Friday, March 26, 2004

Kurds, containment, counterfactuals, etc.

Below is a fragment from an e-mail exchange I had with an older political sociologist (whom I will call X) whose judgment I very much respect. He opposed the Iraq war on strictly "realist" political/strategic grounds, and most of our exchange focused on those issues. However, in one of my messages I mentioned the likelihood that the war had (among other things) the side-effect of preventing another round of genocidal mass murder in Iraqi Kurdistan. He objected that my "Kurdish scenario" was far-fetched. I responded with the message below ... in response to which he conceded:
True, I have assumed that, UN or no UN, Anglo-American containment of Iraq would have continued, and--not that anyone would note or care--I would certainly have supported that, not being a UN-nick. I think it would have happened, myths about the resulting impact on Iraqi infants and babies or not. But on rereading your previous messages, I agree that you did not pile contingency on contingency--it's just that I did not contemplate the first contingency arising, namely the collapse of containment. If that had occurred, then it is fair to see Iraq in terms of the renewed massacre model. People like me would have to accept that as part of the moral cost of not going to war.
This is straightforward, at least.

--Jeff Weintraub

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: Kurds
Date: Fri, 26 Mar 2004 17:01:35 -0500
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: X

Hi X,
Well, your Kurdish scenario involves one contingency piled on another. Not persuasive.
I guess if one chooses to ignore the historical record of the previous three decades, the well-established intentions and modes of action of the main protagonists, and a realistic analysis of the geopolitical dynamics of this particular case ... then I can see why the argument might appear fanciful and unpersuasive. In the real world, seriously examined, things look different.

Sure, all historical and political judgments involve contingencies and their assessment. But by itself, this is (if you will pardon my saying so) a cheap and easy response. The question is: WHICH of the contingencies I mentioned was far-fetched, improbable, or even unlikely? Name one.

Let me quickly add that this is a purely rhetorical question. When I mentioned my concerns about this "Kurdish scenario" (which I have already laid out in greater detail several times over the past two years [including here]), I didn't do it as an invitation to a long argument, but simply to restate my understanding of the matter. In that spirit, I will simply note that I find your response, with all due respect, not serious.

If one does take the trouble to examine the dynamics of Iraqi history over the past several decades, one notices a pattern of repeated efforts by the Iraqi Ba'ath regime to crush Kurdish resistance by means of increasingly ferocious, brutal, and indiscriminate repression and mass murder, escalating to full-scale genocidal mass murder in the 'Anfal campaign of 1988-1989. (Along with the systematic use of mass rape; ethnic cleansing, deportations, and Arabization in the Kirkuk area; large-scale destruction of villages and population transfers in the Kurdish heartland; etc.) The ONLY thing that prevented another round of genocidal mass murder in Kurdistan after the crushing of the 1991 revolt--thousands of Kurdish civilians were killed, but for Saddam Hussein that was small potatoes--was that the flight of over a million Kurdish refugees over the mountains into Turkey & Iran forced the Coalition powers to create a Kurdish "security zone" in northern Iraq to which the refugees could be induced to return. And the ONLY factor that maintained the "security" of this zone was Saddam Hussein's expectation that another large-scale invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan could offer the pretext for a regime-threatening military response by the US & its allies.

(Some people seem to believe that the Kurds were protected by the "no-flight" zone maintained by the US & Britain. But, by itself, the "no-flight" zone was relatively trivial from Saddam Hussein's point of view, and presented no obstacle to the mass murder of civilians. The "no-flight" zone in the south certainly didn't protect hundreds of thousands of Shiite civilians from being murdered after the 1991 revolt, nor did it prevent Saddam Hussein's campaign of large-scale mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and environmental devastation against the Marsh Arabs in the mid-1990s ... in clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 688, which doesn't seem to have frightened him either. What deterred Saddam Hussein from another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan was the prospect of serious, regime-threatening military retaliation.)

