Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Supple Confusions

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What's not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what's thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.

[posted by Callimachus]

Fouad Ajami's long piece on the state of things in Iraq really is worth reading.

Really, it is. I feel like I have to plead. Is anybody out here still trying in Iraq? Outside our military and civilian workers there, of course. But even the political class at home catches itself forgetting about them, or forgetting that they still believe in what they're doing, and that they don't regard it as the fool's errand it's made out to be in opposition rhetoric.

The rest of America seems to have degenerated into its political stereotypes. The war supporters huddle glumly and try to angle all the blame toward the media and the liberals. [Lord knows the entrenched lust for failure did its damage, but you can't blame it all on that.]

The all-along war opponents crow about a rightness they never had, and try to chase down the fleeing remnants of neo-cons and slaughter them in whatever philosophical solace they may find. Like mobs hunting aristocrats in the French Revolution. They boast of their skill in diplomacy, but forget the first rule of it, which is to give your opponent an honorable path to back down.

Instead, they seem to be embarked on a contest to see who can write "America's failure in Iraq" most often in one paragraph.

Tell these men and women they failed, if you're so fond of the word.

Which is cruelly ironic because as Ajami's piece suggests, this is a moment in Iraq when things look likely to turn toward a good outcome.

I say that without a trace of triumphalism. Even if everything turns out swimmingly, I long ago lost the right to say I knew it was going to happen like this or that any effort of mine helped bring it about.

The most heartbreaking things to read these days are the accounts of that time right after Saddam fell, and there really were flowers out for the Americans, and the soldiers and marines and the Iraqi people looked at each other with indrawn breath, in that dawn of freedom, and waited for the miracle to complete itself.

"Whenever I asked Iraqis what kind of government they had wanted to replace Saddam's regime, I got the same answer: they had never given it any thought. They just assumed that the Americans would bring the right people, and the country would blossom with freedom, prosperity, consumer goods, travel opportunities. In this, they mirrored the wishful thinking of American officials and neoconservative intellectuals who failed to plan for trouble. Almost no Iraqi claimed to have anticipated videos of beheadings, or Moqtada al-Sadr, or the terrifying question 'Are you Sunni or Shia?' Least of all did they imagine that America would make so many mistakes, and persist in those mistakes to the point that even fair-minded Iraqis wondered about ulterior motives. In retrospect, the blind faith that many Iraqis displayed in themselves and in America seems naïve. But, now that Iraq’s demise is increasingly regarded as foreordained, it's worth recalling the optimism among Iraqis four years ago."

George Packer's piece is titled "Betrayed." The miracle never did come. Bremer came, however, and nothing good followed. Hacks in places where skilled men and women ought to be. Good people rushed in to help, and got blown to bits. Moderates and secularists shunted aside by thugs in the guise of holy men. The best of the Shi'a clerics killed on the spot when he returned, and to this day his killer walks unpunished.

If it fails utterly, I blame all of us. You, me, them, him, Bush -- our whole generation. We cannot escape responsibility. What did you do while Iraq melted?

I did not want the sectarian warfare, the flight of thousands, the years without electricity or clean water, the creeping rot of al-Qaida. Even if it all turns out well, this was not my vision.

My vision has come to pass in Kurdistan. For the rest, the only thing I can still hold to is my prediction that it will be 20 years before we can say whether it was a good idea or not. And that we went there to lose -- that is, we went there to be told by the Iraqis (not by our politicians) when it was time to go home. Otherwise it still would not be their land.

Ajami is maddeningly wordy and vague; he needs a good editor. But he gets to all the bases eventually. Zalmay Khalilzad was as patient as a cat, trying to lure the Sunni sheiks into alignment with the Americans. Now he's moved on, but the sheiks are coming around, not so much because of anything we did, but because their one-time allies in al-Qaida have turned out to be so odious. Wiser heads among the Arab Shi'ites are discovering the responsibilities of government require them to brush off criminal posers like al-Sadr (who isn't even an ayatollah).

There are signs. Things are turning, in the random, anfractuous way of things, in the way no one can pretend to predict. Those who believed in our people, and the Iraqi people, may yet see their hopes realized.

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