The single most basic fallacy underlying the present American catastrophe in Iraq is the belief that the U.S. can somehow solve that country’s problems, however extreme and intractable they may seem; that, in short, we are part of the solution in Iraq, not part of the problem. Once you’re thinking that way, it’s always a matter of setting the latest incorrect or inept tactics right, or of changing a policy that has been incompetently put into operation by unprepared administrators wielding too few resources too poorly.
But the belief in the power of the United States to solve problems for others — by force — reflects a deep-seated imperial mind-set that exists not just in the Bush administration, but among its mainstream critics as well. You can see it everywhere, if you care to look. You can note it in the way, as things continue to devolve in Iraq, the military and its various internal critics have been bobbing and weaving from one set of counterproductive counterinsurgency tactics to another (each time claiming that the previous set had somehow overlooked basic insurgency doctrine or the lessons of Vietnam). The latest of these is a modified version of the old (failed) Vietnam “ink blot” strategy in which we pull troops back to Baghdad, a city now evidently in utter, violent disarray, to nail down at least some of the capital’s neighborhoods (while denuding troop strength in areas of Sunni Iraq where the insurgency rages).
Or consider the latest in Bush administration thinking. In a superb front-page New York Times piece last week, Bombs Aimed at G.I.’s in Iraq Are Increasing, reporters Michael R. Gordon, Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker offered impressive evidence that, since the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Sunni insurgency against the Americans and allied Iraqi forces has only heightened. Perhaps most striking were the final paragraphs of the piece, meant only for news junkies and buried deep inside the paper (reinforcing my sense that the imperial press can sometimes most profitably be read from back to front):
“Yet some outside experts who have recently visited the White House said Bush administration officials were beginning to plan for the possibility that Iraq’s democratically elected government might not survive.
“‘Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy,’ said one military affairs expert who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.
“‘Everybody in the administration is being quite circumspect,’ the expert said, ‘but you can sense their own concern that this is drifting away from democracy.’”
White House spokesman Tony Snow was forced to deny this at a press briefing the next day, but it makes complete sense. This was, after all, the solution the elder Bush’s top officials looked to after the first Gulf War. They hoped a war-weakened Saddam would be overthrown by a Baathist strongman from within his own military, someone we could deal with — as we had with him in the 1980s. (Juan Cole speculates that this time around it would be “a Shiite ex-Baathist officer in the old Iraqi army who knew how to make people an offer they couldn’t refuse.”) Even in the unlikely event that it were possible to put such a plan into effect, it’s a given that it, too, would fail. That the Bush administration is looking for new solutions to the Iraqi conundrum, however, should be unsurprising.
So many situations in our world make a mockery of all attempts at prediction; and yet Iraq, since March 2003, has seemed otherwise. There is a terrible logic to the situation in that country, which has only worsened incrementally under three-plus years of American (and British) occupation. Whatever the promises, whatever the “turning points,” whatever the provisional good news offered at any moment, the situation in that country (and the region) only gets worse.
In this case, history should be our guide. As long as Americans believe that Iraq is some kind of imperial Rubik’s cube, where what’s at stake is hitting on just the right combination of tactics, plans, and political mix inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, as long as we believe that we are indeed part of the solution, not part of the problem, matters will only continue to worsen.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.]