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Another ‘myth’ developing around Iraq to consider… in Prospect magazine… May 20, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Politics, Iraq.
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Briefly, an entertaining review in Prospect magazine by Bartle Bull (foreign editor of Prospect) of Patrick Cockburn’s book “Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq”. Cockburn has written what I’d consider to be the best, and thankfully one of the most concise, account of the War in Iraq and its aftermath, “The Occupation” which was considered here before.

Bull is no fan of Cockburn’s politics, although he is lavish in his praise of his work…

…Iraq reporting is dominated by a highly editorial approach, almost all of it from the anti-American left. Cockburn is the dean of this school of thought too. It is a field of endeavour that was more or less invented by his father, the communist writer Claud Cockburn, and which has been carried on by Patrick and his two talented brothers, Alexander and Andrew. Patrick is a proud polemicist of the old-fashioned, sceptical-of-American-power strain, perhaps the leading light in a family who are the Kennedys or Bushes of the ink-stained, well-heeled intellectual left.

And he also writes:

It is a noble tradition and, in Cockburn’s hands, a charming and glamourous one, but it is also as wrong about Iraq as it was about the cold war. If our leaders had listened to it, Saddam Hussein would have been in power for another 20 years and Iraqis would not possess the possibility of liberty that is theirs today. If this tendency had any predictive power beyond the truism that Iraq tomorrow will be violent, the country’s three nationwide democratic exercises in 2005 would have been terrible failures, rather than popular successes, and the country would have fallen apart in the leaderless “civil war” of 2006 and the first half of 2007.

Those are some mighty big claims. Consider that the exercises in democracy predated the ‘civil war’, and how indeed could it have been otherwise since the ‘civil war’ represented a manifestation of the jockeying for positioning between Sunni and Shia. In that context how is it possible to see that they represented anything close to ‘popular’ successes? Moreover the appeal to rhetoric about ‘liberty’ is strangely old fashioned. That seems to be low on the agenda in an Iraq being given a comprehensive makeover as a Shia dominated state with a strongly religious aspect.

But most striking is his analysis:

If we had followed the counsels of this illiberal school, a courageous and important nation of 25m souls would have been abandoned to al Qaeda, the Baathists and Iran a year ago or more.

Really? It’s hard to take this terribly seriously. Forget al Queda for a moment, who like all opportunists have merely piggy-backed their way on a different struggle. Consider the Baathists and Iran. Firstly, it is now widely recognised in US political circles [and for more a recent edition of To The Point on KCRW some weeks back dealt with this very issue – I’ll try to find a link] that the approach of disbanding the Iraqi Army, and the institutions of state, many of which were underpinned by Baath members was woefully misconceived. And so we see a slow surge of Baathists back towards the centers of power. Meanwhile Iran could hardly be in a better position than it is now. Iraq is not a client state – not quite, anyhow. But the nature of the relationship between the two states is one of profound depth and a shared animosity.

And curiously Bull takes two contradictory lines on this. In one he argues that:

The story of Iraq over the last five years is one not of US and British soldiers with all their failures, successes and tragedies. It is the story of Iraqis and the realignment of their politics after 30 years of Baathism. It is the story of Iraq becoming a Shia country.

In the other he suggests:

…from where did al-Sadr make his accommodating announcements [during recent protests in Basra]? Tehran, where he was based throughout the writing of Muqtada, and where he will be for another few years at least as he completes a hasty degree that will allow him to claim status as a mujtahid, or source of reference and emulation for Shias. Muqtada is not an Iranian pawn, or has not been to date, but his taking refuge there from his own elected government is already proving politically damaging. The al-Sadr movement is about nationalism as much as it is about populism. Tehran and Qom are good places to lose that mantle.

The point is that Iraq is making a Shia turn, and it is largely irrelevant (although telling – very telling) that al-Sadr winds up in Tehran. But this is a triumph of hope over experience, for Bull writes that: Throughout the storming of his neighbourhoods in Basra and-Sadr City, he [al-Sadr] reaffirmed his commitment to the ceasefire that he renewed in late February. His men, not Maliki’s, were ordered to withdraw from the field of battle, and Maliki’s men patrol the streets of Basra today.

Do they? Do they in any meaningful sense? The information coming out of Basra, such as it is, seems to indicate that Maliki’s hold on power in Basra uncertain.

But he tops that statement with the following:

Muqtada has recently achieved what even the Americans failed to: a brief alignment of almost all of Iraq’s main political parties. The Sunni parties, both Kurdish parties, many leading secularists and the two main old Shia parties all lined up behind the government in its standoff with al-Sadr. Bloodied by an unpopular government, hemmed in, pushed out of lucrative real estate during the battles of March and April, Muqtada is fortunate to have recourse to the ballot box in local elections this autumn and national elections in 2009. We know who he has to thank for that.

To personify the forces that al-Sadr represents in al-Sadr is to minimise the actual dynamics within Iraq, within Shia Iraq and indeed within the democratic structures. To suggest that somehow a ‘brief alignment’ represents anything is to tilt into the absurd. Iraq will, it seems, continue to confound expectations for quite some time, but perhaps most of all those which hope to see clear-cut examples of ‘liberty’ over the messy and often anarchic compromises with Iran and the Baath that a slow moving civil war on foot of invasion has left. And to somehow castigate those who suggest the best solution is the removal of the current set of external forces, because this removal might lead to a situation hardly distinguishable from the current one, is simply wrong.

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Comments»

1. CL - May 20, 2008

The U.S. occupation, heavily dependent on mercenaries, has to end before a political settlement can take place.

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2. WorldbyStorm - May 20, 2008

I would tend to agree…

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3. ejh - May 20, 2008

Prospect? Fuck ’em

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4. WorldbyStorm - May 21, 2008

They’re okay. There’s a lot of interesting reading in its pages, even if one disagrees with it. And quite a lot of different opinions (see Misha Glenny’s piece on the Balkans last month for example). Anyhow, what’s the source of your ire about them?

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