Once containment had collapsed and Saddam Hussein no longer had to worry about the danger of a large-scale US-led invasion, he would be free to finish the job that had been interrupted in 1991, ratcheting up the scale of atrocity to a new level. This all strikes me as not just easily predictable but fairly obvious.
It is not lack of sympathy for the Kurds that's involved--US behavior after the first Gulf war and in the 1980s was shameful indeed, and I've long argued that their claim to a state far outdoes that of Palestinians--if one must rank such matters.
Sure. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise in your case. (A lot of other people, however, couldn't care less.)
I don't see why the containment policy could not have been prolonged--it was not unstable and, it turns out, was achieving its ends.
This is indeed a crucial point--on which it appears we disagree fundamentally. The containment system was quite unstable and ultimately unsustainable, and in fact had been falling apart at an increasing rate since the mid-1990s (not surprisingly, since this process was in many ways self-reinforcing), so that by 2000 it was near the point of terminal disintegration. By 2002, it was no longer a question of simply maintaining the whole sanctions-and-containment system, but rather of REconstructing it (which among other things would have entailed pressuring Turkey, Syria, Jordan, & a few other countries to give up oil-smuggling income and, in some cases, subsidies from Iraq which had become economically important to them), tightening it up, and extending it indefinitely.

There were many reasons why the odds of making this work (at considerable and open-ended political, diplomatic, military, and economic cost, by the way) were minimal, but one key reason was that a number of countries with seats on the UN Security Council, particularly France and Russia, had decided at least a decade ago that the sanctions-and-containment system ought to be ended and had been working systematically (and effectively) to undermine it--and there was absolutely no reason to believe that they had changed their minds about this. On the contrary. In a last desperate effort to save the system from imminent collapse (or, at least, to postpone the inevitable), Powell went to the Security Council in 2001 to propose switching to reduced "smart sanctions." Basically, they just laughed at him.

It's true that after the Bush administration began making noises about military action, and started actually sending troops to the Gulf, the governments of France, Russia, etc. changed their tune and suddenly became enthusiastic about containment, inspections, and the rest. But this was just a transparent charade, simply repeating (on a larger scale) the tactics they had repeatedly used to get Saddam Hussein off the hook in the late 1990s. As Saddam Hussein himself helpfully pointed out in one of his rare interviews outside Iraq, with Al Ahram in the summer of 2002, if the actual use of force could just be deflected and delayed long enough by his protectors on the Security Council, the US would become increasingly isolated, political opposition to war would build up all over the world, diplomatic maneuverings would get him off the hook once again, and the threat of invasion would dissolve. In particular, the US couldn't keep an invasion force in the Gulf indefinitely, so it would eventually have to withdraw the troops, at which point the crisis would end in a humiliating defeat for the US (once again).

The actual events, as they unrolled in late 2002-early 2003, made it clear that this was a prescient analysis of the strategy actually being followed by France and Saddam's other backers. Yes, they agreed to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1441 (mostly because US forces were already there in the Gulf, ready to go, and Blair had indicated that the British government would support military action) ... but by early 2003 they had made it abundantly clear that they would never support any serious action to enforce it, no matter what Saddam Hussein did. The idea that, once the crisis had passed and US troops had been withdrawn in whole or part, they would then agree to reconstruct the containment system, tighten it up, and extend it indefinitely (when they had long made it clear that they believed, rightly or wrongly, that their economic and political interests pointed precisely to the termination of containment) is fanciful.

So the option of reconstructing the containment system and extending it indefinitely had, realistically, become unworkable.

Meanwhile, to the extent that the sanctions-&-containment system had "worked," it did so only at the cost of tremendous suffering by Iraqis and tremendous damage to Iraqi society (mostly due to Saddam Hussein's manipulation of sanctions rather than the sanctions themselves, but in practical terms that came to the same thing). Humanitarian considerations aside, maintaining this improvised system entailed great and increasing costs for the US--not just economic costs, but more importantly political, diplomatic, and ideological costs. The widespread (though mythical) belief that American sanctions were starving hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children inflamed public opinion all over the Arab and Islamic worlds, not to mention Europe & American college campuses. The operations of the Oil for-Food program (better described, perhaps, as an oil-for-palaces-and-bribery program) gave Saddam Hussein increasing economic and political leverage to undermine the containment system, and gave a lot of other countries (including but not limited to Iraq's creditors) increasing incentives to collude with him in doing this. The US was increasingly isolated in maintaining the system, and it required constant and ever-increasing investments of political and diplomatic capital just to slow down the slide. Whether or not one believed that the containment policy was a good idea (a complicated question in itself), the fact is that this policy was increasingly unsustainable and, prior to 9/11/2001, was headed toward imminent collapse.

