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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Civil War

by tristero

Ever optimistic, the Times surveys opinions on what Civil War would be like in Iraq if civil war comes. While there is much that is interesting here, I am also struck by the amount of naivete on display* and the poor organization of the article. For example, this would appear to be perhaps the most striking and important "news" to impart to Americans:
[Kenneth] Pollack cautions that a civil war could prove especially painful for the Shiites. There is no reason, he says, to assume that they won't fight among themselves. The three major Shiite movements each have militias. Sometimes they have clashed... "There are a thousand Shiite militias that could do battle against each other, splintering even the southern part of Iraq."
The way the story's usually been played in the US press is that it's Shia vs. Sunni. Not so. The situation is far more complex. So where does the Times put this important information? Near the end of the article.

While Pollack is right to point out the dangers of infra-Shia strife, he is wrong elsewhere in the piece to claim that such strife is the first thing one would see in an Iraqi civil war - Sunnis may be a minority, but they were, and still are, a powerful minority. The first thing you'd see, obviously would be something close to what we are, indeed, seeing: increasingly violent actions between Shia and Sunnis. Nor is Pollack accurate in opining that "a civil war could prove especially painful for the Shiites." If nearly any Shia faction wins a violent civil war, Sunnis will experience major league political repression. As in state sponsored torture and murder. If anything, it's the Sunnis who will find a civil war "especially painful," assuming they lose. And, among many other factors, it is their desperation - rightly, they don't trust a "legit" Shia government to treat them well - that is behind their present attacks.

Pollack's emphasis on Shia-Shia conflict seems an academic distortion, going for the unusual angle. But that's nothing compared to this unattributed whopper:
Some experts, however, say Iran may understand the dangers of a war. Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denunciation of the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra last week, in which he blamed Zionists rather than Sunnis, could be seen as an act of restraint, these experts say — an effort to play to Shiite anger without fanning flames between Iraq's Islamic communities.
Now this is such an unspeakably stupid analysis of what Iran is up to that it could only come from a high Bush administration official. I'm quite serious. Another clue it's from a Bushite is its sense of loony "accentuate the positive" thinking. And indeed, the context gives a pretty clear clue where this idiocy probably came from. Backing up one paragraph we read:
While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has proclaimed that the world has isolated Iran more than ever because of its nuclear ambitions, Iran has in fact tightened relationships with it local allies as events in Iraq have played out. In recent months, Iran has been deepening its alliance with Syria and the Shiite movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now it appears ready to strike up a friendship, backed by financing, with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Some experts, however, say Iran may understand the dangers of a war. Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denunciation ...
Am I saying Condoleeza Rice is the moron who sees hope in Iran's anti-Zionism/semitism? No, not exactly. But anyone who is making the fundamental error Rice is making - focusing on Iran's "world" isolation while downplaying its strengthening of regional ties, including to Hamas - is quite capable of misconstruing Ahmadinejad's remarks to mean Iran is not doing whatever it can to grasp as much purchase within Iraq as possible. And if it came to a war that led to Iraq's total disintegration, it is unclear what Iran stands to lose.

The article also floats the idea of a negotiated breakup of Iraq into three states. Good luck. Who gets the oil regions, boys and girls? Who gets the desert? And who moves? And who sez Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are just gonna twiddle their fingers and not interfere?

There is much more interesting speculation and detail about how truly incredibly complex the mess in Iraq is, and how few alternatives exist that won't quickly lead to disaster for the people of the region, and the people of the United States. Will Turkey invade to defend the Turkomen against oppression if Iraq's Kurds officially set up on their own? Will the Arab League step in to intervene? And looming above it all are nukes. Iranian nukes coming soon. Potential Sunni Arab nukes depending on how the situation worsens (calling Dr. A. Q. Khan!).

So, Mr. Tom Friedman, are you enjoying the real live political experiment now? So, Mr. George Packer, still think that those of us who absolutely knew Bush/Iraq would open the gates of hell have "second-rate minds?"

Hey, y'never know! Maybe Ahmadinejad really was sending a signal that Iran wasn't interested in an Iraq civil war when he blamed Zionists - Israel -for the attack. True, that could be because he wants to attack Israel first, but at least it's not supporting civil war in Iraq!

Yes, it's possible. And maybe there really is a Bigfoot. And maybe tomorrow, cold fusion will work and, as Woody Allen predicted in Sleeper, cigarette smoking will turn out to improve your health and longevity. You never know...

*I am no expert on the Middle East. Why am I so confident many of the "expert opinions" in this article are naive? Here goes:

To be deemed an expert on the Middle East, one would assume that the prerequisite would be fluency in several dialects of Arabic, fluency in Persian, fluency in Hebrew, and considerable time spent living and working in the Middle East. But one would be wrong. Most American "experts" in the public domain -there are real experts in universities, I assume - know one of those languages. At best, two. Many can't read or speak any of them, and rely on assistants and clipping services for information on Middle Eastern press and mass media. Incredibly, language fluency is still considered not a requirement for marketing yourself as a pundit whose specialty is the Middle East. And many people defend this.

In my book, there's a word to describe anyone who claims expertise in Middle Eastern affairs who can't read Iranian or Iraqi newspapers, or needs a translator to understand al Jazeera, or whose experience of the region is limited to a guided tour of the pyramids or an overnight stay at the King David Hotel: phony.

Simple commonsense tells me that Iran stands to gain quite a bit from Iraq's disintegration and stands to lose little even if there is furious intra-Shia civil war in Iraq. Simple commonsense tells me that when Iran sends a message to the world that Zionists destroyed the Shiite shrine, they are clearly trying to unify Muslims against a common enemy - Israel - and they are not saying anything, one way or the other, about the desirability of Iraqi civil war. Commonsense also tells me that when Iran's president sends a message to the world, that message is intended primarily for Muslims and that US analysts make a fundamental error when it assumes "the world" means us.

I'll gladly defer to genuine expert opinion on any of this, but I doubt that any seriously real scholar would make assertions like the silly ones cited above. Pollack's sense that Shias would endure "special pain" in a civil war is vacuous and dishonest, used only to hype his superior knowledge of the complexities, but shows not a trace of any superior understanding. For one thing, "speical pain" is empirically unverifiable. Furthermore, his argument is naive in its assumption that a Shia/Sunni strife can never get bloody enough to meet most standards for what is meant by the term "civil war."I'm afraid we are seeing Pollack proved wrong on a daily basis right now.

As for the anonymous misconstrual of Iran's remarks, that is less naive than it is delusional.