It’s hard to see why the current crop of small-government conservatives hate regulation of anything, when the government, of the people, has decided certain things must be restricted or even forbidden, for the good of all, even if those things – like pumping toxic crap into the air – make a few quite clever people quite wealthy. Man is a social animal. Humans are tribal. They work together to survive, when they wouldn’t survive alone, cooperating to limit the damage caused by individual jerks. Rugged individualism and personal responsibility and individual imitative are fine things, in moderation – but that’s also where the jerks live. Limited government is fine, but Thomas Jefferson argued for government that was specific – “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.” Government should let people be free to do what they want, but not anything they want – and here, the people’s government decides on what should not be allowed. What any one rugged individual wants doesn’t matter. The tribe decides these things, and even conservatives acknowledge that. Their tribe has agreed that certain things must not be allowed – abortion or contraception or any family planning, gay marriage, folks who seem vaguely Mexican in the streets and even voting, and any restriction on their right to walk around in public carrying high-powered assault rifles and grinning at those poor fools hiding their kids. The liberal tribe has agreed that certain other things must not be allowed – ruining everyone’s environment for personal profit, and telling people only certain forms of expression, sexual or religious or artistic or political, will be allowed, and so on.
None of these have to do with the individual. These are social decisions, made by a social unit – and for all the talk about total freedom and the free market fixing everything, as the free and unfettered individual standing alone is what made this country great, there are no real individuals on the conservative side. There are tribal spokesmen, who can be expelled from the tribe for being too much their own man. That happened to Richard Lugar a few years ago and to Eric Cantor last week. That happens all the time. Some things are not allowed. Some people must leave.
That may be one way of describing more than our current political high drama. That may be one way of describing all of human history, an endless process of sorting out and relocating those who just don’t belong. The social unit speaks and some people are gone, one way or another. That happened on June 16, 1755, in the French and Indian War – the day the French surrendered Fort Beauséjour, up in Canada in what is now New Brunswick, to the British. That led to the expulsion of the Acadians – a French colony that just wasn’t wanted there. They weren’t wanted anywhere – many of those folks were Huguenots that Richelieu didn’t want in France in the first place, a century earlier, and they finally ended up in southern Louisiana. The Acadians became our Cajuns, speaking the same now thoroughly mangled French, of a sort.
Was this tragic? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, at the suggestion of his buddy Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote a long and tragic epic poem about the expulsion – Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie – but that’s only a curiosity now. Longfellow used dactylic hexameter, imitating the old Greek and Latin stuff, and no one really cared. This sort of thing happens all the time. In 1492, just after sending Christopher Columbus off to see what was out there over the horizon, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled all the Jews from Spain – they just weren’t wanted there. Sort them out. Relocate them. The ruling tribe had spoken. Spain is apologizing for that this year – better late than never – but the whole thing was depressingly ordinary in the first place.
History repeats itself. On June 16, 1755, it was the Acadians. On June 16, 2014, it’s what is happening in Iraq. We left, and after a few years of the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki making it clear that the Sunnis just weren’t wanted there, the Sunnis got their act together and seem to be taking over the place, saying the Shiites aren’t wanted there. The Kurds up north have pretty much declared they’re independent now and the folks down south can do what they want – they’ll stay out of it. There’s a lot of sorting out going on.
Back in 2003, our notion was that we’d build a Jeffersonian secular democracy in Iraq, as an example to the region, to show everyone over there that everyone could get along, for the good of all, as long as no one was going to be a jerk about things. All we had to do was tamp down the Sunni-Shiite civil war that had exploded once we had settled in. The “surge” would take care of that – thirty thousand additional troops to stop the internecine violence, to give both sides “breathing room” to work out their differences and form a sensible inclusive government. We had ignored history. All of history is the tribe in power casting out those who they have decided don’t belong.
And now it’s getting rough:
Wielding the threat of sectarian slaughter, Sunni Islamist militants claimed on Sunday that they had massacred hundreds of captive Shiite members of Iraq’s security forces, posting grisly pictures of a mass execution in Tikrit as evidence and warning of more killing to come.
