The State of the Volcano, Part One

In a 1922 letter to David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill wrote of Iraq that "At present we are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having." I came across the quote in Fajoud Ajami’s The Foreigner’s Gift on the plane en route to Baghdad two weeks ago, and Churchill’s provocative image of an "ungrateful volcano" stuck with me. I wondered if I might find a little bit of history repeating itself. Are we, like the British, in a very difficult situation that might well prove untenable in the long term? Will there be nothing "worth having" in our relationship with a new Iraq?

Even as a supporter of the war, from my States-side vantage point Iraq has borne a certain resemblance to a volcano — an unpredictable and deadly natural force that can spout merciless destruction at a whim. Like many Americans concerned about the costs of this war in both blood and treasure, to say nothing of political currency, it has not always been easy to sustain enthusiasm for the mission. We’re paying even more than the British did for our privileged perch on this crater. Going into the trip, I tried to clear my mind of preconceptions, but I feared that what I would see would drive me into the ever-growing camp of pessimists who believe Iraq to be hopeless cause.

It will come as a surprise to no one that Iraq remains volcanic. The security situation is a critical problem with no easy or quick solution. Some Iraqis of my new acquaintance suggested a limited-term military strongman might be the most effective way to impose peace on the country. The notion of forcing the violence to stop is appealing, but I think even the most skilled general could not truly tame this volcano. While the MNF-I and ISF will play a vital role in establishing the stability in Iraq, those who are focused on security to the exclusion of all else need to recognize that the artificial calm imposed by martial law would be as fleeting as the uneasy slumber of a volcano on the verge of eruption.

The only way to diffuse violence in Iraq is to reduce the volatility of the components that make up the country. Security for its own sake would not ensure the political maturation that Iraq needs; indeed, it might retard it by squelching Iraqi independence. But progress on contentious issues such as constitutional reform, hydrocarbon legislation, de Ba’athification and provincial elections will go a long way towards resolving old grievances and giving all Iraqis a stake in seeing their new country succeed, and so result in a meaningful and lasting reduction in violence.

So how do today’s Iraqis feel about the foreigners who removed the harsh hand that was holding the lid on their collective volcano? Are they as ungrateful as their predecessors? I found that they don’t uniformly kow-tow to the Americans for liberating them from Saddam. That is something of a disappointment as it would bolster our national psyche to bask in their grateful adulation. But such gratitude is hardly human nature. We have, after all, received precious little in this department from France. Even so, I think calling contemporary Iraqis "ungrateful" misses the mark. Iraqis speak with respect of the sacrifice many American soldiers have made in the war, and there are not mass demonstrations demanding the return of Saddam or one of his ilk. They are thankful that the dictator is gone. But they’ve endured a great deal both over the past four years as well as the proceeding thirty. They’re also too proud to wallow in eternal gratitude, and I found consistent desire to shift the blame for Iraq’s current troubles away from themselves, which usually placed it at the convenient door of L. Paul Bremer.

Interestingly, the complaint against Bremer is that he was too autocratic and not sufficiently Iraqi, which should be food for thought for those who think an American-designated strong man is the best way to pacify the country. While the people of this region in the 1920s may have had little love for the British who imposed an artificial country on them, regardless of how idealistic the motives, in the intervening decades nationalism has taken root. The willful ingratitude that Churchill sensed is not the same as Iraqi dissatisfaction today, which to my understanding has much more to do with a desire to manage their own affairs and an impatience with the time it is taking for them to truly take over their country than with resentment of the United States. Such a sentiment is hardly a negative because hope for a new Iraq, an Iraq that is free, tolerant, peaceful and prosperous, may take root in this non-sectarian nationalism.

I found the clearest demonstration of the new Iraqi spirit at the parliament. That claustrophobic facility was the site of a mini-eruption in the form of the al-Qaeda in Iraq bomb attack on April 12th, and the visitor certainly gets a sense of the difficult mixing of unstable elements therein. But the fact that the Council of Representatives continues to meet in defiance of the terrorists suggests that current instability will not derail Iraq’s fledgling democracy. My interviews reinforced some things that are already "knowns" in the west — or at least should be — such as the vicious and intractable nature of the Sadrist party. But there were also things that were unknown to me, for example the Shia Fadhila party’s rejection of sectarian politics and the Sunni IIP’s refutation of their al Qaeda allies and increasing political integration into the government of Iraq. Such developments suggest that there is movement in the parliament that can facilitate progress on the daunting legislative slate it faces.

This is not to say that everything is wonderful in Iraq. It is not, and I found no one, American or Iraqi, who tried to insist that it is. The clock is ticking, and not just the clock associated with the Department of Defense’s budget. Iraq is hanging in the balance and progress is glacially slow. From my personal vantage point, it was deeply distressing to find that while the parlimentarians bicker and al-Qaeda fans the flame of sectarian discontent, Iraq is losing precious treasures, notably its cultural heritage and the physical state of Baghdad. I’ll get into this in more detail subsequently, but suffice it to say that the damage to the antiquities threatens to pass the point of no return, while the beautiful heart of the ancient city is rapidly losing its structure. Such cultural components go in the back seat during war, but as Iraq moves into a new phase, if they’re not attended to the damage may be irreparable and tragic. Iraq can build anew but the country will be infinitely stronger if it builds on what was good and beautiful in its ancient roots.

Some things are the same in Iraq 85 years after Churchill wrote his letter. The country remains a a complicated and explosive mixture of ingredients forming a fitful relationship in a dense and constricted atmosphere, and we’re in something of a hot seat as we enter our fifth year of this mission. But with each passing day as the parliament continues to meet and pass laws in defiance of the terrorists while the ISF take on leadership roles in the defense of their nation, Iraq slowly becomes more and more its own country and not beholden to anyone else. Iraq and America will remain intimately linked in the future, but gratitude to the US will not, and should not, be the defining feature of this new country. We don’t need another resentful, dependant vassal. We do need a solid ally in the region, and that’s going to take more time.

Re-reading Churchill’s letter in full, we might then take a lesson from his warning against a precipitous withdrawal forced by squeamish politicians and a despairing press. And that brings us to the issue of wheter there’s anything "worth having" that justifies continuing our involvement with Iraq. Churchill found little of value in 1922, but in our 2007 world, a democratic Arab ally in the heart of the Middle East would be invaluable to the United States in the foreseeable future. A failed haven for terrorists and demonstration of our fecklessness would be inestimably damaging. And there’s a larger picture here. Iraq sits on either the third or the second largest oil reserve in the world. I’m not suggesting we exploit Iraq’s resources, but how might an independent but friendly Iraq influence OPEC policy? From where I sit, that might change the game from Caracas to Beijing in our favor. And so I think Churchill might agree that for these reasons, it’s very much worth sustaining our commitment, not to an "ungrateful volcano," but to the new Iraq.