That is all it can mean in this particular context. But even that is not possible, as this earlier essay indicates. The problem for most of those who still make the "competence" argument, just as it is the problem for the Bush administration, is what I identify in what follows: because of certain misconceptions and a faulty methodology, "the reality of Iraq itself never assumes solid shape before them." The Bush administration never understood Iraq at all, or its culture and history. This is why I have maintained from the beginning that we were defeated before the first American soldier ever set foot in Iraq.

There is a deeper reason why so many people still cling to the "competence" argument, and to the idea that if only we had done things the "right" way, everything would have at least turned out in a significantly better manner. The reason arises from the particularly Western perspective that I have discussed in many essays (see here, for example, and here as well), and from the idea that we can virtually always shape reality in accordance with our preferences by an act of will, by the imposition of our thought on the world. We are belatedly discovering that this is a dangerous approach when utilized with regard to nature: we begin to appreciate that even the non-conscious world can only be manipulated and altered within certain constraints. When we go too far, the consequences can be very dire, and ultimately can prove to be profoundly self-destructive. But we still think we can order men's affairs by acts of will in a similar manner. A moment's reflection should reveal that if this approach is a dangerous error with regard to the inanimate world, it is notably more dangerous when applied to the complexities of human beings and the societies they create. With regard to humankind, the variables are if anything even more complex -- and you are also contending with the thoughts and ideas of others, which might be hugely different from your own, or even directly opposed to them.

This is the point that Barbara Tuchman made about the Vietnam humiliation. Replace the Middle East for Asia, and Iraq for Vietnam, and the point is the same:
In the illusion of omnipotence, American policy-makers took it for granted that on a given aim, especially in Asia, American will could be made to prevail. This assumption came from the can-do character of a self-created nation and from the sense of competence and superpower derived from World War II. If this was "arrogance of power," in Senator Fulbright's phrase, it was not so much the fatal hubris and over-extension that defeated Athens and Napoleon, and in the 20th century Germany and Japan, as it was failure to understand that problems and conflicts exist among other peoples that are not soluble by the application of American force or American techniques or even American goodwill. "Nation-building" was the most presumptuous of the illusions. Settlers of the North American continent had built a nation from Plymouth Rock to Valley Forge to the fulfilled frontier, yet failed to learn from their success that elsewhere, too, only the inhabitants can make the process work.
To put it in other terms: to be successful, social and political transformation must ultimately come from within the society itself. It cannot be imposed from without. "Good intentions" will not save the project from disaster and destruction. (See Ken Jowitt's article, "Rage, Hubris, and Regime Change," for a discussion about why the examples of Germany and Japan after World War II do not disprove this general point, and for an enormously valuable analysis of many related issues.)

Even though the catastrophe of Vietnam happened only a moment ago in historic terms, we never understood the lesson. That failure made the catastrophe of Iraq possible, and even inevitable. Since we failed to learn from our terrible error, we would have made the same mistake again, if not in Iraq, then somewhere else. And given the terms in which so many commentators continue to discuss the disaster of Iraq, we still refuse to learn the lesson. We refuse to give up the notion of our "omnipotence," and the idea that we can achieve anything if we only set our minds to it with sufficient willpower, and if we only execute the plan "competently."

That has never been true for any people, at any time in history. And it is not true for us. We had better learn the lesson, and learn it soon, or the price we will have to pay may be higher and worse than any of us will care to contemplate.

As a final note about this earlier essay, I will point out that the predictions I made in the concluding part of the article have all proven to be entirely accurate. There is no mystery about this: if you understand the principles involved, predicting what must follow is a comparatively simple exercise. But to understand those principles, you must also grasp the relevant context. In this case, that means understanding Iraq and its history, including the fact that it was an artificial nation created by mapmakers in Whitehall after World War I. Neither Britain then nor the United States now ever thought it necessary to understand the peoples of this region, or their own history and culture. For that reason, and as I state below, neither the British nor we ever knew what we were doing in the most important sense.

And we still don't, even now.]

A recent pair of articles illustrates very powerfully the significant, and dangerous, differences between much of the reporting about Iraq in the American press and in the European press. Reading the articles side by side also reveals the enormous failures of comprehension of Iraq's history and culture exhibited by most Americans, including by the American government. Remember that it was Paul Wolfowitz himself who famously (or infamously) said that "there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq." Moreover, a UPI story I first excerpted in November 2003 included this passage on the same general subject [story link no longer working]:
The Pentagon civilian hawks and their neo-conservative media allies who preached the necessity for toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and building a shining monument to American democracy never referred much to Iraqi history and they seem to have known little or any of it, which is not surprising, as few of them had ever visited Iraq.