Even as anecdotal reports of extrajudicial killings around the country seemed to bear out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s intent to kill Shiites wherever it could, Iraqi officials and some human rights groups cautioned that the militants’ claim to have killed 1,700 soldiers in Tikrit could not be immediately verified.
But with their claim, the Sunni militants were reveling in an atrocity that if confirmed would be the worst yet in the conflicts that roil the region, outstripping even the poison gas attack near Damascus last year.
In an atmosphere where there were already fears that the militants’ sudden advance near the capital would prompt Shiite reprisal attacks against Sunni Arab civilians, the claims by ISIS were potentially explosive. And that is exactly the group’s stated intent: to stoke a return to all-out sectarian warfare that would bolster its attempts to carve out a Sunni Islamist caliphate that crosses borders through the region.
That’s the plan:
The sectarian element of the killings, and reports late Sunday that the city of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, had also fallen, may put more pressure on the Obama administration to aid Iraq militarily. In fact, the militants seemed to be counting on it. A pronouncement on Sunday by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had a clear message for the United States: “Soon we will face you, and we are waiting for this day.”
And there’s this:
The militants’ captions seemed tailor-made to ignite anger and fear among Shiites. “The filthy Shiites are killed in the hundreds,” one read. “The liquidation of the Shiites who ran away from their military bases,” read another, and, “This is the destiny of Maliki’s Shiites,” referring to Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki.
The point of the mass executions seems to be to radicalize the Shiite population, so Shiites do the same to Sunnis, so the ISIS can then become protectors of Sunnis, and the sorting will be complete.
It’s a plan, and Andrew Sullivan offers this:
My only and continuing concern is that we do not continue to believe, as Tony Blair apparently does, that further Western intervention on any side – Iran’s? Assad’s? Saudi Arabia’s? It gets surreal when you play it all out – can do anything but hurt us. The lesson to be drawn from the last decade is not that we somehow managed to pull off the impossible in Iraq and then, for some unfathomable reason, it fell apart, but that Iraq itself is a deeply divided country, has long been riven by sectarian hatred, was constructed precisely to exploit those divisions, and, without thorough secularization, is impossible to govern in one piece without despotism.
We didn’t pull off the impossible, and the blogger BooMan puts it nicely:
The most basic problem in the Middle East isn’t the conflict in Palestine or authoritarian Arab governments. The most basic problem is that the nation-states that were created there were artificially drawn and don’t represent coherent communities where consensus is possible among the governed. Tribal, sectarian, and ethnic differences within countries like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon make it very difficult to organize representative governments where minority rights and majority-rule are respected. Attempts to get the people there to think of themselves as Iraqis or Syrians or Libyans have been only partially successful. If you aren’t a Turk, it’s hard to think of yourself as a Turk, and if you aren’t a member of the House of Saud, it’s hard to think of yourself as a Saudi.
Setting up a secular Jeffersonian democracy over there was absurd. The glue that held things together, barely, was something else:
Dictatorial regimes have been the historical solution to this problem, allowing for at least the semblance of civil order. The secular Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq allowed somewhat ecumenical societies to emerge where religious or ethnic differences were somewhat submerged. But both regimes have now failed in that effort, thanks to the United States’ decision to invade Iraq.
The neoconservatives’ simple-minded solution to anti-American Arab radicalism was to encourage democratic reforms in countries where dictatorship existed precisely because there could be no consensus among the governed.
This is basic stuff:
Self-determination and human rights are wonderful ideas, but they don’t work unless there are coherent and cohesive communities in which to implement those ideas. America worked, imperfectly, precisely because Congregationalists and Quakers and Anglicans and Catholics and Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians agreed to live and let live rather than to fight it out for domination. Ultimately, it didn’t matter if you were English or German or Norwegian. We learned to absorb even the Irish and Italians without letting ethnicity become a political determinant.
