In the 15 years during which I more or less regularly conducted a column for this newspaper, I can’t recall presuming to address issues of foreign policy more than once or twice. I suppose this is because I’ve always found the question of what kind of country we want this one to be more interesting and pertinent in both the short and long run than what kind of a country we want Iraq or the former Yugoslavia or China or Mexico to be.
Indeed, I rather suspect that satisfactory answers to the former are more likely to lead to satisfactory answers to the latter than what has been produced since Vietnam—with a few obvious exceptions—by our foreign-policy nomenklatura in and out of government. For some years, I have felt that if we want a sensible foreign policy that truly serves the interests of the Great Republic and its citizens, we should target an Axis of Blather, beginning with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reflecting on how to solve Iraq, and I think the answer is Chaos—a solution I put forward somewhat (but not altogether) in the spirit of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”
Yes, that’s right, chaos: the state of anarchic existential randomness into which Iraq is generally expected to descend in the event of a total American pullout in the near future. So it has been decreed by pundits and politicians of every shade and stripe of moral and intellectual narcissism. Not that their ideas are worth a damn: If our talking heads were licensed the way drivers are, with penalty points assessed for egregiously wrong predictions or verminous sinking-ship abandonment, they’d most of ’em by now be taking the bus or subway.
It’s my view that our difficulties in our latest Mesopotamian adventure stem largely from mistaking a sectarian regime for a secular one. This confusion—which required a contemptible willingness to ignore historians like Bernard Lewis—inclined Washington, and through Washington the nation, to see the Sunnis and Shiites as essentially hyper-excited versions of the Democrats and Republicans, good fellows all, who might fight each other tooth and nail across the aisle but at the end of the day would sit down and share a hookah and three cheers for democracy. Saddam Hussein encouraged this mistaken perception; the guy looked like our kind of dictator, what with the uniforms and the statues—Noriega without the acne, Hitler with a bigger mustache. Saddam kept the mullahs behind the arras and spent less time in church than our President.
It’s sectarian violence that mainly bedevils Iraq today—not merely internal sectarian strife, but as promoted, armed and financed by external meddlers such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, who have little in common save this: For a variety of reasons, from a variety of motives, they can all target Uncle Sam, which gives their bloody-mindedness a common thread.
Which then forces the question: Remove the United States from the Iraq equation, and what common ground is left for the warring factions? If we go, who is left to kill but each other? On whose back will Al Qaeda paint its bull’s eye? Terrorists need someone to terrorize. For that matter, insurgents need someone to insurge against. Right now, we’re it—and will be as long as there’s an American boot-sole on Iraqi turf. As long as we’re there, Iraq is an opportunity for Tehran and Damascus and, for all I know, Riyadh to make or finance bloody sorties from the long shadow cast by the Great Satan and to point spiny accusing fingers at the Stars and Stripes. But if we leave, we take our flag and shadow with us—and what is now an opportunity for Iran, Syria, Al Qaeda, etc., becomes for them, overnight, a problem.
Iraqi Sunni and Iraqi Shiite will still be after each other’s blood, presumably, and the bloodletting will continue, abetted by the foreign patrons—Arabs vs. Persians, with the Kurds (helped by the Turks) tearing scraps off the edges. I think we should step aside and let these people go at each other until, exhausted and blood-weary, they petition the West to convene a diplomatic solution. It could get pretty exciting. Suppose Iran jumps in on the Shiite side with a tread heavy enough to frighten the Saudis into petitioning the U.S., even Israel, for a bit of nuclear help in leveling the playing field?
Thus my plea for chaos, which may be the only starting-point, as things now stand, for an eventual sorting-out that will produce some level of stability. Considering all the other good things that chaos has ultimately yielded over the aeons, why not give it a chance in Iraq? Alexander Pope famously foresaw the advent of chaos’ “dread Empire”; we got the Industrial Revolution instead.
Oh, and one last thing: the oil. Not to worry. It’ll get out. It always does. After all, at the end of the day, in the world according to that great, great philosopher T. Friedman, it’s the profits that count—not the prophets.