The general impression one got from their writings, and from the pronouncements of President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and the other masterminds of the war was that Iraq, the legendary site of the Garden of Eden, had indeed been one, and that that state of innocence had endured until Saddam and his allies seized power to establish the Second Baath Republic in 1968 or, at least until the pro-Western monarchy with its trappings of parliamentary democracy was destroyed in the bloody coup of 1958.

But that was not the case.

The history of Iraq before the 35-year-long night of the Baath Republic descended upon it should have provided ample warning that once the lid was lifted off, those long decades of repression, more years of terrorism, assassination and massacre were only too likely to follow. For they were what had gone before. ...

Although Britain came to Iraq as its military conqueror in 1918 with a 300-year long record of imperial conquest and colonial administration unequalled by any other power in modern history, it failed to successfully transplant any of the institutions of freedom and Western democracy there, even though it tried hard to do so for 40 years. And almost as soon as they entered the country, the British faced a ferocious popular uprising of Sunnis and Shiite alike, though dominated by Sunnis, which it mercilessly crushed at the cost of thousands of dead. ...

Friday's frightful bombing in Najaf, coming so soon as it does after the destruction of the U.N. compound in Baghdad and the murder of the chief U.N. envoy within it, serves notice that the bullet, the knife and the bomb are reigning again in Baghdad, just as they did during all those four long decades of supposedly enlightened British rule. U.S. policymakers should cease laboring under the delusion that they are about to change it.
With this background in mind, consider the first of the articles -- "The Mystery of the Insurgency," by James Bennet, appearing in The New York Times:
WASHINGTON -- American forces in Iraq have often been accused of being slow to apply hard lessons from Vietnam and elsewhere about how to fight an insurgency. Yet, it seems from the outside, no one has shrugged off the lessons of history more decisively than the insurgents themselves.

The insurgents in Iraq are showing little interest in winning hearts and minds among the majority of Iraqis, in building international legitimacy, or in articulating a governing program or even a unified ideology or cause beyond expelling the Americans. They have put forward no single charismatic leader, developed no alternative government or political wing, displayed no intention of amassing territory to govern now.

Rather than employing the classic rebel tactic of provoking the foreign forces to use clumsy and excessive force and kill civilians, they are cutting out the middleman and killing civilians indiscriminately themselves, in addition to more predictable targets like officials of the new government. Bombings have escalated in the last two weeks, and on Thursday a bomb went off in heavy traffic in Baghdad, killing 21 people.

This surge in the killing of civilians reflects how mysterious the long-term strategy remains - and how the rebels' seeming indifference to the past patterns of insurgency is not necessarily good news for anyone.

It is not surprising that reporters, and evidently American intelligence agents, have had great difficulty penetrating this insurgency. What is surprising is that the fighters have made so little effort to advertise unified goals.

Counter-insurgency experts are baffled, wondering if the world is seeing the birth of a new kind of insurgency; if, as in China in the 1930's or Vietnam in the 1940's, it is taking insurgents a few years to organize themselves; or if, as some suspect, there is a simpler explanation.

"Instead of saying, 'What's the logic here, we don't see it,' you could speculate, there is no logic here," said Anthony James Joes, a professor of political science at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and the author of several books on the history of guerrilla warfare. The attacks now look like "wanton violence," he continued. "And there's a name for these guys: Losers."


A clear cause - one with broad support - is usually taken for granted by experts as a prerequisite for successful insurgency.

But insurgents in Iraq appear to be fighting for varying causes: Baath Party members are fighting for some sort of restoration of the old regime; Sunni Muslims are presumably fighting to prevent domination by the Shiite majority; nationalists are fighting to drive out the Americans; and foreign fighters want to turn Iraq into a battlefield of a global religious struggle. Some men are said to fight for money; organized crime may play a role.

This incoherence is something new. "If you look at 20th-century insurgencies, they all tend to be fairly coherent in terms of their ideology," Dr. Metz said. "Most of the serious insurgencies, you could sit down and say, 'Here's what they want.'"

