The Platonic war in Iraq

The disaster in Iraq is getting so obvious that even previous supporters of the war are now growing cold about it. One of the more prominent liberal hawks, Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times started a recent column (, not free):

It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war.

Friedman has been enthusiastic both about the war and about creating “one good example in the heart of the Arab world of a decent, progressive state, where the politics of fear and tribalism do not reign”. But now he feels disillusioned about the whole thing and wants to pull US troops out. For those of us who have always opposed the Iraq war, it is positive that even some of its supporters are starting to see the mess created, instead of just denying it. But when you read Friedman’s column, you see that’s he still committed to the principle of the war in Iraq, the Platonic ideal of the perfect war and aftermath, that should have happened and somehow didn’t. He says himself:

Whether for Bush reasons or Arab reasons, it [the creation of a progressive state] is not happening, and we can’t throw more good lives after good lives.

The blame then, is due to Bush or the ‘Arabs’. Taking the Bush half, first, was it plausible before the war that Bush would deal with the situation well? I think even then it was clear that Bush and his administration were lying about the reasons for the war, were not capable of sustained attention to a foreign policy initiative (as in Afghanistan), had poor intelligence but grandiose ideas about the Middle East, had little idea on how to fight guerilla warfare/carry out counter-terrorism and were willing to play fast and loose with the Geneva conventions. In the last few years we have learnt something of the fresh depths of the US government’s incompetence and untrustworthiness, but the outline were already clear before the war. And the US and UK armies were always going to be placed in one of the most difficult military situations going, occupying a country and fighting guerillas without alienating the surrounding population.

The more pernicious bit is Friedman’s reference to ‘Arab reasons’. I think we can already see here the outline of the revisionist view of the war. The US behaved and performed superbly: the resultant mess was all the Iraqis’ fault (though Friedman presumably wants to cast the blame wider as well to include other Arab nations).

There is one obvious problem with blaming the Iraqis (or the Arabs) for what happened: they didn’t get asked if they wanted the war. What else did the ‘Arabs’ do that they shouldn’t have done? The Iraqis took a long time to form a Cabinet, because (the shame of it), some political groups were trying to take partisan advantage of the war (Americans would never do that). Some Iraqis have resisted the occupying force. Some Iraqis have put loyalty to their ethnic group or religion before their commitment to Iraq. Some Iraqis have become terrorists. A ‘militia culture’ has developed, as Friedman puts it. Outside states, such as Iran, have supported particular factions. (It is only because Bush and Blair are complete irony-free zones that they could tell Iran that outside forces shouldn’t get involved in Iraq with a straight face).

All this has very little to do with being Arab: there are parallels from the aftermath of the French Revolution, Northern Ireland and former Yugoslavia, just to name a few of the most obvious. If you are in a dangerous situation, tribalism and sectarianism, the resort to violence and militias are commonplace reactions. An immediate transition to a decent progressive state would have required a level of self-sacrificing saintliness from large numbers of Iraqis far beyond what is normal for any country undergoing violent changes. Friedman’s comments, by ignoring this, contribute another small intellectual part to the demonization of Arabs/Muslims as intrinsically bad/irrational/fanatical/incapable of democracy.


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