Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Nation Building

Iraq is a great place to practice nation-building, especially for an administration whose head wanted no part of it and whose skill set is consistent with that desire. That was clear from the testimonies today by David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker to the Senate Armed Forces and Foreign Relations Committee. Despite their efforts to simplify and talk up a complex, dismal situation, the complexities and fluidities in the Iraqi political landscape were evident from their words. So was their inability to see beyond a very narrow scope and the utter lack of visibility of what happens next. This is not surprising: there are numerous layers of regional, ethnic, linguistic, religious, tribal, economic and political faults in Iraq and very little shared tradition of living in a unified state. Ambassador Ryan's citing as a major accomplishment the creation of a new Iraqi flag and its being flown in all parts of Iraq --next to the Kurdish flag in the north -- was pathetic, but maybe that is all that can be expected. Crocker nearly referenced arguably the best model for understanding the politics and violence of current Iraq, when he projected the Lebanonization of Iraq in the event of US withdrawal. But not the Lebanon of today, to which Crocker indeed referred, casting the Mehdi Army in role of Hezbollah and Iran in the role of Iran and Syria. Rather the Lebanon of nearly 35 years ago, at the beginning of the civil war. Some features are different, to be sure, but there are similar fragmentations of power, corruption as standard government practice and militias doubling as political agents and extortionist gangs.

Lebanon's civil war lasted fifteen years, 1975 - 1990, and involved occupations of Lebanese territory by two neighboring powers, Syria and Israel, thirty and eighteen years, respectively, which outlasted the war itself. The US occupation was much shorter but costly. Recall the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut. The civil war and the interventions killed at least 100,000 Lebanese residents, permanently injured another 100,000 and caused over 250,000 to emigrate, out of population of about 5 million, including the Palestinians. The civil war was not continuous fighting but broken into phases, separated by attempts at political reconciliation and the suppression of some violence by the occupying troops in league with one or more of the political factions. If Lebanon is the model, even if Iraq has already had five years of civil unrest or war, the end is still far off. To measure progress over months rather than years is foolhardy, to predict victory -- whatever that means and for whom -- is insane.

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