I knew it would happen, but the sudden absence of decent journalistic coverage and scholarly analysis on Iraq is both tragic and appalling. We knew more about the country in 2007, when it was about to collapse, than we do now, as it enters what is probably its most crucial year since 1958. If “the surge” was a household phrase in 2007, and Anbar was as familiar to the average American as Anchorage, few people outside the region today seem to grasp the magnitude of the challenges ahead.
First, Iraq has to get through extraordinarily difficult local elections without imploding, then deal with the inevitable sore losers while maintaining a semblance of law and order. Then it needs to take care of the nasty business of sorting out the multiethnic tangles in Kirkuk, Mosul and other disputed areas. While that’s going on, it has to try to contend with the fact that, as per a security agreement that may yet unravel, U.S. troops will pull out of their inner city outposts, return to their megabases and thenceforth be available for backup only when it suits the whims of politicians. And then, just as Iraq has adjusted to this new reality, it will have to start preparing for an even bigger hurdle, the next national elections — unless, frustrated with the messiness of freedom, it has by that time reverted back to strongman rule. (If I haven’t mentioned corruption, refugees, Iranian meddling or sectarian mistrust, it’s only because I don’t want to belabour the point.)
Sure, the local elections will create a flutter of interest in the West, as news organisations expecting spectacular violence will scramble their hordes and briefly redeploy to Baghdad. And I’m sure if things get really bad — whatever the journalistic measure of ‘badness’ may be — there will be a renewed focus on the wreckage America has left behind. But the fact remains that to most of the media, a sizeable section of the academia, and to the general public, the Iraq war is as good as over. Just as it did after U.S. withdrawal from other troublespots, like Lebanon and Somalia, world attention has shifted, only to focus on some other godforsaken piece of violence-ridden real estate, and don’t count on it being Afghanistan for long.
The counter-argument to this is that the war in Iraq hasn’t just disappeared from the headlines but that it really is over, that victory is at hand, that the United States and the rest of us along with it should move on, that by sticking around and insisting that the worst may be yet to come we are somehow guilty of being stuck in the past. Iraq was always a brutal place, this argument goes, and no matter what the U.S. does or doesn’t do, there will always be residual violence — an irreducible minimum of bloodshed that the Iraqis should just accept as a fact of life.
I have immense respect for Marc Lynch, but reading his piece in Foreign Policy made me think that it’s perhaps a little too easy to advocate a “down payment on withdrawal” (which sounds like “quick pullout” to me) when the distance from one’s armchair to the harsh realities of Iraq is 10,000 kilometres:
The United States should resist the pressure to re-intervene whenever security conditions deteriorate. Although U.S. troops may need to act in the face of genuinely catastrophic developments — whether directly or in a support role — they should not be allowed to play the role of safety net for the Iraqi government indefinitely, especially if it fails to implement key political accommodation initiatives and reforms. Doing so would remove the incentives to reform that the withdrawal is supposed to trigger. Helping Iraq to find a stable equilibrium that does not require the presence of U.S. troops at high levels throughout the country should be a higher imperative than putting out every fire.
I find this almost terrifyingly illogical. It’s one thing to resist intervening across international borders; it’s quite another to pretend you’re not an occupying power and meekly peer over the wire as the neighbourhood burns. That would not send any meaningful political signal to anybody, and it certainly would not help Iraq find an equilibrium. It would merely push the government to deal with the violence the only way it knows how, which would most likely mean the end of Iraq’s fledgling democracy.
As for those who talk about “residual violence”, let me just say this: If you haven’t seen a 5-year-old trying to fight back tears and clutching a toy duck as blood gushes from a gaping stomach wound, get the hell outta my face.