|Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives|
The American military is preventing the emergence of political legitimacy in Iraq
By Michael Vlahos, The War in Context, December 12, 2005
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier's novel of the American Civil War's final months, has much to tell us about Iraq.
First, almost nothing can be achieved in a place with multiple competing armed authorities, each saying that they are the real law, and each all too ready to take human life to prove their claim.
In the crumbling Confederate Nation there were 1) Confederate forces, 2) state forces, 3) Union forces, 4) bounty hunters, and 5) gangs of filibusters and deserters. So in Iraq today there are 1) US forces, 2) Iraqi forces, 3) local militias, 4) insurgent units, 5) Jihadi fighters, 6) gangs and organized crime, 7) coalition "contractors" and "other" outside military advisors (Iranians, Syrians, Saudis, etc.).
We Americans look at Iraq through the lens of a "legitimate" government (that we are fighting for) under attack by illegitimate groups. But Iraqis live in the direct sunlight of violently competing legitimacies: all lethal and all pointing the muzzles of their guns in your direction. An Iraqi civilian can be shot by a plinking contractor just as easily as by an insurgent. Legitimacy is on hold. It doesn’t really exist.
At the end of the Civil War the South, having descended into such chaos, did not emerge into the light of normal life and reasonable politics as long as Union forces remained in occupation. As long as Washington pushed its "reconstruction" agenda, backing its chosen state governments over old Confederate political establishments, there remained at least four violent legitimacies in political competition: 1) US governor-generals and their troops, 2) their protected local administrations, 3) the insurgent traditional establishment, 4) ex-CSA paramilitary filibusters.
Like Iraq, nothing could happen as long as legitimacy itself was unresolved. The US Government and the US Army were therefore as much the problem as any old Confederate paramilitary. The US Government and the US Army in Iraq today are just as much the problem as any Sunni insurgent.
Go one step further than Rep. Murtha has. It is not simply that the American military can "do nothing more" in Iraq ... the American military is preventing the emergence of clear and unambiguous political legitimacy in Iraq. Moreover by putting political resolution on hold, its continuing presence has the historically negative effect of intensifying sub-Iraqi ethnogenesis.
What does this mean? When the United States invaded Iraq its ethnic groups had sub-national identities, (though Kurds under US protection had been developing a national agenda for over a decade). Rather than immediately recreating a working Iraqi state, the US Coalition Provisional Authority instead created a chaos-space in which groups were both encouraged and forced to seek their own destinies. The longer the chaos continued, the more mature the national agendas of Kurd and Shi'a became. Those who most wanted a unified Iraq, the Sunni, found themselves cast in the role of rebels against it. Thus theirs has been almost an unwilling incubation of nationhood. America's midwifery has ensured new national identities.
Again like the North's military occupation of the former Confederacy, the longer the US Army stayed, the less was the legitimacy its "reconstructed" politics - and the greater the authority of those in political resistance. Like the Union during reconstruction the United States has stayed too long in Iraq, insuring that successor legitimacies will likely be the opposite of what we sought.
But Americans worry less about Iraq's future than they do about just getting out. If staying just makes the outcome worse, why not get out now? Yet all the "serious" people, Democrat and Republican, say that getting out now would be a disaster.
Truth is, if getting out now looks like a disaster, getting out later could be a catastrophe.
Getting out now rather than later is better for five reasons:
1) The civil war will be over more quickly now. Why are we still kidding ourselves? By overstaying the United States basically created and fed the conditions for civil war. Shadow civil war is now what we have, fought out like big city gangs rumbling in places the police don't go. The titular "government" we think we are building is, like Southern state governments guarded by Union troops, merely the government we declare while we remain in occupation. The real Iraqi government(s) will only emerge after we leave. Thus the so-called Iraqi Army is also just the army we declare it to be while we are there.©2005 Michael Vlahos
Michael Vlahos is part of the National Security Assessment team of the National Security Analysis Department (NSAD) at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. His teaching and research at Johns Hopkins has led to the development of a broad analytic model for examining war and culture, with a primary focus on how military societies adapt, both to broader change within their own national cultures, and to the cultural dimension of new operational environments driven by new enemies. After 2001 this work has taken on a special urgency, and Dr. Vlahos has worked with anthropologists and Islamic Studies specialists to develop a culture-area concept to help the Defense World better understand and respond operationally to the changing environment of the Muslim World. This concept is developed in his two monographs, Terror's Mask: Insurgency Within Islam (PDF) (2002), and Culture's Mask: War and Change After Iraq (PDF) (2004), and his recent paper, Two Enemies: Non-State Actors and Change in the Muslim World (PDF) (2005). Dr. Vlahos was foreign affairs and national security commentator for CNN for many years, and appeared regularly on Good Morning America and Canada AM. He has published articles in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, National Review, Washington Quarterly, The Times Literary Supplement, and Rolling Stone.
This article is the first original opinion - a new feature at The War in Context. If you are interested in submitting an article you can find out more here.
Copyright © 2002-2005 Paul Woodward