If all this had not been true (if, that is, containment had remained a stable, sustainable, and potentially effective option), then yes, the whole strategic and geopolitical context of the debate over Iraq would have been extremely different. But reality, I'm afraid, was otherwise.
The Kurds in the north were actually somewhat hesitant about a US invasion because it might cost them the autonomy they've achieved.
Well, yes and no. Despite their (well founded) worries on this score and other matters, the Kurds strongly supported an invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein & his regime. What made some of them a bit hesitant (along with a number of non-Kurdish Iraqis) was precisely the fear that the US would, once again, fail to finish the job. Thus, they would not only suffer from the war itself (they expected, for example, that new chemical-warfare attacks were likely), but then would be left exposed to Saddam Hussein's retaliation. Once they were convinced that the Americans were really serious this time, they supported the war quite passionately ... and a year later, all available evidence indicates that, despite everything, an overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds continue to think that the war was great.

I think that from their point of view there is no question that this judgment is correct. In this respect, let me once again reiterate a point I have made a number of times before.

ONE of the reasons that, despite some reluctance and much trepidation, I supported military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein & his regime was that, in my considered opinion, it was almost certainly the only way to prevent another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan. This would have followed the collapse of containment, which was imminent, letting Saddam Hussein out of his box and giving him back full control of Iraq's oil revenues. One consequence, in the not-too-distant future, would almost certainly have been an attempt by Saddam at some kind of final solution to his Kurdish problem. And it is a very, very safe bet that, under THOSE conditions, no one would have lifted a finger to stop him.

This was not the only reason I supported the war--as I have indicated in the past, I thought there was a surplus of good reasons--but I have to admit that this one was emotionally significant for me, since I've worried about the playing-out of this particular scenario ever since the mid-1990s, when he handwriting on the wall was becoming pretty clear.

(Perhaps I get too upset and emotional about the genocidal mass murder of ethnic minorities, but it's a persistent quirk of mine.)

To the best of my knowledge, no country or coalition of countries has ever been willing to fight a major war (as opposed to a fairly risk-free low-casualty military or police operation, as in East Timor) ONLY or even PRIMARILY to stop or prevent genocidal mass murder. (Am I wrong?) In all cases where a serious invasion has produced this result (e.g., India in East Bengal, Tanzania in Uganda, Vietnam in Cambodia), it has always been a by-product of a war launched primarily for OTHER reasons. So it was in this case ... and so it will continue to be, I suspect, until there is a fairly massive change in the international political order (for which we should not hold our breath).

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Lee Smith on Andalus & the 12th-century Al Qaeda (Slate)

The story told by Lee Smith (below) has a range of interesting implications, both historical and contemporary. One of them concerns the great mediaeval Jewish philosopher Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon).

As we all know, Maimonides grew up in mediaeval Spain during the period of coexistence between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. When he was in his late 20s he and his family fled Spain, spent some time in Morocco, and eventually settled in Egypt, where he stayed for the second half of his life. When I was young, I think I vaguely assumed that Maimonides must have fled from Christian persecution, like the bulk of the Sephardic diaspora. But I gradually realized that the dates were wrong, since he left Spain around 1160, which was long before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and even well before the big waves of pogroms and forced conversions in Christian Spain during the 1300s and 1400s. And, anyway, Maimonides lived in and fled from the Muslim part of Spain (Andalus), not the Christian part.

Specifically, as I discovered, he fled from the persecution of the Almohads ("al-Muwahhidun"), the Moroccan Salafist movement/dynasty that conquered and ruled Muslim Spain in the 12th century. Unlike the historically predominant pattern in the Islamic world—including Egypt at the time of Maimonides—in which Christians and Jews were tolerated as subordinate and "protected" second-class communities, the Almohads (like Wahhabis in modern Saudi Arabia) refused to tolerate non-Muslim religions and followed a policy of forced conversions to Islam.

But Lee Smith focuses mostly on the connections between that 12th-century history and current events, which are stronger and more illuminating than some might think.

—Jeff Weintraub

Posted Thursday, March 18, 2004
Jihad Without End
The Madrid bombings weren't about Iraq.
By Lee Smith

Last week was a mixed one for the international jihadist movement. Some sources are now reporting that the March 11 Madrid bombings were the work of a Moroccan group known as Salafia Jihadia, also responsible for the bombings that killed 33 in Casablanca last May. However, the day the jihadists enjoyed one of their greatest successes, they also suffered a major loss, when the Chad military, aided by U.S. armed forces, killed 43 members of Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. (Apparently, the battle began in Niger, which borders Algeria, and eventually spilled over into Chad.)

Salaf means "predecessor," and it's used to refer to Muslim fundamentalists who disdain any innovation after the prophet Mohammed, his companions, and a few generations immediately following them. Salafism is the polite word for Wahabbism. So, besides the fact that both groups seem to have pledged some sort of allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, there's probably no connection between them.
Indeed, Algeria and Morocco, while neighbors, seem to be worlds apart. Algeria still hasn't quite emerged from the civil war that cost more than 100,000 lives throughout the 1990s. Morocco's romantic allure still draws tourists hoping to capture some of the vestigial panache of Bogart and Bergman's complicated love affair, or at least some of the fumes from Paul Bowles' hash pipe.

One difference between the two countries is that while Algeria's military-backed regime is still in a pitched battle with its Islamist groups, Morocco's 40-year-old King Muhammad VI has allowed Islamists a certain amount of participation in the political process. Still, many believe the biggest difference is their recent pasts: Morocco was a French* and Spanish protectorate until 1956, a relatively mild form of European colonialism compared with France's brutal 130-year occupation of Algeria, which didn't end until 1962. True enough, but it's useful to recall that the Arabs were also colonialists. The Arabic name for Morocco is al-Maghreb, the place where the sun set on the westernmost limit of the 8th-century Arab empire.

The Arabs conquered the Berbers, a general term encompassing numerous tribes throughout western North Africa, whose warrior ethos they put to good use. It was a largely Berber army, led by a Berber general, that conquered Spain in 711. The Berbers were, by and large, enthusiastic converts to Islam, perhaps a little too fervent for some of the ruling Arab elite. Unlike the Arabs, who fought just for plunder, the Berbers believed that they waged war to glorify Islam.

These kinds of issues about authenticity and identity—who's a real Muslim, who's a real Arab or a real Berber—are often present in colonial and post-colonial societies. And the issues are a problem now in both countries, though they are much more severe in Algeria, where there are serious tensions between Arabs and Berbers. The question is: After 1,200 years, how can you tell exactly who's got what blood? Also: Why is a recent colonial incursion more harmful to a native population than an older one that has had that much more time to play havoc on a people's psyche?

That's not to say that the Moroccans don't have live issues with the Spanish. For instance, in July 2002 the two countries tussled over a small rocky island—Perejil in Spanish, Leila in Arabic—of no apparent strategic value. (See this "International Papers" for more on the dispute.) Now one source reports that because of the dispute, for 18 months the two countries suspended counterterrorism cooperation that might have prevented last week's attacks. In the future, further trouble might come from Ceuta and Melilla, two fishing towns on Morocco's Mediterranean coast, which Spain refuses to abandon.

If the Spanish electorate believed that committing 1,300 troops to Iraq had needlessly exposed it to the jihadists' ire, it ought to reconsider the 6,000 Spanish forces stationed in Ceuta and Melilla. The Spanish, whose new prime minister is fond of the word "occupation," say there's nothing unusual about having so many troops in Spanish cities. But these cities are not in Spain. Already some Islamist ideologues are beginning to group Ceuta and Melilla together with Palestine and Kashmir as Muslim lands to be liberated. Even if that seems far-fetched, both towns are notorious for narcotics smuggling, and where there are drugs in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, an Islamist group is usually not far behind to partake of the profits. Hezbollah, for instance, is a significant player in the drug trade, an enterprise Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat also has a hand in. May my Spanish grandmother forgive me for saying so, but her countrymen appear to be flourishing a big red cape at the Islamists, who will gladly remind them that "Olé" is a corruption of "Allah."

