August 17th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Pointless Distraction: "Civil War" in Iraq?

In the entire history so far of what the US calls "the Iraq War," there has yet to be any distraction so pointless as the endless game of "gotcha" that Bush Administration opponents are playing to try to get the Bushies to admit to use the words "civil war" to describe the violence between Iraqi factions that's killing about 100 people a day. I really have to strain at it to see any point to this game of "gotcha." There is no magic "civil war fairy" that will do anything useful for our side, nor any magical "civil war monster" that will do anything particularly awful to the Republicans and their right-wing Democratic collaborators, when the words "civil war" are used. This is reality, not an episode of Pee Wee's Playhouse. There are other perfectly good phrases to describe the Iraq War. Personally, I prefer the term "war crime." "Fiasco" is very popular. "Boondoggle" is gaining in popularity, carrying with it the undertone of not just any fiasco, but one that costs so much that it breaks the bank. Some of those who are trying to bully, force, or trick some Bush Administration official into using the words "civil war" are trying to evoke the US's disastrous intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, but that's hardly necessary; the word "quagmire," which is already on most non-administration lips, carries the same freight. And you're just not going to get them to call what's going on in Iraq right now a civil war because it isn't.

From 1946 to 1989, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a deadly serious struggle for control of our future -- but it was a struggle that neither side could afford to fight with their own armies. The UN treaty and growing cultural norms made it clear that the first country to cross another country's border to change its government except in self-defense would be seen as a monstrous aggressor, as repeating the precedent of Hitler's invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Then, very early in the Cold War, Americans who feared the consequences of unchecked American power stole copies of the plans for the uranium fission nuclear bomb and smuggled them to our Soviet enemies. The Rosenbergs went to the electric chair for treason for that act, but it did more-or-less work; once the Soviet Union and the US both had nukes, they both concluded (except for a brief period of suicidally dangerous bravado on Kennedy's part that came within minutes of triggering global nuclear holocaust) that no matter how determined the USA the the USSR were to to wage war on each other, that war must never be allowed to reach the level where one side's military attacked the other side's. So they quickly evolved a very specific set of rules for a very, very disgusting and dirty kind of war that was fought entirely using helpless, dirt-poor countries as disposable proxies.

By the late 1950s, the war had its own very formal procedures and rules. The "goal" of the both countries was to accumulate as many alliances with other countries as possible. Back then, the Communists and the rest of us had entirely separate commodity markets, so getting a country with certain mineral resources to ally with you over them was a prerequisite for your own side's factories to buy those resources. Having allies let you put military bases in their territories, expanding the border that the other side's army couldn't cross without triggering that global nuclear war. But more importantly than both of those things, the shifting alliances were part of an attempt by the Soviet Union to prove their theory of history right, and by us to prove them wrong. The Communists believed, with religious fervor, that it was natural and inevitable that any civilized country would eventually Communize their government and economy. They believed, and taught, that all economies pass through a series of stages, from self-sufficiency to barter to selling things for money to monopoly capitalism to democratic socialism to communism. The US, out of self-preservation, was driven to prove that theory wrong. Every country that adopted communism was seen by the world as proof of the inevitability of Soviet victory; every country that chose to ally with the US over the USSR, especially those that had formerly been communist and were therefore reversing the Soviets' "inevitable flow of history," was seen as rebuttal.

