February 04, 2007

Becoming a Barbarian, Pariah Nation: What Are You Waiting For?

I first read this article by Fouad Ajami last week. I found it altogether depressing and horrifying, and I wasn't of a mind to offer commentary about it until now. There are several aspects of Ajami's observations and overall perspective that are worthy of note.

The most significant element in Ajami's approach is his unquestioning acceptance of American hegemony in the Middle East. He never analyzes or comments upon the "right" of the United States to rearrange this region of the world in accordance with America's goals and desires: Ajami treats this "right" as axiomatic and self-evident. This approach is, of course, fully consistent with that embraced by the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment. It is the Open Door world that U.S. power (especially its unequaled military power) is entitled to create as it sees fit. To see this premise displayed so openly, without even a moment's consideration that this might not be the preordained way of the world, has its own perverse fascination.

The title of Ajami's article is, "The American Iraq." The phrase is not his, but he enthusiastically accepts the designation:
One of Iraq's most respected scholar-diplomats, Hassan al-Alawi, has put the matter in stark terms. It is proper, he said, to speak of an "American Iraq" as one does of a Sumerian, a Babylonian, an Abbasid, an Ottoman, and then a British Iraq. Where Iraq in the age of the Pax Britannica rested on an "Anglo-Sunni" regime, this new Iraq, in the time of the Americans, is by the logic of things an American-Shia regime. The militant preachers railing against the fall of Baghdad to an alliance of the "American crusaders" and the "Shia heretics" are the bearers of a dark, but intensely felt conviction. We should not be apologetic, in Arab lands seething with bigotry and rage, about our expedition into Iraq. We shouldn't fall for Arab rulers who tell us that they would have had the ability to call off the furies had we had in place a "process" for resolving the claims of the Palestinians, and had we been able to "deliver" Israel. Those furies have a life of their own...
Note what is left completely unexamined. A very different kind of observer might note the tragedy of a region that undergoes one conquest and occupation after another, over countless centuries. Ajami only notes the fact -- and then uses that fact to establish the inexorable logic of referring to an "American Iraq." I doubt his examination would be so passionless and disinterested if the country involved were, say, the United States itself.

And what is one to say about this: "We should not be apologetic, in Arab lands seething with bigotry and rage, about our expedition into Iraq." This is argumentation that is far from admirable, and not even logical on the most elementary level. Even if it were the case that certain "Arab lands" criticize our actions largely for motives that are to be deplored ("bigotry and rage"), that has nothing to do with an evaluation of what we have done. Ajami entirely avoids the facts that I repeatedly stress, and that ought to serve as the foundation for all further analysis: Iraq had not attacked us, and Iraq did not constitute a serious threat to the United States. So, to put the matter very simply, what the hell are we doing there? Self-defense was not our motive; consolidating our hegemonic regional role was. For Ajami, this issue need not even be identified. As I have often noted, our national discussion itself completely avoids this issue. We are America, and the world is rightfully ours. Many Americans disapprove of the Iraq disaster only because we haven't easily "won," and it appears we may finally "lose." They will not even entertain the idea that not a single American has any right to be there in the first place.

The next passage from Ajami I want to note is equally stunning, for a different reason. Leave aside your evaluation of Ajami's accuracy on narrower issues, and reflect on the major point conveyed here:
For our part, the Pax Americana has not been at peace with the Shia genie it had called forth. We did not know the Shia to begin with; we saw them through the prism of our experience with Iran. Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut: This was the face of the new Shiism and we were spooked by it. And we were susceptible as well to the representations made to us by Arab rulers about the dangers of radical Shiism.

This was odd: We had been in the midst of a searing battle with al Qaeda and the Taliban, zealous Sunni movements, but we were still giving credence to the Arab warnings about the threat of Shiism. Nor were the Shia who would finally claim power in Iraq possessed of an appreciable understanding of American ways. Nouri al-Maliki speaks not a word of English; with years of exile in Syria behind him, he was at considerable disadvantage in dealing with the American presence in his country. He and the political class around him lacked the traffic with American diplomacy that had seasoned their counterparts in Cairo, Amman and the Arabian Peninsula. Without that intimacy, they had been given to premonitions that America could yet strike a bargain, at their expense, with the Sunni order of power.
Ajami thus confirms what I have maintained for some time: on the most fundamental level, and overlooking for the moment the criminality of our invasion and occupation, we have never known what we were doing in Iraq. "We did not know the Shia to begin with..." Considering what we have done, and that we have murdered over half a million innocent Iraqis and an entire country, this leaves one close to speechless.

I have been over this ground in detail before. If this particular subject is of interest, I refer you to these two earlier essays: Embracing Ignorance on Principle, and a follow-up piece, Sacred Ignorance. We are ignorant on principle because we believe that "everyone wants what we want." We are America the Exceptional, and we are uniquely privileged among the peoples of the world. When we invade and slaughter, it is to make the world "a better place." Since World War II, our expeditions of "improvement" have been numerous and unending.

