House of straw

During the really bad years after the fall of Saddam, the criticism of the Bush Administration’s actions focused on the sectarian bloodbath unleashed by the end of Hussein’s strict authoritarian dictatorship.  The argument was that while Saddam and his family had their peccadilloes — mass murder, pillage, rape, foreign aggression and thought control — at least people weren’t cutting each others’ throats and blowing each other up under Saddam.  That is, at least those who weren’t the ruling party weren’t.  The body count at least appeared to be lower that way.

So now its 2012, and, via the New York Timeshere’s Syria, its dictatorship imploding with no direct help from us:

The paradox, of [Iraqi] Shiites supporting a Baathist dictator next door, has laid bare a tenet of the old power structure that for so long helped preserve the Middle East’s strongmen. Minorities often remained loyal and pliant and in exchange were given room to carve out communities, even if they were more broadly discriminated against.

As dictators have fallen in neighboring countries, religious and ethnic identities and alliances have only hardened, while notions of citizenship remain slow to take hold. The fighting in Syria has exacerbated that, as Shiites worry that a takeover of Syria by its Sunni majority would herald not only a new sectarian war but actually the apocalypse.

People here say that is not hyperbole, but a perception based in faith. Some Shiites here see the burgeoning civil war in Syria as the ominous start to the fulfillment of a Shiite prophecy that presages the end of time. According to Shiite lore, Sufyani — a devil-like, apocryphal figure in Islam — gathers an army in Syria and after conquering that land turns his wrath on Iraq’s Shiites.

“Among these stories we get from the Prophet and his family is that Sufyani will come out and will start to kill the believers in Syria, and then come to Iraq, where there will be many killings and massacres,” Mr. Nujafi said.

All of which makes me think — and of course, I am not the first — that when the Arab nationalists threw off the yoke of both the imperialists and the old Arab dynasties after World War II, they made the mistake of retaining something from the foreign devils that seemed like not only a good idea, but the only idea, at the time:  Nations.  Nation-states, to be specific.  More from the Times story:

In Hilla, another Shiite town north of here, Mohammed Tawfiq al-Rubaie, the representative for Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most widely followed Shiite religious leader in Iraq, said, “We wish for the survival of Bashar al-Assad, but the prophecies of the Shiite books expect him to be killed.”

Mr. Rubaie explained what Shiites believe would happen if the Assad government were toppled by Sunnis: “We expect that the blood would run heavy in Iraq if they held power in Syria, because they think that Shiites are infidels and our lives, our money and our women are permissible for them to take, and that killing us is one of the requirements to enter paradise.”

So you read stuff like that and you think, wow, maybe a little authoritarianism here wouldn’t be so bad after all?

And you can’t say that, not only because “you can’t say that,” but because just as “anti-western protesters” almost all dress like westerners — because that’s the world today — you can’t go back to a pre-nation-state order today.  And yes, nation-states have to be firm against sectional conflict; but that doesn’t mean they have to be tyrannical.  And gosh, if by tyrannical you mean Abe Lincoln (who some folks did and do think was a tyrant, as he was called by his assassin after all), I guess we can live with that.  Abe Lincoln, yes.  Josef Stalin or Pol Pot, no.  Baathist dictatorships are a lot more like the former pair than the latter.  There’s no reason to tolerate any of that on this planet, in this age (unless, I guess, you’re selling them weapons).

And remember one more thing:  Tyrannical regimes inevitably threaten their neighbors.  There is no such thing as “internal matters” with cats like this.

No one said it would be easy.


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  • One of the things that used to infuriate me (and now only makes me sigh in continuing disappointment) is those who insisted that the sectarian violence in Iraq was the coalition troops’ fault, rather than the fault of the sectarian terrorists doing the murdering. I also fail to see how any self-proclaimed progressive (or self-proclaimed Christian, for that matter) can possibly be so racist as to presume that somehow the people in that region are so barbaric that the only thing that can keep them in line is a fascist dictatorship or a brutal monarch.

    And although at some level I can see the point of those who say “Israel is better off with the stable dictatorships surrounding it than democratic nations run by people who don’t like Israel,” on balance I see that as still ultimately insane: democracies can be negotiated with, using people’s self-interest as a motivator to quell violence. You can only quell violence from a thug by giving him whatever he wants, and what he usually wants is power plain and simple. You’re playing the devil’s game by giving in to the idea that you need evil men to keep you safe, and by saying that stability is axiomatically to be preferred over freedom. Yes, sometimes this is true, but only sometimes, and almost always for only a short period. The dictators in the Middle East have used Israel as their whipping boy for generations, and will do so continually so long as it helps keep them in power.

    There is a reason that democracies–real ones–don’t go to war with each other, and that is because most human beings will only give in to outbursts of violent anger for short time periods before they start wondering how they’re going to feed the kids and keep a roof over their heads this way. Hate the Jews all you want, is endless war with them really what you want? My view is that human nature for the most part doesn’t change that much and whatever Jew-hating is embedded in Arab popular culture, that does not translate to a majority being willing to become cannon fodder for such a cause, even if a few radicals will. And I don’t think most Israelis care all that much if they’re hated–it may hurt a little but they must be used to it by now–so long as they’re left the hell alone.

    I mean, the Scots and the English don’t like each other either, but at this point they mostly take it out by calling each other names and at football matches and the occasional independence referendum, not with bombs and armies. Even the detestable IRA, in the end, never could win a popular majority for independence in Northern Ireland and never got most of even the most stridently independent-minded Northern Irish to take up arms and go to war over the question.

    I had one friend recently–sadly, another modern lefty, and not generally a stupid one–tell me he thought Assad can’t keep killing his people like this indefinitely. It was hard for me not to laugh morbidly at him. Instead I treated the statement with silence for a few moments, gathered my thoughts, then sighed and said “I want you to be right but I don’t think you are.”