In Iraq, insurgent groups appear to share a common immediate goal of ridding Iraq of an American presence, a goal that may find sympathy among Iraqis angry about poor electricity and water service and high unemployment.


What is curious about the Iraqi tactic is that it appears aimed at creating active opposition. The insurgency is powered by Sunnis; the civilians they have killed have been overwhelmingly Shiites and Kurds. The goal appears to be to split apart the fragile governing coalition and foment sectarian strife.

Yet if the insurgents achieve all-out civil conflict, the likely losers are the Sunnis themselves, since they are a minority. Having governed for decades in Iraq, Sunnis are accustomed to the whip hand and may simply assume they will be able to regain control. Or perhaps they are betting that chaos will lead to partition, allowing Sunnis to govern themselves.


If the immediate objective of the insurgents is relatively limited - not to topple the government and drive the Americans out now but to pin them down and bleed them - that at least would have solid precedents. As the counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman noted in a paper for Rand last year, "For more than 30 years, a dedicated cadre of approximately 200 to 400 I.R.A. gunmen and bombers frustrated the maintenance of law and order in Northern Ireland, requiring the prolonged deployment of tens of thousands of British troops." Yet the I.R.A. is still far from its larger goal: to drive the British out.


Yet it may prove to be one of history's humbling lessons that history itself fails to illuminate the conflict under way in Iraq. No one really knows what the insurgents are up to.

"It clearly makes sense to the people who are doing it," said Dr. Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. "And that more than anything else tells us how little we understand the region."
The next article was published in the London Review of Books. Perhaps the point of greatest significance is that its author, Patrick Cockburn, has been reporting from Iraq since 1978. This makes all the difference in the world, but it is a difference our government seems determined to ignore, as a matter of some unstated principle. While Bennet relies on history from everywhere else in the world -- from Vietnam, from Greece, from Northern Ireland -- Cockburn appreciates and understands the central importance of the history of Iraq itself. One might be pardoned for not having thought that this stunningly obvious point would require explanation and justification, but such is the nature of our disastrously failed foreign policy -- a failure which is all too comprehensible, if one knows where to look for the reasons.

So while Bennet is unable to put the pieces together and can only consult other "models" to explain the Iraqi insurgency -- and fails miserably, by his own admission -- Cockburn has no such problem. You should read Cockburn's entire article, but these excerpts capture the main points:
The three months it took to cobble together a government in Iraq after January's election shows the depth of the divisions between the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities. In the north of the country the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds are close to civil war. Their savage skirmishes, around the oil city of Kirkuk and in the streets of Mosul, are generally unreported in Baghdad. The war of 2003 made the Kurds the north's dominant power. They are no longer penned in their mountains, or in their decrepit cities crowded with refugees from the 3800 villages destroyed by Saddam Hussein. But their advance south is contested by the Sunni Arabs, everywhere on the retreat but able to stage daily suicide bomb attacks, ambushes and assassinations.


Whichever town or city I visited in northern Iraq, government officials, almost all of them Kurds, made the same two points: however bad things looked now, they were worse three months ago and the situation was more dangerous further south. ...

Khasro Goran, the deputy governor of Mosul and the leader of the KDP, claimed that security in the city was much improved, though not perfect. The largest government security force in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, are the 14,000-strong, mainly Arab, blue-uniformed police. 'They are not much good at finding terrorists,' Goran said, 'because they are terrorists themselves.' He suspected them of being implicated in the assassination of the previous governor and had warned his own bodyguards against telling the police about his movements: they might try to assassinate him.

The police showed their real sympathies during an uprising on 11 November last year when the resistance entered Mosul in force. It happened a few days after the start of the US Marines' assault on Fallujah -- an assault that one US general claimed would "break the back of the insurgency" -- and so was little noticed by the outside world. The Western media were either confined to their hotels in Baghdad for fear of being kidnapped or embedded with US army units. While triumphant American reporters and generals trumpeted victory from Fallujah, a city with a population of 350,000, the insurgents were able quietly to capture Mosul, which has a population five times as large. The police abandoned their barracks -- some thirty of them are still empty six months later -- and their commander fled. The resistance captured $40 million worth of arms and equipment. Weeks later the bodies of executed Iraqi soldiers were still turning up all over the city. Police loyalty has not improved since. Recently, a Kurdish unit of the Iraqi army was ambushed west of the city, close to the Syrian border. The soldiers pursued their attackers, but only as far as the nearest police station, where they had found refuge. The Kurds say that both groups -- insurgents and police -- belong to the powerful Sunni Arab Shammar tribe.

