The Deadly, But Simple Logic of Anarchy in Iraq
Greetings from the PlameHouse apartment in Washington, D.C. Between packing for my flight, getting to and from airports, flying across the country, and catching up on sleep, I didn't have much chance to follow the news for a shocking 18 hours or so. When I did finally get a look at the headlines, I saw not much had changed:
A suicide truck bomber struck a market in a predominantly Shiite area of Baghdad on Saturday, killing as many as 121 people among the crowd buying food for evening meals, one of the most devastating attacks in the capital since the war started.
. . . The late-afternoon explosion was the latest in a series of attacks against mainly Shiite commercial targets in the capital. No group claimed responsibility, but it appeared to be part of a bid by Sunni insurgents to provoke retaliatory violence and kill as many people as possible ahead of a planned U.S.-Iraqi security sweep.
As I wrote at Needlenose a bit earlier today, I don't think the analysis in that last sentence was entirely accurate:
. . . if you ask me, the Sunni guerrillas aren't trying to get their licks in before Operation Whatever starts, so much as they're taking advantage of Moqtada al-Sadr's decision to hide the Mahdi Army until the latter get a handle on how to circumvent the new U.S. tactics.
It's one of the first rules of a multi-party knife fight — as soon as an opponent takes his eye off you because he's distracted by someone else, that's when you cut him. That's the game we've been watching for the last few years in Iraq.
Over at the Washington Monthly , T.A. Frank had a similarly down-to-earth analogy for the catastrophe that Iraq has become:
So I visit a rundown zoo and see hyenas in miserable cages, lions in miserable cages, and antelopes in miserable cages. I'm disgusted by their conditions, so I attack the zookeepers and set the animals free. The lions eat the antelopes, the hyenas eat the antelopes (and sometimes the lions, too), and the antelopes run for shelter. Should I feel bad for not having minded my own business? No way, says Charles Krauthammer. Hey, who knew that lions liked to eat antelopes?
It doesn't take a learned academic background to understand what's happened, just a grasp of basic power relationships… and, specifically, the tragic fratricide that occurs when there are several well-armed parties, none with enough power to impose its will, but each convinced that they will be annihilated if they drop their guard. Translated into government-ese, the newly released National Intelligence Estimate puts it this way:
..even if violence is diminished, given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene, Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation…
As you might expect, this is a vast understatement, but the underlying point is dead on: the infection of factional hatred and revenge has passed the point where any antibiotic (applied by the U.S. or anyone else) is likely to do any good. The statements of the Shrub-in-Chief and his minions on the subject of political compromise in Iraq make it sound difficult, but not in a life-threatening way — something on the order of herding cats. To borrow T.A. Frank's analogy, though, it's more like we're trying to herd lions, leopards, panthers, and tigers… all into the same small enclosure, without enough food to go around.
I'm not one to dismiss U.S. hawks' warnings that an American withdrawal from Iraq will lead to even worse bloodshed than we're seeing now — every indicator that I can see tells me that it will. But when there's nothing you can do to prevent it, denial isn't a helpful response. Declaring bankruptcy and/or cutting back on your lifestyle when you're badly overextended with debt is painful, too, but it's more adaptive than going on ignorantly and pretending you're going to win the lottery tomorrow. Someone should tell these hawks that if the consequences of withdrawal are so potentially serious and awful, perhaps we should start planning for it, rather than guaranteeing the worst will happen because we weren't prepared.