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Like father, like brother?—Jeb Bush and Iraq

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Iraq Should Not Forget How Sour Revenge Can Be

Iraq Civil Society Test

Iraqis should not let their, understandable, desire for revenge on the notorious Islamic State group (referred to herein as Daesh) cloud their judgement. If they do, even in defeat, Daesh may well prove to have dealt a fundamentally fatal blow to Iraq’s state and society.

In his 1945 essay ‘Revenge is Sour’ George Orwell recounts his time in Germany just after the fall of the Third Reich. He witnessed firsthand a young Viennese Jew overseeing a dozen or so S.S. officers who were of course by that time prisoners of war of the Allies. After all the things those brutes in the S.S. had done to Europe’s Jews and other minorities Orwell points out that he could hardly blame any Jew who would want to, say, at the very least jab or taunt those who had liquidated their families and friends. Orwell was quite skeptical about whether or not young Jews like the one he saw really enjoyed such little symbolic gestures of revenge. Rather, the famous writer contended, they told themselves they enjoyed it since they had longed for it all throughout the tyrannical reign of the Nazis when they were completely powerless. He very aptly summed up his observations as follows,

‘It is absurd to blame any German or Austrian Jew for getting his own back on the Nazis. Heaven knows what scores this particular man may have had to wipe out; very likely his whole family had been murdered; and after all, even a wanton kick to a prisoner is a very tiny thing compared with the outrages committed by the Hitler regime. But what this scene, and much else that I saw in Germany, brought home to me was that the whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.’

I have been thinking about this old essay a lot lately given the present situation in Iraq. In light of some of the acts of sectarian violence committed by Shia militias in the war against Daesh there I find myself worrying that this will serve to exacerbate the underlying sectarian tensions in the country in the wake of the violence in the 2006-2008 period. I fear a potential scenario whereby the reforms in Baghdad either fail or turn out to be ultimately little more than superficial face-saving ones and that the Iraqi government’s only solution to defeating Daesh in Iraq is not a concerted effort aimed at helping the Sunnis rise up against their oppressors (never forget that the Sunni Arabs are as big a victim in all of this as the Sunni Kurds and the Shia Arabs) but instead a military campaign which will simply subdue them and their aspirations for more inclusivity in the country in the wake of the marginalization of many Sunni representatives in the political process during the tenure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. That would further divide and damage, and possibly even break-up for good, Iraq in the long-term. Which in turn would mean that even if Daesh is completely defeated militarily they will have been victorious when it comes to dividing, and perhaps ultimately destroying, Iraq since they will have served as the catalyst for wider sectarian violence. One hopes that governmental reforms are successful when it comes to defeating Daesh and consigning it into the long and painful annals of Iraq’s tumultuous history without the country becoming permanently fragmented.

Speaking of that long and painful history one finds oneself re-reading accounts and stories of mass-killings in Iraq in the not too distant past. The Al-Anfal campaign and the brute mass-murder of revolting Shia Arabs by the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in March 1991 for example. The terror and destruction implemented by that man’s regime still makes one shudder when one reads the gruesome details. Arguably the best writer on the subject as it was unfolding was Kanan Makiya, his books Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence are well worth re-reading. Detailed in those books are the various atrocities, the cruelties and the horrors that regime afflicted on the Iraqi people. Yet when the man on top, the figurehead of all that cruelty and criminality, Saddam Hussein was finally executed on December 30 2006 Kanan Makiya called it “one of the worst days of my life” and “the antithesis of everything I had been working for and hoping for.”

Makiya contended that the limited nature of the tribunal to really get into the nit and grit of the regimes crimes against humanity made it by and large a failure. When Saddam finally went to the gallows, like so many of his victims, his executioners in Makiya’s words, “actually succeeded in making Saddam look good in the eyes of the Arab world.”

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That’s quite an indictment from someone who spent a large part of his life scrupulously documenting the crimes of that man and hoping to one day see him face justice for his numerous crimes. Instead that ultimate revenge on behalf of so many Iraqis was stolen from them and that mass-murdering tyrant got to look like a victim in his final moments.

Since his rule was brought to an end by the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 the Shia of Iraq have largely been emancipated, as have the Kurds who already had, since 1991, some semblance of autonomy in the north of the country. Both these communities together make-up the majority of Iraq’s population. They now more-or-less stand on their own two feet, a far cry from those horrible days not too long ago when they were bludgeoned, brutalized and subjugated by the Baath. Some in the Shia community blamed their Sunni brethren for subjugating them back in the Saddam-era. However for the most part that community hasn’t sought petty vengeance, on the contrary, its preeminent Ayatollah, Ali Sistani, has been consistent in his denunciation of any infighting between the Sunnis and Shias quite rightfully pointing out that that is exactly what the likes of al-Qaeda and Daesh want them to do. And he is quite right. It’s no secret, nor surprise, that those Baathists who for so long regarded Iraqis over whom they ruled as their dispensable property have been cooperating with Daesh and have similar interests whereby sectarian subjugation is concerned.

In light of this one would impel the Iraqi state and society not to in fighting these thugs fall to their level. In their current capacity it is highly unlikely that they will be able to overrun either all of Iraq’s Kurdish region or the Shia south. It is therefore incumbent upon this government to live up to, and stand-by, its word that it will root out Daesh decisively from the Sunni-majority regions of Iraq they are hunkered down in by working with the provincial populations and tribes there. That way they will give Iraq a fighting chance to not only survive, but survive as a successful federal secular democracy and society which will not be dragged down and convulsed by the kind of destructive and divisive violence these vicious rampaging sectarians are earnestly seeking to bring about. If however the aforementioned outreach to the Sunnis isn’t wholeheartedly attempted the society could become fatally paralyzed by sectarian schisms, even if Daesh is defeated. And that will mean in defeat Daesh will still have succeeded in mortally wounding Iraq and bringing on many more years of sectarian bloodletting. Iraq and its people simply cannot afford to let that happen.

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