US influence is on the retreat in Nineveh province, as it is in the rest of Iraq. There are few troops on the ground: no more than six thousand American soldiers remain in an area with a population of nearly three million. For a year after the invasion, 21,000 men from the heavily equipped 101st Airborne Division had been stationed in Mosul. The division's commander, General David Petraeus, probably the most intelligent senior American officer in Iraq, reached a tentative understanding with the local Sunni Arab establishment. Thousands of former army officers took a public oath renouncing the Baath Party. The Kurds were furious that the Americans were truckling to Saddam's former lieutenants. Since then, the American military has changed tack, favouring the Kurds and hostile to the Sunni Arabs. But they have no choice: the Kurds are America's most important ally. In Mosul the CIA depends on Kurdish intelligence. ...

The strength of the armed resistance is misunderstood outside Iraq. It has always been fragmented. Unlike the National Liberation Front in Vietnam or the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, it is not well organised. It grew so fast after the fall of Saddam and proved so effective because the American occupiers managed to make themselves extraordinarily unpopular within days of entering Baghdad. The insurgents have many weaknesses. They have no political wing. The fanatical Sunni fundamentalists, commonly called the Salafi or the Wahhabi, see Iraqi Shias and Christians as infidels just as worthy of death as any US soldier. When American forces damaged two mosques in Mosul in the fighting last November, the resistance blew up two Iraqi Christian churches. Such sectarianism makes it impossible for the resistance to become a truly nationalist movement, but there are four or five million Sunni Arabs -- a strong enough base for an insurgency.

The war will go on in Iraq because no community has got what it wants and none has given up hope of getting it. The Shias, 60 per cent of the population, want power. They turned out to vote in January despite suicide bombers. They now believe that the US, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs are plotting to marginalise them. Political authority in Iraq has always been exercised through the security agencies. That is why, during the three months of negotiations to form a government, the Shias, under the new prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, insisted on getting the Interior Ministry. The US is resisting a full Shia takeover and wants to stop them getting the Defence Ministry as well. Donald Rumsfeld flew in to Baghdad in April to make it plain that Jaafari's proposed purge of "suspected infiltrators" would not be tolerated.

The Sunni Arabs are divided and unclear in their aims. They want the US occupation to end. But, having boycotted the election, they are not sure how they will relate to the new government. Despite the Sunni boycott, the government was elected by popular vote and has a legitimacy its predecessors lacked. The Kurds, almost to their own surprise, are the community which made the biggest gains after Saddam's fall: they hold Kirkuk; they are allied to the US; Jalal Talabani, one of their leaders, is president of Iraq; they enjoy a degree of autonomy close to independence. But they fear that this may be as good as it gets. The government in Baghdad will get stronger in time, and as it does so it may try to restore its authority over Kurdistan.

Politically and militarily strong for now, the Kurds are geographically isolated. It took me two days to travel from Kirkuk to Baghdad: the two-hour road journey is too dangerous, and I had to go by way of Turkey. The only airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, at Arbil, was closed: the central government claims it isn't properly equipped. Traffic between Iraq and Turkey passes over two bridges a few hundred yards apart on a fast-flowing river at Ibrahim Khalil. This might be the longest traffic jam in the world. Columns of trucks and petrol tankers waiting to cross the border stretch back 70 kilometres into Turkey. Sometimes drivers wait two and a half weeks to get across. Turkey, worried by the impact of events in Iraq on its own Kurdish population, tightens or relaxes the regulations for crossing the bridges to show the Iraqi Kurds that it controls their main link with the outside world.


