A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 16, 2014

Thoughts on the Iraq Blame Game

Oh, my, it's come to this: the media has dug up Paul Bremer and asked him what to do in Iraq. Since I try to limit the use of four-letter words here to discussions of linguistics or quotes from others, and since any discussion of this would consist of a prolonged spewing of profanities, I shall refrain.

All of the neocons, it seems, are coming out of the woodwork and, like the Bourbons in the phrase usually attributed to Talleyrand., they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Bill Kristol was just on CNN; Max Boot and various Kagans are writing op-eds, and I don't even watch Fox News. Has Dick Cheney checked in yet? The neocons, of course, say ISIS' successes in Iraq is all Obama's fault, since he didn't leave a residual force. (I have this odd memory that we tried but that the Maliki government wouldn't negotiate a status of forces agreement. I guess I hallucinated that.)

Those who don't blame Obama blame George W. Bush. Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn Rule" ("If you break it, you've bought it") is enjoying a revival. And certainly if the US had never gone into Iraq, or stayed so long, things might have evolved very differently.

But ultimate causation is an endless issue. Maybe it's all Saddam's fault, or the Iran-Iraq war. Maybe it was the Baath in general, or the 1958 Revolution, or Nuri's adherence to the Baghdad Pact. Maybe it was the British favoritism of Sunnis under the mandate, or the population bombing campaign in 1920 or of course, the usual suspects, Sykes and Picot. Ottoman policies could be responsible, or the Mongols' destruction of Baghdad and the irrigation system in 1258, or ... well, you get the point. You could play the blame game back to Sargon of Akkad, or the Sumerians.

I'm not exonerating Bush or Obama, by the way. (And as always, opinions on this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of The Middle East Institute, which does not take institutional positions on Middle Eastern controversies.)  Everyone who has touched Iraq played a role in this. And though you wouldn't know it from some of the US political debate. Nuri al-Maliki has alienated the Sunni allies he once had; Iran, the war in Syria, and the meddling of the Gulf States and Turkey are also contributors.

But while US policies since 2003 (or 1991) are clearly complicit, the debate over which political party deserves the blame and how exactly America should "fix" Iraq is typical American domestic politics. I would never hold myself out as an Iraq expert (I've spent a total of five days there, but have studied its politics and history), I'm amazed at the self-acknowledged Iraq experts turning up on TV. Nobody like Phebe Marr, or Charles Tripp, or Peter Sluglett, or Adeed Dawisha, or Toby Dodge, or Amatzia Baram, mind you, though Reidar Visser has given an interview or two. Washington think-tankers have some people who at least know the subject, and while I often disagree with Ken Pollack or Mike Eisenstadt, I respect their genuine knowledge of the background. But many commentators on both sides are just grinding political axes. Majid Khadduri and Hanna Batatu (two very different men, but both profoundly understood Iraq) must be restless in their graves. I particularly wish Batatu were available for comment.

The current American blame game reminds me as nothing so much as the debate among former Confederate Generals after the US Civil War over responsibility for the loss at Gettysburg. Although Robert E. Lee blamed himself ("It is all my fault") and George Pickett of Pickett's charge blamed Lee for the destruction of his division, Lee's death in 1870 meant he was beyond criticism. Ex-Confederates then engaged in vigorous debates in journals such as Confederate Veteran and Southern Historical Society Papers for years about responsibility for Gettysburg. Many blamed Jeb Stuart, the absence of whose cavalry left Lee without crucial intelligence; Stuart died in the war but guerrilla John S. Mosby became his defender. After Lee's apotheosis (and therefore immunity from criticism), some blamed Richard Ewell and Jubal Early for failing to take the high ground on the first day. Early himself then became the most vigorous advocate for blaming James Longstreet, who doubted the plan to assault the Union lines frontally and was accused of acting slowly as a result. (The fact that Longstreet became a Republican while U.S. Grant was President fueled the hostility.)

The whole ex-Confederate debate almost never noted the fact that at Gettysburg there were also some 75,000 Union troops on the battlefield, superior in numbers and occupying a secure position on higher ground, and that this just might have played a role in the Confederate loss.

Just as I feel both Maliki and ISIS may bear at least some of the responsibility for events in Iraq.

No comments: