Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 20, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

MASSIVE RETALIATION....Recent events in Fallujah and Najaf have prompted two very different reactions in most observers. There are no surprises here, either: the two reactions are (a) Iraq is a mess and more violence will just make them hate us even more, and (b) we need to teach the bastards a lesson they'll never forget.

It's not surprising that it's come down to this since American liberals and conservatives have split along these lines on an endless succession of subjects before. But in the past couple of days I've noticed an interesting twist on option B. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Asla Aydintasbas, in NRO:

    In the heady days soon after the collapse of the Saddam regime in Baghdad, I visited an ambassador from a formal imperial power in one of the few open embassies. Having just survived weeks of looting, "I just don't understand how Americans think they can take over a city without declaring marshal law or even a curfew" the diplomat said. Ah, I thought, this man just doesn't get it curfews are all about the Old Middle East. This was the New Middle East where Iraq was to serve as a bastion of democracy and freedoms.

    A few months later, I understood exactly the point he was making. You cannot do a half-occupation, he meant, being squeamish about projecting power and reluctant to assume responsibility. Since the beginning of the U.S. experiment in Iraq, one of problems with the American presence there has been the half-hearted half-responsible nature of its authority. There might have been a noble reason behind this. Americans are reluctant empire builders (as the president expressed Tuesday night); most Americans would rather let Iraqis run their country, and official U.S. policies in Iraq are aimed at creating a stable Arab democracy, not the colonization of new territories.

  • Niall Ferguson, in the New York Times:

    To understand what is going on in Iraq today, Americans need to go back to 1920, not 1970....In 1920, the British eventually ended [a rebellion in Iraq] through a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village-burning expeditions. It was not pretty. Even Winston Churchill, then the minister responsible for the air force, was shocked by the actions of some trigger-happy pilots and vengeful ground troops. And despite their overwhelming technological superiority, British forces still suffered more than 2,000 dead and wounded.

    Is the United States willing or able to strike back with comparable ruthlessness? Unlikely if last week's gambit of unconditional cease-fires is any indication. Washington seems intent on reining in the Marines and pinning all hope on the handover of power scheduled apparently irrevocably for June 30.

Do you see the contradiction that both writers obviously understand but seem oddly unwilling to face squarely? In a place like Iraq, the only way to gain control is to make it clear that you are not to be trifled with with overwhelming force if necessary. But on the other hand, we've come a long way since 1920, and that kind of occupation, which was only barely acceptable to western public opinion even then, is certainly not today. What's more, it's even less acceptable when George Bush has been claiming for over a year that Iraqis are not our enemy, but rather a grateful populace eager for liberation.

Like it or not, this contradiction probably makes large-scale foreign interventions almost impossible today, especially in the Middle East. It might very well be true that the only way to hold a country like Iraq together is to have huge troop levels and a willingness to crush opposition ruthlessly if necessary. But the fact is that we don't have huge numbers of troops, and American public opinion thankfully won't tolerate massive retaliation of the kind the British got away with in 1920. That's simply not the kind of society any of us want to be.

This presents a problem for war supporters. If they really believe that overwhelming force is necessary to beat down the Iraq insurgencies, as many of them seem to, who do they think is going to do it? The commanders on the ground seem well aware of the kind of conflagration they'd set off if they tried this, and are likewise well aware that public opinion in 21st century America simply won't put up with tactics more often associated with police states than with liberal democracies.

So what's the answer? Or is there one?

Kevin Drum 6:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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