    It will take many years for real democracy (which I define using Freedom House measures, and I ask anyone who doubts that yardstick to tell me what theirs is) to form in most of the Arab world; it is a process not an event. But we should do what we can to be encouraging it whenever possible, and to be as discouraging as we can whenever it goes too far in the opposite direction. That’s the way to form a lasting peace.

    But in the meantime, it is helpful to recall that America’s own Great Civil War was quite literally the bloodiest and most awful period in American history, bar none. Things like this take time, and are filled with tragedy. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

  • Dishman

    I also fail to see how any self-proclaimed progressive (or self-proclaimed Christian, for that matter) can possibly be so racist as to presume that somehow the people in that region are so barbaric that the only thing that can keep them in line is a fascist dictatorship or a brutal monarch.

    Some people are posers. Others accept people as long as they strike the ‘right’ pose. “Vogue!”

    How people choose to describe themselves and how they really are may be completely different things. Politicians are a prime example.

    I heard some talking head say that he had more understanding of being black than Herman Cain.

  • Well of course, Dishman. Who could really have understanding of being Herman Cain, especially if you don’t know him?

  • Dishman

    Well, yes. I haven’t recently been Herman Cain, so I really don’t have a lot of relevant experience with it.

    I think what was meant was that Herman Cain was not ‘Authentically Black(tm)’, as determined by ‘those who know’. Cain was not acting in accordance with his skin color.

  • jaymaster

    I think you ended “The War” tag too early.

    It irks me to no end that we (the US) are not actively fighting in the streets of Syria and Iran. Maybe we are, or at least doing covert stuff. But IMO, if we are, we should be making it publicly known.

    Of course, I am anti-dictator/thug, and pro-democracy to the extreme.

    And yes, I still applaud the “Arab Spring”. I think it might take DECADES for all of this to settle down. But who knows? Many intelligent pundits thought that it would take a decade or so for the US to win in Iraq, and US death estimates were commonly in the 50,000-100,000 range. Didn’t quite work out that way (thankfully!)

    Israel can take care of herself while this all shakes out, I think.

    And if some sort of radical Muslim, seriously threatening regimes evolve (through manipulation, corruption, or even true democracy), well, so what? We’ve shown that we are willing to take them out in the past, and we will hopefully have the same attitude in the future.

  • Maybe you’re right that “The War” category didn’t need to go but in my mind it represented what I once thought was a prime duty of this blog, to cover this struggle. But the struggle has changed. A new category called “Struggle for Human Freedom” may be the better way to go, because that’s what we’re really talking about here. And that’s not just the Arab world, that is still those same old places: Burma, North Korea, China, some of the remaining hellholes of Africa, and hell yeah most of the Middle East. Which, news flash, isn’t going to be Philadelphia before the decade is out.

    The idea that helping the struggle for human freedom is not just a moral calling, but in our strategic national interests, cannot and should not die, and too damned many people left and right appear blind to the fact that this does indeed to be the primary struggle of the early 21st century. It damn well should be seen that way.

    (I had some thoughts on the whole “authentically black” thing which actually defend the concept but it would derail the thread. I believe I will write something about it, because the concept, while it can be racist, really isn’t. It requires understanding some things that fly right past a lot of white people. It took me a while to get it. I’m pretty confident I do now. But as I said it’s another conversation. Maybe next week or even tomorrow, if my energy is high enough and I don’t forget.)

  • shaun

    Good post for several reasons, not the least of which that it made me think, which is more than I can say for one commenter who relishes the idea of spilling American blood anywhere there is a dust-up regardless of whether we have or should have a horse in that particular race.

    About 50,000 Americans died in our War of Independence and that was the price we had to pay to throw off the yoke of British imperialism, and you do reference our Civil War. There will be a price to pay in Libya, Myanmar, Syria and elsewhere for these people to throw off their own yokes. And yes, these things take time.

    By the by, U.S. troops did not cause the sectarian violence in Iraq but the underlying problems with this fool’s errand of a war allowed that violence to happen.

  • A famous quote comes to mind:

    “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.” –John Stuart Mill

    I don’t believe it was a fool’s errand at all, nor did our presence “allow” the violence. What our fine people were doing was attempting to stop said violence. If there was any underlying problem, it was only in that the plans (which were extensive by the way) underestimated just how troubling the sectarian violence would be. But we kept our promises to those people to help them write their own Constitution even against those who tried to prevent it, hold free elections under it even against those who tried to prevent that, and, exactly as promised, left as soon as they asked us to.

    The choices in Iraq were to leave the mass-murdering, terrorist-sponsoring tyrant in place (resulting in ongoing death and oppression and a continuation of a decade of agonizing and ineffective sanctions), take him out and simply abandon the place (which some proposed but which in my view would have been hideously irresponsible and far worse than what happened) or lance the boil and do our best to help the people there. We chose the third option, and so far as I’m concerned it was the right one even if we did not do everything as well as we could have.

    Furthermore I do not believe the “Arab Spring” would have begun anywhere near as soon as it did had we not done as we did.

    Right now my biggest hope is that the administration is using the CIA and other resources to covertly help the various people trying to overthrow the likes of Assad. 10 years ago I would have favored more aggressive military action (I would have, quite honestly, favored hoving out of Baghdad once we were done there and heading straight for Damascus and/or Tehran) but experience has shown that the American people do not have the stomach for extended efforts of this nature. So, fine. A longer, harder path must be followed. I take it on faith that the Obama administration is doing as the Reagan administration did in Poland (i.e. covertly sending money and equipment and intel to the resistance). I hope my faith is not misplaced.