[Re-posted from earlier today.]
I’m a huge admirer of Roger Cohen’s writing – and can appreciate many of the thoughts percolating in his latest column on what he sees as a disintegration of the world order. He manages to cite Scottish independence, the rise of ISIS, and the devolved powers to Eastern Ukraine – and even Ebola! – as part of a trend toward dissolution and anarchy.
But when I look at all the developments he is citing, I don’t really see anything that new. Take Iraq – please. What we are witnessing is the second major Sunni revolt since they were summarily deposed from power by the United States in 2003. How is this new? The Sunnis have long since believed in their bones that Iraq is theirs by right to govern. They despise the Shiites now running the show. The entire construct of Iraq in the first place was designed on the premise of permanent Sunni rule over the majority. That rule necessarily had to be despotic – as all attempts to permanently deny rights to a majority in the country must be.
So we removed the despot – as we did in Libya – and we have an ongoing power-struggle that is a continuation of the same power struggle Iraq has been hosting since time immemorial. I mean look at that map on the right, from Wiki on the current division of power and land in Iraq. Does it look familiar? It looks like every map of Iraq’s sectarian divide since time immemorial. And we think we will change that by air-strikes?
My fear is that the catastrophic error of 2003 will never lead to a stable state, because the Sunnis will never tolerate or trust majority Shiite rule. Yes, we bribed them enough to switch sides temporarily in the “surge”. But they knew we’d leave; and they knew what they had to do when we did. The only conceivable way to avoid such a scenario would be to stay in Iraq indefinitely – but that too is untenable, for both the Iraqis and for us.
The Beltway nonetheless decided – against all the evidence – that the surge had worked, that sectarian passions had subsided, and that a multi-sectarian government would be able to overcome the profound rifts in Iraqi society that have always been embedded in its DNA. We were sold a bill of goods – by Petraeus and McCain and the other benign imperialists. They have spun a narrative that Iraq was “solved” in 2009 – and that the absence of US troops led to subsequent failure. But they flatter themselves. We never had any real reason to believe these sectarian divides had been overcome – and after a decade of brutal and traumatizing mutual slaughter, why on earth would they be?
Iraq was unraveled in 2003; in my view, it has thereby become the battle-ground for the simmering, wider Sunni-Shiite civil conflict that has also been a long-running strain in the region. Our own solipsistic focus on ISIS as another al Qaeda against us – again the narrative of the utterly unreconstructed neocon right and the pious interventionist left – misses this simple fact. We cannot see the forest for our own narcissistic tree.
When you look at Russia and Ukraine from the same historical perspective, the unraveling meme also seems unpersuasive. Russia is a proud and ornery and mysterious country. It has gone from global super-power to regional neo-fascist state in a matter of decades. Its sphere of influence has retreated from the edge of Berlin to the boundaries of Ukraine, which it simply controlled for an extremely long time.
Ukraine has never existed as an independent country for very long; as you can see from another Wiki map on the left, it is itself a cobbled together mix of land lost to Russia, gained from Poland and Czechoslovakia and Romania. It was “given” the Crimea by the Soviets only in 1954. And throughout, Russia has obviously been its big brother, with a deep belief in its right to dick around with its near-abroad (a similar historic belief to the Sunnis faith in their own right to rule).
And what is sometimes lost in all this is that the last pro-Russian leader of the country was democratically elected and then deposed by a revolution from the European-centered populations of the West of the country. Russia did not start this; it reacted to a sudden, revolutionary loss of a pliant neighbor. Anyone with any inkling of Russian history would know what would happen next. I’m not defending Putin’s military and pseudo-military aggression. I am saying that the resolution reached this week – with significant autonomy for the Eastern, Russian-speaking provinces together with a new trade pact with the EU is a perfectly logical way to resolve this. And if Scotland demands outright independence, who could deny the East Ukrainians for wanting more autonomy?
Then Scotland. I don’t know what will happen – and, yes, the term “unraveling” is the most apposite in this case. But what the campaign has shown is that the unraveling has already taken place, that the desire for self-government and the disdain for the Westminster elites have combined to make the current arrangement anachronistic. But that kind of change – conducted democratically and peacefully – is not the same thing as an undoing. It is an adjustment to an emergent, new reality. And it increases democracy in the UK, rather than diminishing it.
What I’m saying is that America is in great danger of over-reacting to all these things, and blundering into new errors because of a generalized anxiety about declining relative US power, and PTSD from 9/11 in which every Jihadist in a hummer with a knife and a social media presence is imminently going to come over here and slit our collective throats. So my “hysteria” about this new, unknowable, fast-escalating rush to war is actually the opposite. It’s really a call to calm down, to breathe deeply, to stop reacting to the news cycle like neurotic lab-rats and to remember history – ours and theirs. And to carry on.
I thought Obama was the man to sell this message. But he has been overwhelmed by the collective freak-out. Maybe he’ll regain his composure, keep this war limited and contain these loons for others, with much more at stake, to fight. Or maybe American amnesia will take hold again – and the Jacksonian impulse will once again trump every rational attempt at a foreign policy that isn’t always doomed to repeat the errors of the past. From the way things are going, it’s America’s own history of Jacksonian violence against outsiders that will prevail. We believe we are immune from history – that it can be erased, that what matters is just the latest news cycle and the political spin that can be applied to it. But history will have – and is having – the last word.