Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


It hit me the other day: the answer to Iraq. Not the solution in a military sense. Not an answer to whether the war was right or wrong in 2003. But the solution at the political and ideological level, to the question: Now we’re here, what should we seek to do? It could be a campaign slogan, or the motto of a new Bush administration direction; it’s a goal towards which our plans should seek to be the paths.

Peace In Iraq.

This is a “radical centrist” position. It opposes the right, which wants to “stay the course” (“the course” being more war) or escalate (Kill Sadr! Invade Iran!). It equally opposes the left, which wants to pull US troops out of Iraq unilaterally, regardless of whether this leads to peace or not (it probably wouldn’t). The Peace In Iraq position is that we should whatever will stop the killing, whether it be staying, or going, or leaving some troops, or even sending more troops, or anything else.

We should talk to anyone who will talk. Talk to Syria and Iran. Talk to Muqtada al-Sadr. Talk to the insurgents, the Baathist revanchists. Talk to al-Qaeda if they’re willing. Talk to anyone who is killing people in Iraq. Figure out why they’re doing it and what it would take to make them stop; then try to satisfy as much of everyone’s demands as possible. If some people won’t talk to us, try to find someone—a tribal leader, a cleric, an envoy of Iran or Syria, anyone—who they will talk to, and talk to them indirectly. It may be impossible to find enough common ground among the various parties to stop the killing, but by all means, try.

Peace In Iraq is more important than justice. Many of those fighting in Iraq have blood on their hands—Baathist ex-torturers; civilian-murdering terrorist string-pullers—and they deserve to be jailed or executed, but never mind that. If we have to amnesty them, if we have to make deals that allow them to retire in comfort, so be it, just as long as they stop the killing.

Peace In Iraq is more important than democracy. What kind of regime emerges in Iraq—liberal democracy, an Islamic Republic a la Iran, some form of tribal feudalism, strongman leadership—is a secondary issue, as long as it stops the killing.

Of course, justice and democracy might help to secure Peace In Iraq. Punishing killers might deter future killers, and reduce the desire for vengeance. Elections may yet succeed in establishing a legitimacy deep and broad enough to create a societal consensus. But for the time being we should regard justice and democracy as tools only, tools for the achievement of Peace In Iraq, to be applied if useful, and if not, not.

We should drop the illusion of omnipotence. I suspect that while US military power was predictably sufficient to overthrow Saddam Hussein, establishing civil peace in the country afterwards is not the type of work that our military ever could have done, and the “nation-building” effort that followed the war was inherently naïve because we simply don’t have the kind of tools that can do that. (The war was worth it if and only if the inherent, inescapable risk of chaos and civil strife in the aftermath of liberation was worthwhile.) Whether or not that’s the case, at this point we clearly do not have the capacity to ensure Peace In Iraq; we must trust others. Above all, we should trust the Iraqi people by asking them to vote on whether we should stay. We should ask Prime Minister al-Maliki to hold a referendum with the following choices:

1. In the midst of the present crisis, Iraq calls on the international community and the multi-national forces in particular to assist it in its struggle with murderous terrorists.

2. Regardless of whether the war was right or wrong, Iraq can never be a normal, sovereign, democratic country while foreign forces fight on its soil, so we call on foreign troops to depart with all feasible speed, and to be gone within six months.

The referendum can be held with the following terms. If 75% or more of the votes cast are for withdrawal, we will exit the whole country as fast as is feasible. If more than 50% and less than 75% vote for withdrawal, we will exit from all provinces where a majority favored withdrawal, but in any province where support for multinational forces staying was greater than 50%, we will consider that support a mandate for our troops remaining as a safeguard against ethnic cleansing. This will be negotiated with local and national Iraqi leadership. If more than 50% of Iraqis nationally ask for continuing MNF support, we will remain in the country fighting terrorists and insurgents alongside the Iraqi forces, but we will ask the Iraqi government to hold future referendums on the subject annually in case the Iraqi public changes its mind.

Peace In Iraq is an ideal position for old hawks who now feel some doubts and guilt, but who don’t want to explicitly repudiate their past positions. At the same time it’s a position for liberals who may have opposed the war, but who either changed their minds, or else who believe that we can’t leave now. It’s a repudiation of realism but at the same time it may satisfy many voters as being more in the US’s national interest than either the right or the left alternatives. Peace In Iraq asks no one to repent of their past positions; we have more important things to do now than to figure out who was right and who was wrong, back then. It rejects the hateful hysteria of both Free Republic and Daily Kos.

