Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"Howling Chaos"

From Newsweek's Michael Hirsh:

April 3, 2006 - There's nothing like roaring into Baghdad aboard a Rhino. A Rhino is a giant, heavily-armored bus that can withstand IEDs (small ones), and it is now the favored means of keeping Western visitors from getting blown to bits by these homemade bombs on the dangerous road between Baghdad International Airport and the secure Green Zone at the city's center. "Rhino" is an appropriately Disney-ish name for these wheeled monstrosities, adding to the surreal feeling one gets in moving from the howling chaos outside the Green Zone into the theme park-like confines within. You drive through several checkpoints, leaving behind tracts of litter and rubble and the desperate, dark faces of ordinary Iraqis trying to earn a few dinars. There, behind high concrete blast walls and razor wire, you find quiet streets and the heart of the American occupation: a double-sized Olympic pool with a palm-fretted patio restaurant, food courts and a giant coffee lounge where lessons in belly dancing and martial arts are offered. All these are huge improvements from the last time I was in Baghdad, two years ago. And all are intended for the Westerners who dwell in increasing comfort here.

The Green Zone, a vast secure, American area plunked down in the heart of the Baghdad (imagine foreign occupiers taking over the Mall in Washington, D. C.), was supposed to have been temporary. Like the occupation itself, it was an interim phase, a set of training wheels for the New Iraq. But as those of us who accompanied Condoleezza Rice on her surprise visit to Iraq learned this week, the lines between the real and surreal in Iraq--between what's happening outside the Green Zone and within--are only hardening. They are getting bolder and clearer, rather than more blurred. Outside the Green Zone the sectarian violence is worsening--ensuring future dysfunction, if perhaps not outright civil war or breakup of the country. Inside the Green Zone a few Iraqi politicians live in splendor and permanent American structures are going up--including a new U.S. embassy that did not await the OK of the new government-to-come--and it's hard to find an ordinary Iraqi anywhere. In fact, several people remarked that speaking Spanish is more useful than Arabic when making one's way through the palatial embassy grounds.

Secretary of State Rice came here to bring the surreal and the real closer into contact. Acting on the orders of an increasingly anxious George W. Bush (so she admitted under questioning), she and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spent a day reading the riot act to the bickering Iraqi politicians and telling them to "get governing," as Bush put it. She and Straw, sensing like everyone that their historical reputations are on the line (as are those of Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair), are hoping to break the stalemate that has kept the leading Iraqi political parties from forming a unity government for nearly four months. But again, reflecting the Green Zone prism, Rice and Straw seemed not to understand that a genteel coalition government, as designed by U.S. authorities, may not be what Iraq needs right now. What Iraq needs is strong leadership.

For Washington, the biggest problem is that despite increasing American desperation to pull out, the U.S. presence is gradually getting woven into the very fabric of the new Iraq, much as the Green Zone (now euphemistically called the "international zone") is getting a permanent look. Picture NATO troops in Bosnia--there more than a decade and counting--and then multiply that pathological dependence several times over. So terrified are most Shia leaders of Sunni insurgents that they regularly blanch when faced with the prospect of U.S. withdrawal. So terrified are the Sunnis of Shiite militias that they insist on having Americans accompany any Iraqi military units that move into their towns. Absent U.S. guidance and advisors, the Iraqi army will become a Shiite Army, and the Sunni community will become a sea for the insurgency to swim in once again. When the war started, some observers worried that Iraq might become America's "51st state," a virtual protectorate of Washington's. Today the worry is that America has become Iraq's 19th province--and the most important one in the country.

Again, the Americans don't seem to fully understand this. A Western intelligence expert who recently sat in on briefings by U.S. and Iraqi military officers in Baghdad described a disconnect between U.S. occupation authorities and Iraqi officials that was just as wide as what lies between the Green Zone and the rest of Iraq. The American officers, he said, spent an hour triumphantly describing how they had finally gotten the better of the insurgency while the Iraqis present doodled on their pads, their eyes glazing over. Then the Iraqis got up and described their nation's growing sectarian conflict in urgent terms while the Americans barely paid attention. The two teams, nominally allies, were simply talking past each other, he said.

Let us not forget that the great planner of this war, Donald Rumsfeld, once warned us about all this. (It was one of the few things he managed to anticipate.) In February of 2003--a month before the Iraq invasion—the Defense secretary outlined his theory of occupation. "When foreigners come in with international solutions to local problems, it can create a dependency," he said in a speech called "Beyond Nation Building." His remarks were scornful of previous United Nations efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. "A long-term foreign presence in a country can be unnatural. It is much like a broken bone. If it is not set properly at the outset, eventually, the muscles and tendons will grow around the break, and the body will adjust to the abnormal condition. This is what has happened in a number of places with a large foreign presence. Economies remain unreformed, distorted and dependent. Educated young people make more money as drivers for foreign workers, than as doctors or civil servants."

This describes Iraq today. Rumsfeld, through fecklessness and arrogance, created the very problem that he criticized. Perhaps he doesn't really mind. One idea behind the war, it is clear, was to give America a big say in the future of this oil-flush nation. And, after all, we've never completely pulled our troops out of Germany or Japan either. Sixty years after occupation, that has worked fairly well for international peace. Rice, in a speech in Britain last week, laid out an eloquent vision of how she and Bush see their legacy. "Someday, people in Baghdad and Beirut and Cairo and, yes, in Tehran...will wonder how anyone could ever have doubted the future of liberal democracy in their countries. But most of all, they will remember fondly those fellow democracies, like Britain and the United States...who stood with them in their time of need."

Whether fondly or not, the Iraqis won't have too much trouble remembering that the Americans were there. Why? Probably because the Americans won't have left yet.

Wow. Wait'll the wingnuts get a load of this. Pretty hard-hitting. Some might call it hyperbole. But unless the Green Zone walls come down and unless a large portion of U.S. troops come home and stay home, this will be the reality transcribed by journalists who stick around to cover our dignitaries' "surprise" visits.

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