Finally, we come to Ajami's conclusion and his ultimate evaluation. But for the endless horrors of our actions, this would be pathetic in its full, abject retreat from the loftier (albeit false) phrases of only a year or two ago:
There is a "balance of terror" today between the Sunni and Shia protagonists. More and more Sunni Arabs know that their old dominion is lost, and that they had better take the offer on the table--a share of the oil revenues, the promise that the constitution could be amended and reviewed, access to political power and spoils in return for reining in the violence and banishing the Arab jihadists. The Shia, too, may have to come to a time of reckoning.


The country has been fought over, and a verdict can already be discerned--rough balance between its erstwhile Sunni rulers and its Shia inheritors, and a special, autonomous life for the Kurds.


This is the country midwifed by American power. We were never meant to stay there long. Iraq will never approximate the expectations we projected onto it in more innocent times. But we should be able to grant it the gift of acceptance, and yet another dose of patience as it works its way out of its current torments. It is said that much of the war's nobility has drained out of it, and that we now fight not to lose, and to keep intact our larger position in the oil lands of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. This may not be the stuff of glory, but it has power and legitimacy all its own.
I give Ajami full points for clarity, but what he is clear about is abominable.

The notion that a "balance of terror" can lead to the restructuring of a nation to any significant extent is laughable to a degree that is indescribable. As the news that assaults us daily proves, this "balance of terror" fails to represent any sort of "balance" for more than several hours at a time, if even that. Tragically and horrifyingly, it may simply be the case that the violence must continue until it finally exhausts itself, at which point the surviving Iraqis can attempt to cobble together whatever may remain.

"We were never meant to stay there long." We will be in Iraq for decades to come, as the "enduring bases" attest. The unapologetic, naked dishonesty finally shines through.

"[W]e should be able to grant it the gift of acceptance, and yet another dose of patience..." The paternalism and condescension of our "exceptionalism" is nauseating, and never to be questioned in even the smallest degree. "[W]e now fight not to lose, and to keep intact our larger position in the oil lands of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf." Our "right" to control the world and alter it as we choose is unchallengeable.

And what we have "midwifed" -- and it is impossible to imagine a more sickening word in this context, one which reeks of our sense of entitlement and superiority -- is slaughter, destruction, chaos and endless horror. The dreams of American power that could transform the world have finally been revealed as the reality that was always inevitable: a nightmare world where murder, dismemberment, violent chaos and worse are the only constants, and where all hopes of even a minimally decent life have been banished. Civilization itself has been destroyed.

Yet, despite these crimes, the war chants rise once again, this time directed at Iran. If we should attack Iran in the near future, much of the world will treat us as we will fully deserve: as a barbarian, pariah nation, which no one can trust and which will join the most monstrous countries in history.

Is there a massive protest from Americans about the route we may follow? No. Are the Democrats who now control Congress at least trying to avert this catastrophe, which may be the last? No -- because they fully share the belief in American "exceptionalism" and in our "right" to worldwide hegemony. Is there even one prominent voice in America regularly explaining the horror of what we have already done, and what we may still do? No.

If this remains unchanged, and if we launch another war of blatant, unforgivable aggression, we will deserve everything we get -- and more. Historians, if there are any in the years to come, will see what we were and what we did, and they will judge us accordingly.

I honestly don't have the slightest idea what people are waiting for, before they finally begin to take action against the still worse nightmare that might be coming. I think most people must tell themselves that it won't be "that bad." But it will be; it will probably be worse than anything we can imagine.

The blindness and passivity of most Americans is unrelenting. It appears to be unchangeable. If we continue down this road, I doubt that even God will forgive us.

And truly, why should He? Why should anyone?

UPDATE: This is what a "balance of terror" means:
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Army 1st Lt. Antonio Hardy took a slow look around the east Baghdad neighborhood that he and his men were patrolling. He grimaced at the sound of gunshots in the distance. A machine gunner on top of a Humvee scanned the rooftops for snipers. Some of Hardy's men wondered aloud if they'd get hit by a roadside bomb on the way back to their base.

"To be honest, it's going to be like this for a long time to come, no matter what we do," said Hardy, 25, of Atlanta. "I think some people in America don't want to know about all this violence, about all the killings. The people back home are shielded from it; they get it sugar-coated."

While senior military officials and the Bush administration say the president's decision to send more American troops to pacify Baghdad will succeed, many of the soldiers who're already there say it's a lost cause.

"What is victory supposed to look like? Every time we turn around and go in a new area there's somebody new waiting to kill us," said Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Gill, 29, of Pulaski, Tenn., as his Humvee rumbled down a dark Baghdad highway one evening last week.
But, Ajami reassures us, "it has power and legitimacy all its own."

What we have done is unspeakable, and eternally unforgivable.