After all, when al-Qaida lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri referred to "the tragedy of al-Andalus," he wasn't pining for what the Spanish call the "convivencia," when Muslims, Christians, and Jews all lived together in relative harmony. That picture of Muslim Spain is undoubtedly a little over-gilded, but it's good that the myth of al-Andalus continues to fund the world's imagination. Without the legend of peaceful co-existence, a city like New York—where Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others get along handsomely—would've been much more difficult to conceive.

At any rate, there was trouble in al-Andalus long before Ferdinand and Isabella banished the Muslims and the Jews in 1492. Two of the more serious challenges came from Morocco in the late 11th and then 12th century, first the Almoravids and then the Almohads, both of them Berber dynasties and Muslim fundamentalists.

Almoravid is a Hispanicized version of the Arabic word "al-Murabitun," or "those of the military encampment." As Richard Fletcher writes in Moorish Spain, the Almoravids "saw their role as one of purifying religious observance by the re-imposition where necessary of the strictest canons of Islamic orthodoxy." They came to redeem a weakened Muslim state against the Christians. Once the Almoravids got soft, the Almohads, still more theologically austere, came north to replace them. Almohad is a corruption of "al-Muwahhidun," or "those who profess the oneness of God." It is an Arabic word still in usage; in fact it is the other polite way to say Wahabbi.

After the Madrid attacks, a number of journalists, academics, and other experts picked up on the idea, perhaps most fully expressed in Jason Burke's book Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, that al-Qaida may not be what many people think it is. It's not one vast organization with tentacles everywhere; it's a kind of franchise that helps with cash here, logistics there. Most important, it is the brand name of an umbrella ideology that all the jihadists subscribe to, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat and Salafia Jihadia, among others. Bin Laden is just the public face.

Looking at the Almohad and Almoravids, one might make the further point that jihadism is not just international, it's also a deeply ambitious ideological movement that feeds on its own thousand-plus-year history of extreme violence and revulsion for anything that is not itself.
Correction, March 19, 2004: This article originally called Morocco a former "Spanish protectorate." In fact, both France and Spain ruled parts of Morocco until 1956. Return to the corrected sentence.
Lee Smith, who lives in Brooklyn, is writing a book on Arab culture.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Malise Ruthven - A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America

For those who haven't yet encountered it, I strongly recommend a book I just read by Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America (Granta, 2002; updated edition 2004). This is an intense and opinionated book, which was clearly written quickly and shows some signs of it. But that also makes it consistently engaging and often penetrating and thought-provoking. As the historian Albert Hourani said in a jacket blurb for an earlier book by Ruthven (Islam in the World), this is also "an unusual book, full of original ideas and judgments based upon wide reading and personal observation." Overall, A Fury for God offers one of the most knowledgeable, acute, and illuminating analyses of Islamist radicalism I have seen so far.

A fairly accurate & informative promotional blurb by the publisher (Granta) is below.

--Jeff Weintraub
A Fury for God:
The Islamist Assault on America

By Malise Ruthven

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were carried out by men steeped in a certain version of Islamic ideology, which has come to be called Islamism. In A Fury for God, Malise Ruthven first reconstructs the events of September 11 and the war in Afghanistan. He then outlines the world view of Islamism with great authority. He traces the changing role of 'jihad', and examines the permissibility of suicide in Islam. He reconstructs the world view of Islamist intellectuals like Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian thinker who has influenced an entire generation of radicals in the Arab world, notably Osama Bin Laden. Ruthven highlights their obsessive attention to sexual matters. He also shows that it would be a mistake to treat these people as medieval fanatics: their attitude to modernity is dangerous and ambivalent.

And in a challenging analysis, the author exposes the crucial importance of the Saudi connection, the massive sponsorship of 'fundamentalism' by an authoritarian tribal regime that has been tolerated by the international community for the sake of Western economic stability. Ruthven's identification of the ambiguities in Western policy are powerfully provocative.

Please visit for more infomation on all Granta titles.