West Bank? Or Vietnam?

A year ago, I thought the question about Iraq was whether it would be another Vietnam (the quagmire scenario; the immediate answer was no) or a new version of the West Bank (the everlasting rebellion against the occupier; the first carbombing of American troops while the “major combat” was going on last year made me think about that parallel). But events today show we might have the worst of both worlds.

The West Bank part: A widespread nationalist-religious uprising. OK, I’m getting the “uprising” part from The New York Times in its story on what’s happening on the streets. But superficially, at least, this looks like it could be the beginning of an Iraqi intifada
— a challenge to the occupation’s overwhelming military force using small arms, weight of numbers and rage. Of course, what made the Palestinian uprising the phenomenon it was (and has been) is its longevity. So we won’t know whether we do have a real intifada on our hands for awhile.

The Vietnam part: I think this quote from Paul Bremer (as reported on the Washington Post site) is precious, a great window into the illusions of the true believers who launched the war:

“For the past 11 months, Iraq has been on the path to democracy and freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. Those freedoms must be exercised peacefully. This
morning, a group of people in Najaf have crossed the line and moved to violence. . . . This will not be tolerated by the coalition, this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people, and this will not be tolerated by
the Iraqi security forces.”

A rough breakdown on the wishful or out-of-touch thoughts here:

–“Iraq has been on the path to democracy and freedom.” Yes, we shocked and awed and brought in the heavy artillery and chased Saddam out and picked a committee of acceptable Iraqis to be the Founding Fathers (with a mom or two thrown in) of the new reality. That’s how you build democracy — you have an alien army unencumbered by knowledge of the complexity of the situation its dealing with, it smashes down the existing tyranny, then commands democracy to flourish, just like that.

–“Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press.” Yes, compared to what Mr. Saddam allowed. But still subject to the best judgment of the people now in charge and the commissioner of Major
League Baseball.

–“This morning, a group of people in Najaf have crossed the line. …” Yes — it’s only a few isolated malcontents and miscreants and their evildoer pals who are behind all the trouble.

–“This will not be tolerated by the coalition …” Check. The president’s mad. Rummy’s mad. Bremer’s mad. The generals are mad. They’re stamping their feet. They won’t stand for this sort of behavior. And they’ve got the tanks and helicopters to show they mean business.

–“This will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people…” Aren’t those Iraqi people running around raising hell in the streets? They seem to be tolerating this. But yeah, they’re malcontents and miscreants and evildoers. We must be talking about the rest of the Iraqis — the same ones we consulted before we launched this whole adventure. All two or three dozen of them.

–“And this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi security forces.” First — what does “security” mean? And if it means what you think it means, then why are they called “security forces”?

I think Bremer’s statement illustrates the emerging Vietnam nature of the war in Iraq. Just as in South Vietnam, we seem to have talked ourselves into believing that great values, great intentions, and great
military resources are a shortcut to winning hearts and minds of an unknown populace to a great ideal (and coincidentally, our strategic ends). In the meantime, don’t let any contradictory evidence get in the
way of the vision: the apparent lack of consensus among the population about the future, the evident disdain among many for our presence, the extraordinary difficulty of fitting all Iraq’s competing interests and desires inside the pre-fab democracy we think we can set up.

What we’re doing in Iraq adds up to a fatal kind of arrogance. A terrible misuse of our power. A pointless sequel to our September 11th tragedy.

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