Thomas Friedman: Insurgency Out, Anarchy In

When Thomas “it’s-not-too-late-to-win-in-Iraq” Friedman throws in the towel, we know we’re in serious doo doo. And you needn’t be a seer to read between the lines of this story to see that Friedman now considers Iraq to be a lost cause. A lot of readers criticized me when I said we were going to lose Iraq to the theocrats, not the insurgents. If you’re with me today, don’t miss the next-to-last paragraph of this grim column.

Insurgency Out, Anarchy In
Published: June 2, 2006

President Bush has told us that the question of whether to withdraw from Iraq is one that his successor will have to deal with — not him. I don’t think so. Mr. Bush is not going to have that luxury of passing Iraq along. You see, the insurgency in Iraq is in its “last throes” — just like Dick Cheney said. Unfortunately, it’s being replaced by anarchy in many neighborhoods — not democracy. And I don’t believe the American people will put up with two and half more years of babysitting anarchy instead of midwifing democracy.

The report that U.S. marines were involved in a massacre of Iraqis in Haditha — which the Pentagon needs to clarify fast — is a tragic reminder that a foreign occupation by U.S. forces can’t go on for years. Most U.S. soldiers in Iraq have done heroic work, but occupations that drag on inevitably lead to Hadithas.

Right now we are paying for all the Bush team’s missteps in Iraq: allowing looting after the fall of Baghdad, disbanding the Iraqi Army without an alternative security force or enough U.S. troops in place, fostering a culture of torture at Abu Ghraib and then letting the politics in Iraq drift for months without any outcome.

All of this created a security vacuum that has allowed a rogue’s gallery of sectarian militias, death squads, gangs and Al Qaeda operatives to mushroom in Basra, Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle. The end result: while the mainstream Iraqi Sunnis have now joined the government, in a major way, this has not brought more stability. Because between the sectarian militias now murdering each other’s civilians, tit for tat, and Al Qaeda just blowing up Iraqi civilians randomly, the new government can’t get going. Too many Iraqis are paralyzed by fear.

Indeed, there has been a subtle but important change in the violence in Iraq. The main enemy in many places is no longer the Sunni insurgency. It is anarchy. Mini-wars of all against all. As the BBC reported Wednesday from Basra: Prime Minister Nuri Maliki “has declared a monthlong state of emergency in Basra, which has been plagued by sectarian clashes, anarchy and factional rivalry.” That’s what happens in a security vacuum.

Once this kind of militia madness takes root, it’s very hard to uproot. U.S. troops can’t do it, because it would require searching homes, neighborhood by neighborhood. Only a cohesive Iraqi national army could do that. And that can only be the product of a real national unity government, in which all parties feel they have a fair share of the pie and are committed to investing in an Iraqi army — not their own militia.

And such a national unity government can only be the product of Iraq’s leaders deciding whether they love their kids more than they hate each other. That is the most important question Iraqis must answer. It can’t be avoided any longer. That being the case, it is time for America to starting talking “deadlines.” Too many Iraqi factions think they can just keep wrestling each other for small advantage while the country burns, but the U.S. Army provides a floor of security that prevents total chaos. The Iraqi parties need to know that we are not going to be played this way forever. Only an Iraq that can come together and make a fist can crush this militia culture.

Salvaging Iraq is still hugely important — for itself and for the region, which is facing two big trends. One is a population explosion, producing millions of young people looking for work. And the other is a huge explosion of windfall oil profits. Today, many autocratic Arab regimes are using these oil profits just to buy off their population explosions — in the form of government jobs and subsidized food and fuel — not to educate and empower their youth for the 21st century. But when the price of oil falls, and it will eventually, and these populations continue to rise, we will see destabilizing social explosions throughout the Arab world. It would be very helpful to have a different model in place in Iraq before that happens.

But the hour is late and the enemy is unique. We are not losing Iraq to the Iraqi Vietcong — traditional nationalists. Iraq has a freely elected nationalist government. No, we are losing in Iraq to sectarian theocrats, Islamo-fascists and local and regional tyrants, who have only one thing in common: the belief that America and its Iraqi allies must fail, that neither modernity nor democracy must be allowed to take root in Iraq.

It will be a global tragedy if they succeed, but it is hard to fight an enemy whose only concern is that you lose, not what happens after. It is impossible, though, without Iraqi leaders who can make a fist. We can’t keep asking Americans to sacrifice their children for people who hate each other more than they love their own children.

The Discussion: 2 Comments

It’s not too late, yet. Saddam is still alive. Couldn’t we let him out of jail and give him his old job back? He did a better job of maintaining law and order and preventing sectarian bloodshed/fundamentalism than the “coalition”. It doesn’t say much when your administration makes a butcher like him look like a capable ruler, does it? Halabja, Haditha. In fifty years will people lump them together?

June 2, 2006 @ 5:41 am | Comment

Yes, Friedman is now more pessimistic on Iraq than ever. It’s been at a very high price, but one of the positive results from the Iraq fiasco, is it has killed the great dream of latter day neo Conservatism. The notion of remaking the world in the image of corporatized America by force is pretty much dead.
Even some of neo Conservatism’s leading intellectuals who once theorized about exporting “democracy” to unwilling regimes at gunpoint, are now recanting. Francis Fukayama, once a leading theorist of this daffy notion, has recanted. He no longer believes unilateral military endeavor can succeed at spreading democracy.
Iraq is the most obvious failure, but Afghanistan too, is devolving into an unreclaimable situation, as the Taliban are growing in resurgence.
Yes, fundamentalist theocracies are likely to
reappear in Afghanistan, and to emerge in an Iran-allied Shiite Iraqi south, and. if Zarqawi has his way, among the Sunnis as well.

I think the Bush regime is now staring into a black hole of total failure of their middle eastern foreign policy, a policy that has increased rather than diminished the threat of terrorism and militant Islam. Heckuva job, George.

Kudos to Richard for continuing to post Times columns.

June 2, 2006 @ 6:03 pm | Comment

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