Travelling in Iraq has now become so dangerous for journalists that much of the violence is unreported. For Washington and London the absence of journalists is convenient. The capture of Fallujah by the US Marines last November could be sold as a turning-point in the war only because few realised that Mosul had fallen to the insurgents at the same time. The election itself was presented by Bush and Blair as a triumph for democracy, although the three months it has taken to form a government shows that Iraq is more divided than ever. The safest areas in the country, despite the bomb in Arbil, are the three inner Kurdish provinces: Iraq's 15 other provinces are a bloody no man's land. In the summer heat of the last few weeks, the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates have become warmer. Bodies that were dumped in the river in the winter months are now rising to the surface. Hundreds of them are being buried in temporary graves but nobody knows who they are or why they were killed.
The contrast between these two perspectives is alarming, and damning. The most telling detail from Bennet's article is the final one:
"[The insurgency] clearly makes sense to the people who are doing it," said Dr. Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. "And that more than anything else tells us how little we understand the region."
This statement -- particularly when coupled with Bennet's immediately preceding observation: "history itself fails to illuminate the conflict under way in Iraq" -- pinpoints the problem. The U.S., and most of the American media, have been and remain resolutely determined to look at the wrong history. They act as if Iraq's own history, including its long, bloody history of ethnic strife (pace Wolfowitz), is entirely irrelevant. It is hardly a mystery why they are then unable to grasp what is right before their eyes. They look at events in Iraq (to the extent they do look at them, which is far from comprehensive as Cockburn makes very clear) through the prism of ideas they have gleaned from other countries' histories -- and the reality of Iraq itself never assumes solid shape before them.

This determined refusal to look at and understand the relevant facts, including the crucially relevant history, is a significant part of the reason why Bush's repeated mantra that "everyone wants freedom," and moreover that everyone wants freedom in roughly the same form that we enjoy it, is so hollow and so unconvincing. It was not true in Vietnam, and it is not true in Iraq. Peoples' attitudes, objectives, alliances and enmities are uniquely shaped by their particular history -- not by ours, or by no history at all. And it is the latter that is unavoidably implied by the attitude revealed by Bennet in his article, and by the Bush administration: they seem to believe that "freedom" and "democracy" are abstractions that are plucked by people from the sky overhead -- and then applied by everyone in precisely the same manner, regardless of history, geography, culture and every other aspect of their specific lives.

Or, as Barbara Tuchman expressed the point with regard to Vietnam:
Americans were always talking about freedom from Communism, whereas the freedom that the mass of Vietnamese wanted was freedom from their exploiters, both French and indigenous. The assumption that humanity at large shared the democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delusion. "The freedom we cherish and defend in Europe," stated President Eisenhower on taking office, "is no different than the freedom that is imperiled in Asia." He was mistaken. Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary according to circumstances.
We invaded and occupied Iraq thinking that Iraq's own history was utterly irrelevant to our own aims. The Iraqis wanted freedom, we thought, just as everyone does; we would provide it, even if we had to do so at the point of a gun, and even if we had to kill roughly 100,00 Iraqis (or more) to do it. As I noted yesterday, this is why we failed before the first U.S. soldier set foot on Iraqi soil. In the most critical sense, we never bothered to educate ourselves about the history and desires of the people we set out to "liberate" (even if we grant that was the aim, despite all the evidence to the contrary) -- which meant that, fundamentally, we did not know what we were doing.

And we still don't, as Bennet's article and many similar ones make painfully clear. And this is yet another reason why I maintain, as I explained yesterday, that we should leave immediately, or as close to immediately as we can -- and set a time limit of six months at the outside, for example, for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Not only are we a significant source of the ongoing violence, but we continue to refuse to learn about the nature of the Iraqis themselves, and what their perspectives and their aims are.

Because we are determined to remain ignorant of the actual nature and consequences of our own actions, and because this state of ignorance appears to be ongoing and unchangeable, the degree of the disaster will only increase. This is why we must leave now. The longer our withdrawal is delayed, the greater the devastation will be.

Ignorance is never bliss -- and it is especially not bliss when a huge military force is deployed against another nation, one which never seriously threatened us, and when we engage in torture, murder and devastation on a huge and unforgivable scale. Our actions are only made worse when they are supposedly "justified" by the indiscriminate use of terms such as "liberation" and "freedom," when those otherwise laudable and even glorious goals are used in a manner devoid of context and lacking in any specific meaning.

It is tragically common in mankind's history to see entire governments and societies watch while bloody and unforgivably monstrous horrors unfold before their eyes -- while the explanations for those horrors are also directly in front of them, and they remain steadfast in their determination to refuse to understand. We are now seeing this embrace of ignorance -- ignorance on principle, ignorance as a pitiful and pathetic defense against the necessity of admitting that a grievous error has been made -- yet again.

Thus the horrors continue, and more people die. And still, we will not see.