Sullivan and Tantalus in Baghdad
Reuters Correspondent Luke Baker draws the curtain back on the horrific circumstances in Iraq. Reporters are clearly demoralized, and Western reporters are depending more and more on local staff, who are losing family members and friends to the bombings and shootings. One reporter recently in Baghdad told me that the local journalists are beginning to talk of fleeing, even ones originally very committed to building a new Iraq. I remember the gleeful email I received in May from Yasser Salihee of Knight Ridder–thanking me for linking to one of his excellent articles–and then he went out to buy gas and a US bullet accidentally killed him. From all accounts he had a great deal of promise (he had begun as an academic). His death stands as symbol for the current debacle. The irony is that the worse things get in Iraq, the less we know about how truly bad they are. With the journalists so devastated and little able to move around, we are reduced to listening to Bush administration propaganda.
Andrew Sullivan, who does not have Luke Baker’s experience on the ground in Iraq, bizarrely believes that the carbombings, bodies floating in the river, assassinations, ethnic militias, poisoned watermelons, bomb-scarred ice cream shops, shuttered video and liquor stores, and Swiss cheese architecture of Iraq present a “tantalizing” prospect of “success.”
It should be remembered where the word “tantalizing” came from. Odysseus describes a scene in Hades in Homer’s Odyssey:
‘”I also saw the awful agonies that Tantalus has to bear. The old man was standing in a pool of water which nearly reached his chin, and his thirst drove him to unceasing efforts; but he could never get a drop to drink. For whenever he stooped in his eagerness to lap the water, it disappeared. The pool was swallowed up, and all he saw at his feet was the dark earth, which some mysterious power had parched. Trees spread their foliage high over the pool and dangle fruits above his head—pear-trees and pomegranates, apple-trees with their glossy burden, sweet figs and luxuriant olives. But whenever the old man tried to grasp them in his hands, the wind would toss them up towards the shadowy clouds.” ‘
The American Right playing Tantalus, and Iraq as their punishment in Hades, is a more appropriate comparison than Mr. Sullivan perhaps realized. Tantalus was notorious for ever wanting more, for wanting to be god-like, just as the Bushies think that they are manufacturers of reality and the rest of wretched humanity is clay in their divine hands. It should also be remembered that some say Tantalus was punished by the gods for having invited them to a banquet and having served them food into which the remains of his son, whom he had killed, had been ground up. The warmongers’ sacrifice of Americans’ children for their aggressive policies is a similar sin.
Sullivan says that given US and British forces on the ground, the “insurgency” “cannot win.” The problem is that the “insurgency” doesn’t have to win in order to succeed. All it has to do is spoil everyone else’s successes.
By sabotaging the oil pipelines and the electricity grid that supports them, the guerrillas have reduced Iraqi government revenue by a third to a half of what it otherwise would be. They can go on doing that a very long time. They have put the lives of every senior member of the new government in danger, and have managed to assassinate a whole roster of high-ranking officials, even two members of the new parliament and two members of the constitution drafting committee.
They have kept the new government, and even the US military, from truly controlling the major Sunni Arab cities, and have even made mixed cities such as Baqubah big security problems.
They have increasingly succeeded in provoking deep hatred between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, contributing to a low-intensity, uncoventional war between the two that seemed unlikely as recently as a year ago.
These tactics are proving successful and can be maintained for a very long time. At present troop levels, to use Sullivan’s phrase, there is no prospect of the United States military defeating the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement. From all accounts, as well, the British military cannot hope effectively to curb the Mahdi Army in Maysan Province, a province in which the political arm of the Sadrists came to power in the January 30 elections.
This point is important because the Sunni guerrillas’ ability to keep Iraq from moving forward– their ability to act as spoilers– is a key political asset. The US and British publics are brave and determined, but they deeply dislike spending blood and treasure when there is no visible progress on the ground. And by “progress” they do not mean putting down some words on paper.
Sullivan’s twin convictions that Bush will not draw down US troops during the next 3 years, and that Democrats will be afraid to run against the Republicans on the Iraq War are both likely incorrect.
One way or another there will be another round of elections in Iraq in December. US and British troop levels must be maintained until then, because they are needed to lock down the country and keep the guerrillas from disrupting the polling. But after that, leaked British Ministry of Defense documents suggest that both the US and the UK will begin a significant withdrawal of ground troops, going down perhaps to half their current levels by next summer. Bush will do this to take the edge off the Iraq issue in the 06 elections. Of course, a big outbreak of fighting could derail any such plans. But the plans are demonstrably there.
If Iraq still looks much as it does today in September of 2006, and if there are still tens of thousands of US troops there, then Democrats will run against the Iraq war all over the country. And many of them will likely win. By then the US troop death toll could very well be 3,000 or more, with 20,000 wounded. There will be a proliferation of Cindy Sheehans. The Democrats and Independents have already turned against the war. Bush’s ability to keep the Republicans aboard is in severe doubt. The distaste for the war will be even stronger if any series of dramatic bombings or assassinations occurs that deeply affects the new government, or if the guerrillas get lucky and take out (God forbid) a large number of US troops in a single strike.
To sum up: The guerrillas “win” simply by keeping the Anglo-American forces and the new elected government from winning. And, no one in the US or the UK is going to put up with the current situation for 3 more years, and Mr. Sullivan is fooling himself if he thinks they will.
Iraq’s future is a question mark. In 15 years it could be a rich country recovering from the violence, having retained basic democratic institutions, with a bright future. But it could also be a basket case like the Sudan (which also has petroleum, but couldn’t develop it because of a decades-long civil war). Or it could undergo a painful partition, highly expensive in lives and displaced persons. Or a civil war could draw in neighbors like Iran and Turkey and destabilize the eastern reaches of the Middle East for decades, with disastrous consequences for the world economy because of the potential for disruption of oil supplies.
Sullivan’s hope is for the long run. John Maynard Keynes said it best. In the long run, we are all dead. Until then, Iraq will go on tantalizing everyone, in the bad, Hades-bound sense of the term.