As more people who had been silent speak up, and as more facts come to light, the administration’s rationale for its invasion of Iraq and our continued military occupation there keeps retreating from one line of defense to another. Right now we are hearing the argument that “if you break it you own it”. We caused the mess in Iraq, and if we leave now there will be a bloody civil war, so we have an obligation to stay the course, for a while at least. This line sounds plausible, but like the ones that preceded it, it falls when examined.
To illustrate my point let me start with a personal anecdote.
Michel was a Lebanese Christian who tried to teach me classical Arabic for a few months after I arrived in Damascus in the fall of 1953. I didn’t learn much Arabic from him but I did get some interesting insights into how he saw the world around him.
One day he was late for our lesson, unusual for him, and I went to the front landing to look for him. Across the street was a police wagon and a bunch of hushed bystanders. Michel was among them; he saw me and came over. His face was long, his body language that of a mourner at a funeral. “What happened?” I asked. “Ah”, he said, “a terrible thing has just occurred. One of my students failed his baccalaureate exam. His father is the Police Chief and keeps his revolver in his desk. The boy knew about it, and came home and got the revolver”. Michel put his finger to his temple, and with contorted features pressed an imaginary trigger. “Bang”, he said tragically. “He blew his brains out.” “How awful”, I said. “Tell me about him. What kind of a boy was he?”
As soon as he focused on the quality of the late lamented, as opposed to the fact of his demise, his mobile Arab features underwent a remarkable transformation. No longer any trace of the mourner. He more nearly resembled a hungry cannibal approaching a succulent joint of long pig. “Hoho”, he announced triumphantly, “he was a Muslim”.
Well, that’s the way it is, my fellow Americans. We have nothing in our own national experience that equips us to understand the depth and intensity of the sectarian and communal rivalries that slice and dice the peoples of the Middle East. It follows that we are still groping, still unable to develop an effective general stance or attitude towards the people and nations of the region. We misunderstand them, and then we wonder why they don’t seem to understand us.
This bears on our current dilemma in Iraq. The feckless megalomaniacs who hijacked our government and then sent a perfectly good army there on a mission with no good purpose now tell us that we have to “stay the course” because if we leave, there will be a civil war and a bloodbath. Even sensible Americans are swayed by the notion that “if you break it, you own it” and feel almost as guilty at the thought of walking out on the Iraqi mess as they felt about our going there in the first place.
But did we in fact “break it?” Or was it more of a case of our releasing explosive forces that were already there, in place. Saddam didn’t create the sectarian tensions in his country but he kept the lid on while they built up, as in a pressure cooker. Enter our three stooges, Bush, Cheney and Rummy, who cluelessly take the lid off before lowering the heat, and now stand around trying to find someone else to blame for all the steam that is venting.
It seems to me that if you have a society in which very large numbers of people are willing to die for their religion, it should come as no surprise if many of them end up doing exactly that. Iraq was never a united nation and it was probably headed for some kind of bloodbath anyway. We should not have blundered in and set the explosion off, but should we also flagellate ourselves for the explosive charge having been there in the first place?
Now that we have seen the consequences of our folly, our leaders should seriously consider getting out. There may well be reasons for removing ourselves carefully and in a measured fashion, rather than just packing up and leaving. But the argument of “if you break it you own it” simply is not valid. We didn’t break it. It was broken already.
Carl Coon 11/21/05