So the two sides evolved, by trial and error, a set of escalating techniques short of aggressive invasion for changing a country's allegiance from one alliance to the other. Persuasion was tried, of course, but was seldom enough to change anything. Both sides had some financial incentives to offer, but there were limits to how much financial foreign aid each side had to offer and limits to how much loyalty can be swayed by money. Hence, "Cold" War. A multi-stage process was developed by which each side's spy service could, at great risk and moderate expense and tremendous expenditure of 3rd world civilian lives, replace a country's government that was friendly to your enemies with one that was friendly to your own, one that would willingly volunteer to be invaded by your own side's army. Each stage in the game had its own name and its own related technical jargon. The first stage was diplomatic pressure; each side would attempt to make governments they were trying to change look bad by finding things about them that would make them look bad and distributing that information to that country's own citizens, in hope that they would change the government for you. Once in a rare while, that was enough. More often, that was just the first step towards the creation of a hostile, pro-your-side political party, which your spy service would then cover the organizational and media expenses of. This step was called "funding dissidents." In countries that had election processes, sometimes funded dissidents won and changed the country's alliance; in others, sometimes they persuaded their own army to do it. Either way, the net result was the same. But about half of the time, that wasn't enough, so the spy services would intensify their efforts to the third level, creating an insurgency. This was the process of persuading the dissidents you were funding that the political process had failed and it was a matter of life and death, then giving them enough weapons and enough combat training that they could attempt to attack and kill government officials and their civilian supporters. Those fighting against their own government were called "insurgents;" those who fought for their own government (with identical funding and training from their own government's side in the Cold War) were called "death squads."

But the insurgency stage was never more than a stepping stone. You could keep a country at the insurgency stage for as long as you were willing to spend relatively small sums of money, smuggle ridiculously small amounts of weapons, and encourage astonishingly small numbers of mercenaries, but no country ever changed its alliance just because of an insurgency. Neither Cold War side ever gave up hope that this would happen, but in reality such "low intensity conflicts" never changed the outcomes at the polls or in the army's barracks. So where it could be gotten away with, the goal was to sufficiently fund an insurgency, sufficiently outspend your enemy's death squads, that they could organize into a large enough and structured enough military force that they could actually seize, control, and govern at least a small part of the country, and hold it against attempts to reclaim it by both their own military and by pro-government death squads. This almost never happened, but then and only then was it called a "civil war" like the civil wars in Peru, El Salvador, and Angola. The objective of this stage was to sufficiently equip and fund your proxy army of insurgents that they could at least briefly seize the capital city, and hold it long enough that you could move in tons of troops and build permanent military bases without it meeting the definition of an invasion. Even that almost never worked, but both sides tried. The resulting carnage, as Alan Moore pointed out in his graphic novel documentary on the subject, could easily have filled dozens of Olympic-sized swimming pools with human blood.

The same kinds of callous minds that fought this war from 1946 to 1989 are fighting now, too. Only now, the Cold War is between the victors of the preceding cold war versus another ideology that preaches the historical inevitability of their victory: political Islam. Still, the rules are the same, and countries like Syria and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are playing by those rules. The US broke the rules by manufacturing a pretext to invade Iraq even though our proxy army in the Iraqi civil war we were trying to stir up, the Iraqi National Congress, was nowhere near seizing the capital, but by spending the last of the goodwill we were entitled to as the victims of the Islamists' own rule-breaking attack on 9/11, we got away with it more or less. By the rules of the Cold War game, once the elections were held and the new government voted to allow our troops to stay "for now," the Iranian- and Syrian- and Pakistani-supported proxy armies that are trying to overthrow that government are called "insurgents" and our soldiers are (by those same rules) supposedly-legally "defending" an "allied" government from those "insurgents."

If anything, the time when the Iraq boondoggle could have been called a "civil war" has passed. When the insurgents were holding the town of Fallujah and even our 1st Marines couldn't take it back from them, let alone the mostly only on paper army of the new Iraqi government, they lacked very little of meeting the Cold War definition of a civil war. If they'd worn uniforms and organized into an actual "government" of the territory they were holding, the definition would have been met. But they never got that far, and we actually managed to recapture that territory for the new government in the Second Battle of Fallujah. Nor have they managed to actually capture any other territory to replace it. That means that, just like so many countries during the 1946 to 1989 Cold War, the country of Iraq is trapped at the insurgency stage. We give money and weapons to the government; at least, to our credit, we're trying to get them to fund a real army instead of (as is traditional, and as they're doing) slipping that money and those weapons to pro-government but unaccountable death squads. The Syrian government and the Iranian government and the half of the Pakistani government that created the Taliban and supported (and still supports) al Qaeda all along, supports their own armed insurgency. When the Baathists or any other pro-Sunni army seizes and holds territory again, then goes to the next stage of organizing into a competing army and government, then we'll call it a civil war. Until then, it's "merely" a monstrously evil competition short of civil war.