When Can We Leave?

December 12, 2006

Social order in Baghdad is falling apart. Kidnappings occur on a massive scale. Murders of Muslims by Muslims are rampant. It is not safe to send children to school. New construction, intended to rebuild the infrastructure, has been shoddy and ineffective. Professors, doctors, civil servants are fleeing the country. The world of Iraqi society has literally collapsed. It is not just civil war; it is worse; it is chaos.

The great issue, therefore, before the congress and the president is how and when do we leave. It is the right question but the president seems to be measuring the timing based upon progress according to American, not Iraqi, terms. That is, we will leave when their army is trained to be like ours, or when their cities are secured for democracy like ours.

The president implies that we must wait to get out until the prime minister at last controls the roaming bands of insurgents and militias. That is unlikely, however, to ever happen because by arming the police and the army the US has effectively made those forces independent of the prime minister, beyond his control, as apt to side with insurgents and militias as with him. We have unwittingly provided the armaments with which the civil war is being fought.

The president has assumed that democratic elections would determine who will be in charge. The voices of the powerless millions, however, have never been the source of moral authority in this land, not once, not since ancient Babylon or Sumaria, not since 3,000 BC. There is no part of Iraqi history, or Islamic history, or tribal history, that suggests that authority comes from a written constitution and the empowering of the multitudes.

Mr. Bush has therefore tried to institute a government which is not founded upon the five-thousand year history of tribal rule or the 700 year history of the mullahs and which is instead intended to mimic our own institutions. Mr. Bush may claim that “everyone loves freedom” but it is clearly wrong to assume that every Iraqi man and woman loves a constitution created by foreign invaders or that Iraqis would be prepared to discard their ancient reverence for the sheiks and for the mullahs just because we say so.

Iraqis live in a culture, further, and fundamentally, which holds that might makes right. Sunnis and Shiias are battling because they believe that who wins will determine who is right with God. But prime minister Maliki’s authority comes from invaders and not from God. He therefore has none of the authority of mullahs or sheiks, and now, at last even of those who today carry the guns in the militias.

We are confronted therefore with leaving quickly or leaving slowly. By all indications either way it is a choice of bloodbaths. The realistic question is therefore not whether there will be chaos and bloodletting but by which method can we reduce it the most.

It is likely that we will achieve the greatest stability—and therefore the likelihood of reducing the chaos the most—if we allow Iraqis to return to making deals between sheiks and mullahs and between those who actually hold the guns in the army and in the police and the militias. These are distinctly different people than those who were elected by our democratic process. These are people who hold moral authority from God, or from the ancient tribes, or from the raw power of guns.

We might then invite them all to the table, say, in February, and put to them a question: “You have made it your war now. How is it going? Are your people healthy? Are they happy? Are they prospering?” And we might add: “If you decide to continue it, that is your business, but we will leave by July 1. If you choose to continue the bloodbath after that date, that is your choice. You are the stakeholders now. Not us.”

Then, it is up to them. Americans can only help to make possible some sort of round table, or convocation, in a tent, in a mosque, on the desert sands, to be held among those who hold real power. They, not those in the parliament of our creation, are the real stakeholders now; we have made them that by furnishing them all with weapons.

At the moment when we empower that conversation to happen, on their own terms, in accord with standards of moral authority which are their own, that is the moment when they might establish their own stability. Will it stop the fighting? Perhaps not. But it might reduce it. And that is the moment when we ought to leave.