Monday, June 11. 2007
It's getting hard to think of things that could go wrong for the US in Iraq that haven't already gone wrong. New York Times hack John Burns is reporting that the US is arming Sunni Arab groups in Iraq, mostly ex-Baathists, on the promise that they'll use those weapons against Al Qaeda. No doubt they will, but also no doubt they'll use those same weapons against US troops, Iraqi troops, Shiite militias, each other, and anyone else who happens in the way. Burns was on PBS tonight talking about how this sort of strategy has been tried in the past and doesn't have a very good track record. He mentioned Vietnam, for instance, but didn't mention the one case where it did work: arming Indians on the old west frontier. The strategy is actually older than the US: Samuel Champlain did it when the French first arrived, and he may not even have been the first. The European settlers then, like the Americans today, were comfortable in the superiority of their arms, so they had few worries about the blowback their arms dealing might cause. Rather, they saw the big advantage of playing each side off against the other. The result was genocide with deniability, which is pretty much where Iraq is heading. Indeed, the new deals with Sunnis are dividends from previous US deals arming Shiite death squads.
There are also reports that the US is using Sudanese mercenaries in Iraq. This again points back to the early Indian wars in America, where European powers would form alliances with various tribes to fight their proxy wars. It's not surprising that the US would think of things like this. The US military, after all, continues to be trained in old west forts like Fort Leavenworth, and Indian wars play a large part in US military history. Moreover, such analogies become ever more fashionable when small wars and counterinsurgency come into vogue. US success in suppressing the Philippine revolt and in the long-term occupation of Caribbean banana republics is usually credited to Indian war experience (cf. Max Boot). Injun Country is still the generic term for unsecured territory. That it implies a racial and cultural divide that can only be resolved by US subjugation of the enemy all but defines the conflict.
Nobody much talks about America's Indian experience in relation to recent foreign policy, but the subject should be investigated further. Just as America's Jim Crow laws were the inspiration for South Africa's apartheid, America's Indian reservation system was the model for South Africa's Bantustans -- a model that Israel has subsequently refined for its own Occupied Territories. One bond Americans and Israelis feel for each other is their shared faith in the success of their colonization efforts. (Israel is much at a disadvantage in terms of demography and space, but still has proven resourceful enough that they've managed to get Fatah and Hamas killing each other. They, too, understand the value of provoking internecine warfare among their enemies.) I've read passing references that Hitler likened Nazi Germany's settlement of the East, with the extermination of the Jews and enslavement of the Slavs, to America's westward manifest destiny.
Still, these Indian analogies offer the US scant hope. What made US subjugation of the Indians possible was: 1) overwhelming demographic dominance; 2) ample land to deal with the reduced tribes; and 3) a willingness to admit the surviving Indians into an open and prosperous society. Israel has none of those things. South Africa was a little better off in terms of land, but worse off demographically. The Nazis bit off much more than they could chew and never even managed to establish control. The US in Iraq doesn't even compute along these lines: all the model means for Iraq is senseless, quixotic death and destruction, until the US grows exhausted and weary and crawls home ignominiously.
Even now, the US doesn't have the will or the credibility to keep Iran and Turkey from shelling, and in Turkey's case invading, Kurdish positions, let alone the ability to keep the Kurdish PKK from attacking Iran and Turkey. You'd think that if the US had anything constructive to offer Iraq it would be to deter foreign interference, but clearly the US has no such ability. Indeed, it's hard to see any way the US is keeping Iraq from collapsing. Recent reports put the number of displaced Iraqis at close to 5 million, or 20% of the prewar population. The Soviets were hard pressed to mismanage Afghanistan so badly.
It's often said that those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it; here it looks like the Americans are hoping that works based on utterly misapplying their historical analogies. Last week Tony Snow looked into his crystal ball and discovered Korea as a hopeful model for Iraq. Exactly what makes Korea a success story isn't all that obvious. The war started 57 years ago, degrading quickly into a stalemate, with a ceasefire that has held for 54 years, despite the near-complete isolation and immiseration of the North, still controlled by a regime that periodically feels the need to threaten mass mayhem just to get the occasional handout of rice or oil. Even if Snow was just trying to point to hanging tough for 57 years and counting as an accomplishment, that's a pretty lame definition of success. Otherwise, the similarity is impossible to find. But it might make sense if you view North Korea as an Indian reservation -- not exactly subjugated, but pretty tightly contained. Now if we can only get those Iraqis packed away safely into a few reservations.
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