Iraq: Responsibility Without Power

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September 12, 2007: Six years on, too many Americans have only a vague understanding of what's going on with the war on terror. The main problem is the cultural differences. The Arabs, despite their oil wealth, and beneficial relations with the West, consider themselves victims of Western attacks. This is nothing new. The list of grievances goes back nearly a thousand years. Americans have a hard time believing this sort of thing, but it's taken for granted in the Middle East. American soldiers who spend a lot of time outside the wire, and among the Iraqi people, come face-to-face with this attitude, and learn to cope. How do you deal with it? After all, the Turks, who ruled the Middle East for centuries (until 1918), had a saying, "don't involve yourself in the affairs of the Arabs." For the Turks, the ultimate technique for dealing with the Arabs was terror and brute force. It was applied as necessary over those centuries, and the Turks had very mixed feelings when the Western Allies took apart their empire 90 years ago. You deal with it by discovering that there are Arabs who understand very well how corruption, tribalism and religious fanaticism have made the Arab world an economic and political failure, and an object of fear and loathing around the world. Americans in Iraq discover that Arabs themselves are unsure what the solution is. Many see salvation in the form of migration to a more civilized culture. But many want to turn things around. There are ways to do that, but all of them take time, and a whole lot of effort.

Now the United States has taken on the responsibility for ruling an Arab state, without the power to do so. Iraq is a democracy, the only Arab one in the Middle East. In 2005, elections put a government in power. But the elected officials are unable to rule effectively. When they are not stealing, they are deadlocked over issues that Westerners would settle quickly. All this has not gone unnoticed by Iraqis, or Arabs in general. Many Arabs in the Middle East want democracy, and it is disheartening to see how the Iraqis are unable to make it work. Many Arabs know someone in the West. They know how democracy works there. They know that government in the West is much less corrupt, and more responsive to the needs of the people. Why can't the Arabs do this? American soldiers ask the same thing. There have been many intense discussions between U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi interpreters, or other English speaking Iraqis. Then there are the thousands of Arab speaking American soldiers and civilian workers who discuss the "Arab problem" with the locals, in the local language. All eventually agree that the problem is local, not the oft quoted "Western attack on Islam."

The Arab Reform Movement, a region-wide organization seeking to bring peace and progress to all Arabs, has been quite open about how the problem is at home, not the result of foreign interference. This is where most Arabs, and Islamic radicals, diverge. The Islamic crowd believes that Arabs are fine the way they are, and that all the problems are caused by non-Moslems from afar. This is a convenient fiction that does not fit at all with recent, and distant, history. But it's convenient for those who seek a simple, and guilt-free solution.

The problem is that the simplistic and guilt-free Islamic terrorists believe they are on a mission from God, and that mass murder is a suitable tool for achieving God's will. No counter-arguments are acceptable. Terror is a powerful, but brittle, weapon. Over the last few years, Al Qaeda has discovered how that works, and is not happy with the results. Most of Iraq is now hostile to al Qaeda, but the terrorism still has supporters in the form of die-hard Sunni Arab nationalists and Islamic conservatives who believe that everyone on planet earth must become a Moslem, or die.

Ultimately, it comes down to numbers. How many Arabs are willing to step up and fight for the right to live in peace and tolerance? Many of the Iraqis joining the army or police are doing it mainly for a paycheck, or an opportunity to steal. But American soldiers have seen many Iraqi troops and cops doing their job. And then there are the Kurds. OK, they're not Arabs, but it takes Americans a while to figure this out. Arabs and Kurds have been living intermingled for thousands of years. They are still different, but in many ways the same. Kurdish northern Iraq is at peace, and has been this way for over a decade. Iraqi Arabs, once they get through the thorough security checks at the provincial border, sense the peace and prosperity up there, and take heart. Why can't Arabs live like this? Why do so many of our "leaders" insist that the only choices are secular or religious dictatorship?

It's a cultural war over there, with many willing to die rather than see new customs displace old ones. Both the Islamic conservatives and the democrats want an end to the corrupt old ways. The religious dictatorship approach has never worked, while the democracy approach usually does. So why is there any war at all? It's because of the religious angle, and those who fear change. The clergy and tradition minded want to live in a world governed by religious certainty. They are willing to die, and kill many other, to make this happen. The democrats are finding that you either fight, die or flee. So far, enough Iraqis are stepping up to fight. Wars like this take years. Get used to it. There's no easy way out.

 

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