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Where Do We Go In Iraq From Here?

A little bit like Moxie – which makes you foxy – Christopher Hitchens is an acquired taste. At his best, he is a smooth blend of H. L. Mencken and Bill Buckley at his most mirthful. Personally, I’m put off by his aggressive atheism; but he does claim to be a child of the Enlightenment, and one cannot complain too much if the child, grown to a man’s stature, seems to be a chip off his daddy’s block.

“Hitch,” as he is called, is an American transplant from England, as are so many writers, such as Tom Paine, who fit comfortably into an American skin. Hitchens has written intelligently about Paine and also Jefferson. Of all the writers pouring their hearts out -- usually onto their sleeve -- about the war on terror, it seems to me that he, along with Arnaud DeBorsgrave, is the sanest -- and the hottest.

Hitchens was invited recently to contribute to a discussion, “What to Do in Iraq: a Roundtable," sponsored by Foreign Affairs.

His brief contribution, eminently sane, follows:


"I am again a little dispirited at the absence of the historical dimension from many of these postings, or by its appearance only in the form of false analogy. There is nothing remotely comparable here with the experience of the French in Algeria and Indochina, or with the experience of the United States in Indochina, let alone that of the Israelis in Lebanon. The United States has not claimed territory in Iraq, as the French did in Algeria: it is not the inheritor of a bankrupt French colonialism, as Eisenhower and Kennedy were in Vietnam; and it is not pursuing a vendetta, as was Sharon in Lebanon.

"It is, instead, in a situation where no superpower has ever been before. The ostensible pretext for American intervention — the disarmament of a WMD-capable rogue state and the overthrow of a government aligned with international jihadist gangsterism — was in my opinion based on an important element of truth rather than on a fabrication or exaggeration. But the deeper rationale — that of altering the regional balance of power and introducing democracy into the picture— is the one that must now preoccupy us more. The United States is in Iraq for its own interests, to ensure that a major state with a chokehold on a main waterway of the global economy is not run by a barbaric crime family or by its fundamentalist former allies and would-be successors. But it is also there to release, and not repress, the numberless latent grievances of Iraqi society. And—something surprisingly forgotten by many who fetishize the United Nations—it is there under a UN mandate for the democratization and reconstruction of the country.

"It was to be expected that the forces of reaction would try to sabotage the process of resolving Iraqis' grievances by democratic and federal means, and it is true that this menace was underestimated. Where, I wonder, have we not underestimated the sheer viciousness of this enemy, and its willingness to destroy states and societies rather than allow them to be even partly democratic or secular? We are underestimating it in Darfur — which has been handled a la Kofi Annan, presumably to the satisfaction of the so-called "multilateralists" — even as I write. We are in the process of ignoring its challenge in Nigeria, and also of downplaying its attempt to destroy the all-important multi-ethnic democracy of India (where the United States has an alliance of both principle and interest).

"If there is an Algerian analogy at all, it would be to the war waged by Salafist fanatics against the FLN government during the 1990s. Based initially on a far wider public support than anything enjoyed by the Baathists and bin Ladenists of Iraq, this insurgency was eventually defeated by two things. The first was the strategic majority that was eventually mobilized, consisting of the urban secular middle class, many of the Berber/Kabyle population, women, and a crucial section of the armed forces. The second was the nature of the insurgency itself, which resorted to the takfir mania of declaring all its foes to be apostates, and which imploded as a result of the war on civilians that it conducted. The Algerian authorities employed tactics we would not—and should not—allow ourselves to use, but there should still be a much closer study of the way in which this victory was accomplished.

"I repeat what I said in my first posting: The United States can contemplate leaving Iraqis to settle their sharp internal differences by themselves, but it cannot abandon them to a victory for clerical and political fascism and has its own reasons for demonstrating that such a threat can be met, engaged, and defeated. Those who believe, or half-believe, that the insurgency is produced by the Coalition presence are deceiving themselves, and have paid no attention to the countries where such tactics are used against the population in the absence of any Western involvement or even concern.

"At present, then, the United States is acting as a militia for the majority of Iraqis who do not have a militia of their own. (It is not without significance that when sectarians are found operating private or semi-official squads and prisons, the victims take their complaints to the Green Zone.) Clearly, this cannot become a long-term dependent relationship. My chief worry, however, is of the opposite type, and was mentioned by Marc Lynch. If our calculations become unduly inflected by considerations of American domestic opinion, then both Iraqis and foreign intruders (and their state backers in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia) have only to set their watches and begin making their respectively pessimistic and gloating dispositions. We thus condition the outcome without much influencing it.

"A possible solution — ask the Iraqis what should be done — is insufficiently canvassed. As a means of concentrating all minds, one could either propose a vote in the Iraqi parliament, or a national referendum, on the single question of a date for withdrawal to begin. Much might be learned from the analysis of the results, and we could remind people again that Iraq is the only country in the region, apart from Lebanon, where citizens are regularly called to the polling-booth. This was part of the point to begin with."

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