Friday, August 17, 2007


In the wake of the absolutely horrific bombings in northern Iraq, Eugene Robinson reminds us that after four and half years of war, we still don't really know that much about Iraq: in Washington, we talk about Iraq as if we were intimately familiar with all its fractures, fissures and fault lines. The Bush administration touts as a breakthrough the recent decision of provincial Sunni Muslim sheiks to cooperate with U.S. forces -- but it's also possible that the sheiks are just maneuvering to be in a better position when the Americans eventually leave. The administration says there might be genocide if America pulls out -- but it looks as if genocide has already been attempted.

I don't think anyone knows with certainty where "al-Qaeda in Iraq" ends and "the Sunni insurgency" begins. I don't think anyone knows with certainty how the various Shiite factions will ultimately line up -- or even if a unitary Iraq, having been shattered by the U.S. invasion, can ever be reassembled.

The truth of the matter is that even the people who have followed the conflict closely over the last several years still don't really know what's going on in Iraq. I had the same thoughts yesterday when I was reading about the bombing on various blogs, both on the left and the right. I hate to say it, but the argument that I've seen on even some of my favorite liberal blogs amounts to little more than "see, more violence is proof that the surge isn't working" with little or no explanation of that statement. That's just not good enough. While that's a fair first impression, it must be admitted-whatever side you're on-that violence alone is not "proof" that the surge isn't working, as the violence can come from various parties for various reasons. Such a glib assessment reflects ignorance. Of course, what I've seen on the right is no better. For some, the horrific bombing is proof that the surge is working, and excuse for all sorts of completely wild and uninformed speculation about who is doing what in Iraq that supports such a statement. Other blogs on the right are even worse where, for example, a blogger can relate in detail various types of ammunition shown in a photo to make a point about the "liberal" media but, even after over fours years of war, somehow can't take the time to learn about the subtle machinations of the various political parties in Iraq.

Maybe I'm being unfair. We all see Iraq through our own ideological lens, and when that lens is fogged with ignorance, it's awfully hard to know what to make of the news coming out of Iraq even when we're trying to "really" understand what's going on. But I guess that's really my point; even intrepid reporters who have spent years on the ground in Iraq don't seem to know what to make of events over there these days. Iraq is an awfully complicated society of many different sects and movements, all of whom compete against the other in more or less violent ways. While our soldiers excel at the application of brute force against our enemies, and even at engaging Iraqis on the local level, how can they be expected to engineer real social change in Iraq without the hundreds of thousands of more troops necessary to control events on a larger scale and the decades necessary to do it?

Which I guess gets to the heart of my opposition to the surge and our present strategy in Iraq. Our President follows his gut in Iraq, but I-and many other Americans-have a gut instinct about Iraq too. And ours is telling us that the country is too big, too torn by sectarian divisions, and far too complicated for us to be able to clean it up. We're foreigners in a country that is older than ours, and even decades in the country may not bring us the knowledge necessary to "fix" a country that ultimately, the Iraqis may have to fix in their own way, even if it's via civil war. It was foolish and immoral to invade Iraq, but I don't believe there is a way for us to absolve that moral matter how long we stay. Iraq is simply beyond us, and it always was.

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