This was a process that we tend to gloss over. It wasn’t painless and it didn’t occur without creating a political backlash. But it wasn’t what caused our civil war, and we managed to get through it without much violence or too much political turmoil. But we also had a mostly unsettled continent to help us be generous about the available spoils. And we were settled by people from Europe who were sick and tired of religious wars and shared a basic consensus that fighting over religion wasn’t productive.
These conditions simply are not met in the Middle East. They may have to fight until they get tired of fighting.
One of the guys who once loved our Iraq War, before it became a test-case for abstract political theory, Thomas Freidman, is even more direct:
Other than the Kurds, we have no friends in this fight. Neither Sunni nor Shiite leaders spearheading the war in Iraq today share our values.
The Sunni jihadists, Baathists and tribal militiamen who have led the takeover of Mosul from the Iraqi government are not supporters of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq, the only Iraq we have any interest in abetting. And Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Maliki has proved himself not to be a friend of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq either. From Day One he has used his office to install Shiites in key security posts, drive out Sunni politicians and generals and direct money to Shiite communities. In a word, Maliki has been a total jerk. Besides being prime minister, he made himself acting minister of defense, minister of the interior and national security adviser, and his cronies also control the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry.
Maliki had a choice – to rule in a sectarian way or in an inclusive way – and he chose sectarianism. We owe him nothing.
He didn’t have to do that:
Why is it that the two states doing the best are those that America has had the least to do with: Tunisia and the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq? Believe it or not, it’s not all about what we do and the choices we make. Arabs and Kurds have agency, too. And the reason that both Tunisia and Kurdistan have built islands of decency, still frail to be sure, is because the major contending political forces in each place eventually opted for the principle of “no victor, no vanquished.”
The two major rival parties in Kurdistan not only buried the hatchet between them but paved the way for democratic elections that recently brought a fast-rising opposition party that ran on an anti-corruption platform into government for the first time. And Tunisia, after much internal struggle and bloodshed, found a way to balance the aspirations of secularists and Islamists and agree on the most progressive Constitution in the history of the Arab world.
Hey, we didn’t invade and occupy those places? What’s up with that? But of course there is Tony Blair:
Tony Blair has urged western governments to recognize that they need to take an active role in the Middle East, saying the west should consider military options short of sending ground troops.
The former prime minister said there was a huge range of options available, including air strikes and drones as used in Libya.
Blair was speaking on UK morning TV shows after writing a lengthy essay setting out how to respond to the Iraq crisis, including his belief that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not the cause of the country’s implosion.
He said: “It is in our interests for this jihadist extremist group to be stopped in its tracks. I understand entirely why people say ‘it is nothing to do with us and I don’t want to hear about it’.”
But he said the jihadis “are not simply fighting Iraqis and they are also willing to fight us and they will if we don’t stop them”.
“It is vitally important that we realize what is at stake here and act. We are going to have to engage with it or the consequences will come back on us as we see in Syria today.”
We have to do something – maybe not a big war this time – but at least a little one – or something. That’s because everyone has it all wrong:
In a passionate essay published on his website, Blair said it was a “bizarre” reading of the situation to argue that the US-British invasion of Iraq had allowed the growth of Sunni jihadist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), whose fighters have swept through towns and cities north and west of Baghdad over the past week.
“We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t. We can argue as to whether our policies at points have helped or not: and whether action or inaction is the best policy. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it.”
His rule is that where the extremists are fighting, they have to be countered hard, with force, because that worked so well before.
David Atkins isn’t buying that:
When we take stock of American policy in Iraq and its effects over the last decade, reasonable and humane people tend to focus on the devastating toll in blood, treasure and reputation. Hundreds of thousands dead, even more injured, families torn apart, trillions of dollars burned and bombed away, priceless artifacts destroyed, and America’s moral standing in the world severely diminished.
The less sophisticated neoconservative responses are to simply deny the truth or the importance of these losses, or to somehow blame them on political opponents who either actively opposed the invasion or were dragged into tepid support of it under threat of jingoistic political attacks in a country rabid for revenge against “the perpetrators.”
The more intellectual neoconservative answer has been to minimize the immediate losses while focusing on the ultimate legacy of the invasion from a bird’s eye view. They argue that removing Saddam Hussein from power will have been the right decision in the long run, that a free and democratic Iraq will ultimately be an ally of the West and an invaluable geopolitical prize, serving as a bulwark against extremism. It’s a dispassionate dodge, but one that has always been hard to fully discredit because of the very “we’ll have to wait and see” nature of the argument.
We could wait forever, but there are those whose advice we can ignore:
Whatever Saddam Hussein’s crimes may have been (and they were many), his regime was not ardently theocratic. Indeed, under Hussein, Sunnis in Iraq avoided much of the radicalization that befell fellow sectarians in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and elsewhere. With Saddam gone and a corrupt and unresponsive Shi’ite regime in his place, Iraq has suddenly become a ground zero for Sunni extremism.
That’s a very ugly legacy for neoconservatives to face. Not only were they directly responsible for the horrific loss of life and treasure during and after the invasion, they are also responsible for empowering and strengthening some of the worst elements in the entire Middle East. It’s not pretty from any perspective.
Ah, but in the American Conservative there’s Noah Millman warning us that people “who think the world will swiftly get more peaceful if we mind our own business may well be just as wrong as the people who think that by sticking our nose into other people’s business we can force the world to be peaceful” and we really are responsible for the situation in Iraq:
We are directly responsible in that we broke the existing arrangement of power and installed ourselves as the occupier. We are also indirectly responsible inasmuch as our overweening hegemonic influence in the region means that inaction is also a kind of action. So, because the Syrian civil war has not resolved, but expanded and become more violent and extreme, and because that civil war and Iraq’s are, with the rise of ISIS, effectively merging, to the extent that we may be “blamed” for not resolving that civil war, we may also be “blamed” indirectly for the deterioration in Iraq.
None of which means we should feel obliged to do something stupid and counterproductive, but it provides a genuine moral explanation for why we might feel obliged to do something.
Andrew Sullivan is on the case:
I love this formulation: hegemony means inaction is action, so there’s no difference between the two! So let me put this as kindly as I can. We lost 5,000 young Americans trying to keep this centrifugal country in one piece. After eight years, and huge expenses in training and equipping the Iraqi army, we bear no blame and never have for the pathological sectarianism of so many Arab countries, culturally or politically. And it’s time to have enough self-respect to say so. The sanest, wisest way to wriggle out of this trap is precisely to do nothing – again and again – until the pathology of dependence is finished.
Perhaps we need to face reality:
If you think Maliki pursued text-book sectarianism out of a whim, or could have been effectively dissuaded by a few American military officials, you are only missing the entire modern history of Iraq. And in sectarian warfare, there is usually very little magnanimity. Just payback – again and again and again.
Leave it alone. And do what we can to protect ourselves. That doesn’t guarantee anything. But intervention guarantees far worse.
Let the Acadians go. They eventually improved the music scene in New Orleans, didn’t they?
That’s not exactly flippant, as there’s this odd twist in the current situation:
The radical Sunni militia that has plunged Iraq into chaos bragged that it had executed hundreds of Shiite Iraqi soldiers, even as the Obama administration said it is preparing to open direct talks with Iran on how the two longtime foes can counter the insurgents.
The US-Iran dialogue, which is expected to begin this week, will mark the latest in a rapid move toward rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over the past year. It also comes as the US and other world powers try to reach an agreement with Iran by late July to curb its nuclear program.
You can make something out of nothing, even if it is brutal sorting out and relocation or death and not at all what we went there to create in the first place. Forget any secular Jeffersonian democracy over there. Make lemonade from those lemons. Establishing rational and open dialog with Iran, based on mutual interests, would lead to a whole lot more stability in the Middle East, and those guys always hated al-Qaeda, who are out to kill us all or something. There are mutual interests. Take the consolation prize. The tribal stuff was going to happen anyway. It always does. Think Zydeco.