Monday, October 23, 2006

Iraq: Old Wars and New

Judging from the Baghdad bodycount, we politics nerds aren't the only ones getting excited over the US mid-terms. Some are calling this Iraq's equivalent of the Tet Offensive, as insurgents ratchet up the violence with the imputed goal of spooking US voters into putting the screws on their government to withdraw troops. Left and Right have summoned the ghosts of 1968 to trade insults and offer more proof that historical analogies best convince people who don't read history. Perhaps the only thing Vietnam references are good for is highlighting how high the stakes are today compared to 1975, a claim for which I'll cite no less authority than Henry Kissinger.

Well, that's not quite true; they show how little attention we give to history, even when it's constantly rubbed in our faces. Want to know what happens when you focus on bodycounts rather than institution-building as a measure of success? Or how gratuitous use of violence can galvanise opposition and hurt your cause more than all the bombs of the enemy? Forget the news, you can watch any grainy documentary on the Vietnam tragedy and wonder at how zealously we repeat mistakes.

At least the leaders of that era were prepared to call policy failure what it was and develop an exit-containment strategy, albeit after dropping more bombs on Indochina than were expended in the entire Second World War. The leaders who got us into today's god-awful mess seem like deer caught in the headlights, too transfixed by the Iraq catastrophe to do anything but shout down naysayers and beg the electorate to stand fast on quicksand. By this point though, the Freudian slips are coming thick and fast:

"If [Beazley] wants to see civil war then all of the international troops should move out of Iraq and you'll certainly see civil war on a grander scale if that happens."

Oh, so there already is a civil war?

Still, one has to feel a little sorry for the Coalition of the Dithering. This time there are no clean solutions, the 'troops-out' and 'stay-the-course' options both being political chimeras. So much we've been told by those participating in the first concerted effort to think Iraq through beyond the tactical level. The Iraq Study Group's co-chair has warned that there will be no silver bullet, but are western publics ready to be told there are only bad and worse options, all of which promise ongoing political pain?

If only, four years back, we'd got Mary Kaldor's memo on the 'new wars' of the post-Cold War world. There will be no more clear battle lines, no more signatures on the decks of warships to bring things to a close. Instead there will be embittered ethnic groups and networks of tech-savvy fanatics fighting over the wreckage of failed nation-states, left by the hand of overmighty nation-states and exploited by rogue nation-states - all beamed into your living room 24 hours a day.

So four decades from now, the archives of the 'Iraq War' won't close with footage of the last chopper leaving the roof of the US embassy. All there will be is endless scenes of suffering people and the long, slow death of Baghdad, which hasn't swum in this much blood since Timur decorated it with pyramids of severed heads.

No comments: