Sunday, January 16, 2005

Make Them Choose

Hoagland hits on a couple things in this column that I want to note. At the level of annoyance is the idea that "since we broke Iraq we have to fix it." This attitude popped up shortly after the invasion. But since it was most widely present in those who opposed the war but thought we needed to stay and stabilize Iraq I thought a little annoyance on my part is a small price to pay for getting support for the post-war mission. Hoagland writes that this view is just wrong:

It would relieve Saddam Hussein and foreign jihadists of their responsibility, or credit, if you will, for the hell on earth that central Iraq has long been. It would deprive Iraqis of their obligation to break the spell of passivity that Baathist dictatorship, past American betrayal and an oil economy have cast on them. It would reduce the Iraqi elections a little over a fortnight away to being a function of George W. Bush's brilliance, or his stupidity.
My reaction has nothing to do about relieving Iraqis of their responsibilities or blame--at least not directly. In my view, we did not "break" Iraq. We liberated Iraq and gave the Iraqis a rare chance to benefit from the direct application of American power (not to disparage our allies who provided significant help, but they could not do this on their own). Iraq, with its broken-down infrastructure, torture, oppression, and fear was nothing if not "broken" well before 3rd ID and I MEF crossed the berm and plunged into Iraq. The success of this war was always going to rest on how the Shias, Kurds, and even the Sunnis react to this opportunity to decisively toss the past aside and build a better nation.

Which leads to the next point of Hoagland. We must make the Sunnis choose where they want to stand:

The so-called Pottery Barn rule is one of several self-defeating myths that have grown up around Iraq and need to be dispelled by the Jan. 30 vote. Another is that the "legitimacy" of the elections will hinge on how many Sunnis vote or boycott.

Legitimacy is a relative concept, as the collection of democracies, dictatorships, kleptocracies and authoritarian regimes that make up the United Nations demonstrates. There is no magic formula for participation by any religious or ethnic group to establish legitimacy. The practicality of power politics does that, for better or worse.

Holding the elections forces Iraq's Sunnis into a similar practical choice: They can vote or they can fight. It would be a major error to let them off the hook of that choice, as those who argue for a substantial delay of the elections explicitly or implicitly advocate.

The neighboring Sunni monarchs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia want to delay the day when Iraq's political order will reflect the fact that Shiites make up the large majority of the population, a fact that Sunnis must at some point acknowledge and accept.

It is bad enough when war opponents elevate the blood-drenched Sunni population into the role of victim who have to be cajoled into voting and ending their active or passive support for the Baathist/jihadi insurgency. Must we and our Iraqi friends make the same mistake? The Sunnis are lucky we liberated them (yes, even most Sunnis were not the beneficiaries of Saddam's wealth). Who else would have set up a system that gave them freedom and a chance to participate in the new government? In their part of the world, losing was the short route to poverty and oppression. We have changed that pattern and they don't want to go along?

Well, screw 'em. Letting them off the hook for choosing between voting or planting car bombs just lets them use killing as a weapon to get more goodies than their numbers justify. Why would any rational actor choose peace when the enemy doesn't insist on making them choose to be peaceful?

The talk of the El Salvador option I think is real--or at least just a reflection of reality that will happen without any specific US plan. With elections completed, the Iraqi government will see if the Sunnis have chosen voting or bombing. If the Sunnis have chosen bombing, the Iraqi government will not likely just sit and take it any more. The government, with legitimacy as office-holders with a public vote, will go after the insurgents with a brutality that matches the insurgents.

If we play our cards right, as I've mentioned before, we can portray the fight as a national resistance against the foreign jihadis running around Iraq trying to kill Americans and Iraqis with no thought to achieving anything but death and chaos. Give the Sunnis a reason to join the government that doesn't look like surrendering and we can get most of the Sunnis to end their support or acceptance of the Baathist-led insurgency.

The Shias and Kurds may be the ones voting in the largest numbers, but their numbers guarantee they would win power whether they use elections or raw violence to enforce their numbers. The really significant choice is being offered to the Sunnis. They can choose the ballot or the bullet. We must make them choose.