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April 26, 2007

Iraq: the power of words

(From the Avis car rental office at O'Hare Airport, Chicago) Here are two critical issues of terminology that affect our conduct of the Iraq war:

Whom are we fighting?

Our enemy cannot be defined as the Iraqi unsurgency. That's a disparate collection of factions that are mainly fighting one another and will continue to do so after we leave. It cannot be "terrorism," because (as many have noted) that's a method, not a cause, an organization, or a movement. "Terrorism" cannot even be defined without courting controversy. But if we are automatically at war with any entity that uses terrorist tactics (as standardly understood), then we'd better prepare for combat in countries from Ireland to Sri Lanka--of which Sudan ought to be our top priority.

I certainly hope our enemy isn't Islam, because that's one of the world's great religions, and millions of our own citizens are members. Al-Qaeda is an enemy, but it's too loosely organized and small to define our long-term problem. If Al-Qaeda were wiped out, we would still have a struggle on our hands. The word "Islamofacism" has been criticized for causing offense. By itself, that objection wouldn't necessarily bother me; but it does seem a misleading and sloppy term. Fascism, invented in Italy in the 1930s, was anticlerical, secular, regimented and militaristic, enthusiastic about engineering and mass media, and committed to social order. Osama bin Laden appears to be on the opposite side of most of those issues. We need a word that describes a particular form of reactionary, violent, antisemitic, patriarchal, authoritarian politics that draws from Sunni fundamentalism but also from reactionary European thought; that mimics clerical titles without engaging the traditional clergy; and that embraces decentralized, anarchic tactics despite its vision of a unified, hierarchical theocracy. That movement is probably not our biggest problem in Iraq, let alone the world; but it is worth fighting.

2) What should we call the inevitable US withdrawal from Iraq?

The White House wants to call it a "surrender" or a "defeat." That's a tactic to make congressional Democrats look bad for demanding an end to the combat. And perhaps the president really feels that we would win if we did not leave; thus pulling out is a "surrender." However, the White House's terminology will have terrible consequences for the country. When we do leave Iraq--as we will--calling our own departure a "surrender" will give our enemies an enormous propaganda victory. At home, it will fuel a debate about which party caused the defeat. (Was it Bush, by starting the war, or the Democrats, by ending it?) That debate will be deeply divisive, especially because Republicans and Democrats tend to be separated by geography, ethnicity, profession, and creed.

Many Democrats will be tempted to call the withdrawal the end of a fiasco or a debacle. That terminology will be tempting because it is at least partly true, plus it piles lots of blame and shame on the incumbent administration. The problems are: 1) It makes our troops' sacrifices look completely pointless and hides the competent, ethical, and courageous soldiering that has occurred. 2) It gives Republicans--including those outside the administration--no incentive to compromise and help get the troops home. And 3) It fuels the same debate noted in the previous paragraph: not necessarily to the advantage of liberals.

I would therefore be tempted to take the following line: Whether or not we should have invaded Iraq in the first place, we succeeded in removing a hateful dictator and smashing a major army halfway around the world with hardly any casualties on our side. That is a sign of enormous strength. A civil war then broke out. That conflict is morally our responsibility, because we might have been able to prevent it. In any case, we are accountable for what happens to a population whose nation we chose to invade. Nevertheless, there is very little we can do to end the civil war. We lack the necessary skills and knowledge. More important, civil conflict is just not something that can be resolved by an outside force; it must be negotiated by the parties. Possibly, if we imposed an effective martial law for many years, the factions in the Iraqi domestic conflict would run out of energy and resources. But the odds favor disastrous results even from such an enormous investment of our resources. Therefore, it is past time to leave. This is a moral failure but not a military defeat, and it is certainly not a "surrender."

April 26, 2007 12:55 PM | category: Iraq and democratic theory | Comments


Answer to question 2: "Success!" Kidding aside, I started this post before the Democratic debate, and I noticed that two (or more?) candidates say something to the effect, "we won the war 4 years ago and it's now time to end the occupation."

Nice post.

April 27, 2007 12:55 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Michael Weiksner

Answer to question 2: "Success!" Kidding aside, I started this post before the Democratic debate. Finishing this comment now that the debate is over, I noticed that two (or more?) candidates say something to the effect, "we won the war 4 years ago and it's now time to end the occupation."

Nice post.

April 27, 2007 12:56 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Michael Weiksner

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