Peace In Iraq tries to be chary in American lives—stop the killing means, among other things, stop the killing of American soldiers—but it does not make soldiers’ lives more important than their mission—which is what the cut-and-run position does, and which subtly repudiates the courage which makes American soldiers what they are, and which consists in valuing the mission more than one’s life.

On the American political scene, Peace In Iraq could have a “national unity” appeal. A physical civil war is raging in Iraq, but a mental civil war has been raging in the US for three or four years now over the same issue, and people are tired of it. It is a humane goal that people of all parties can rally behind.

On the international scene, one can only assume that a national push from the US for Peace In Iraq would be welcome. If foreign journalists and/or politicians want to portray it as a change of heart on the part of a chastened US, as repentance for our belligerent ways, as an effort to return to the international community, let them do so! We should make no effort to defend past positions; let present political actors save it for their memoirs to explain that no, Peace In Iraq was perfectly consistent with earlier policies. The UN and the Europeans could hardly help but endorse the Peace In Iraq sentiment, and they might even contribute money or troops or whatever diplomatic and moral support they can offer to the success of our new initiative.

Other Arab countries would wish the initiative success out of self-interest: they are terrified that disorder in Iraq will spread to their own countries. We would ask the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Egyptians to assist us as mediators in any way they could. (The lofty pro-democratic scruples that make us hold these regimes at arm’s length are a luxury we can’t afford for the moment.)

And in Iraq itself? It might indeed be hard to find a compromise that was acceptable to all the feuding parties on the Iraqi scene. Anyway, since that’s what we’ve been trying to do for some time now, it’s hard to know whether Peace In Iraq would have any practical effect. Yet I think it would. An openly declared willingness to deal directly with anyone who has power in Iraq might bring some actors to the table who don’t find it advantageous to participate in the democratic political process. To some extent we might be betraying our democratic allies by undermining their democratic sovereignty. But democratic sovereignty must rest on a foundation of a society that is able to peacefully co-exist and maintain order; given that that is absent in Iraq, real democratic sovereignty is not an option available to that country, yet.

Of course Peace In Iraq might fail. But we should give it our best effort. For the moment, to stop the killing should be our paramount, our only goal in Iraq; we should make this clear to ourselves, to the Iraqis, to the world.


  • At first the (apparent) lack of principles gave me the impression that Finn was satarizing, but then I read on and realized he was earnest. There's more than a hint of the craven, of course, but the ordinary cravenness of political realism in grave circumstances. Do I agree with everything here? Not really, but then, much of it is offered in a fairly tentative manner - Finn recognizes that the situation is far too complicated for any non-expert to even hope to craft comprehensive suggestions.

    But, I think this way of thinking is very much the way to save what can be saved - it may well even lead to eventual victory* as the international community and Iraqis themselves seize opportunities to improve the status quo over the years.

    Chaos and anarchy can't really "lead to" a liberal democracy: the inherent randomness in the outcome of free-for-alls can lead to a wide variety of bizarre and banal outcomes, but liberal democracy is statistically not a common result. Many fairly authoritarian states, however, have managed to transition well to liberal democracy, with the help of the international community and civil society worthy of the name.

    I personally think we could have headed off our current serious quandary long ago with different choices, but Finn is right to point out that arguing about the past is a pointless distraction. Not truly pointless, since finger pointing is the ground fighting of political combat, but it has very little to tell us about what we can do in the future. Some might argue that one can't expect proven incompetents to come up with a good new plan, but if the key positions aren't even up for reelection, then we're stuck with them incompetent or not.

    Thus, if/when Democrats take Congress, the most positive contribution they could make would be to force our execution outside the box in which it has labored. They can't execute - wrong branch - but they can force a change. Better yet from the POV of the White House, they can be blamed if things don't go well. If risk aversion is why we haven't reevaluated our strategy long ago, then spreading the exposure amongst more investors might make the difference.

    *Once again, victory for Iraq, which is all I care about. I feel what we've done to them will weigh on our national soul until they emerge from their long nightmare.

    By Blogger Nato, at 8:53 AM  

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