Monday, April 30, 2007

Tragedy & complexity in Iraq - The case of Riverbend

One of the after-effects of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein & his regime in 2003 was the emergence of a lively Iraqi blogosphere, including some English-speaking bloggers who have developed world-wide audiences. For westerners opposed to the Iraq war and the US presence in Iraq, the favorite English-language Iraqi blogger has probably been "Riverbend," a secular Sunni Arab woman who blogs from Baghdad (Baghdad Burning).

One reason, though not the only one, is that Riverbend has provided these readers with a story-line they find immediately sympathetic and unproblematic. Most of the English-language Iraqi bloggers, like most Iraqis, welcomed the overthrow of the Ba'ath regime in 2003. They may have been more or less ambivalent about how it was accomplished, but they regarded it as a necessary and enormously positive step for Iraq. (Some have been terribly disillusioned since then. For example, in October 2006 Zeyad of "Healing Iraq" said: "I now officially regret supporting this war back in 2003. The guilt is too much for me to handle." Others, like the brothers who write "Iraq the Model" or "Alaa" at "The Mesopotamian", continue to defend the overthrow of the Ba'ath regime and remain hopeful about the possibilities for building up a more decent Iraq.) Riverbend, on the other hand, has consistently said the kinds of things that opponents of the war wanted to hear, and she has consistently ignored, dismissed, or expressed contempt for any other Iraqis who felt differently.

I agree that Riverbend's commentary is often intelligent and illuminating, if one takes it with an appropriate grain of salt. But, like all of us, she speaks from a particular point of view with its own agendas, and readers need to keep that in mind. Her fans too often tend to treat her as expressing the Iraqi perspective on the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath, but in fact the perspective she represents is one among many in Iraq--and often it is so one-sided that it's skewed and misleading.

=> A few days ago Andrew Sullivan, whose own position on the Iraq war has moved over the past 5 years from strong support to conflicted opposition, linked to a post in which Riverbend broke the sad news that she and her family have finally decided to leave Iraq because Baghdad has become too unsafe.

This announcement followed a discussion that, as usual, blamed sectarian violence in Baghdad entirely on the Shiite parties in the Iraqi government (which Riverbend customarily refers to as the "Iraqi puppet government") and other members of "the Iraqi pro-war crowd," and that contrasted the present situation with an idyllic picture of inter-sectarian harmony in Iraq before 2003. Sullivan quoted a few of Riverbend's paragraphs that included the following passages:
I always hear the Iraqi pro-war crowd interviewed on television from foreign capitals (they can only appear on television from the safety of foreign capitals because I defy anyone to be publicly pro-war in Iraq). They refuse to believe that their religiously inclined, sectarian political parties fueled this whole Sunni/Shia conflict. They refuse to acknowledge that this situation is a direct result of the war and occupation. They go on and on about Iraq's history and how Sunnis and Shia were always in conflict and I hate that. [....]

I remember Baghdad before the war- one could live anywhere. We didn't know what our neighbors were- we didn't care. No one asked about religion or sect. No one bothered with what was considered a trivial topic: are you Sunni or Shia? You only asked something like that if you were uncouth and backward. Our lives revolve around it now.
There are obviously some grains of truth here. But the overall picture being presented is so patently selective, tendentious, misleading, and ideologically distorted that I felt moved to send Andrew Sullivan a message suggesting some caveats and reality checks. See below.

--Jeff Weintraub

Hi Andrew,

Regarding your latest post about Riverbend ... conscience compels me to add some caveats, qualifications, and context to her remarks and yours.

I don't want to deny or trivialize the genuinely appalling situation that Riverbend is talking about, and she has always contributed one significant perspective to the Iraqi (English-language) discussion about the 2003 war and its aftermath. Like all of Riverbend's commentaries, this one should command some attention and respect just because she's been there, she's bright, and some of the things she says makes sense.

On the other hand, what Riverbend says always has to be taken with a grain of salt, too, since she invariably represents a totally one-sided perspective--that of the formerly dominant Sunni Arab minority--in a society polarized by ethnic & sectarian conflicts and, increasingly, by sectarian murders and other atrocities in the Arab part of Iraq. Riverbend simply cannot comprehend why any other Iraqis, including great majorities of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds (who add up to some 80% of the Iraqi population), might see the situation differently from the way she does, and might find it harder to think of pre-2003 Iraq as the good old days. So she either pretends their perspectives don't exist or dismisses them as special interests, US dupes, Iranian agents, and so on.

In Riverbend's case, perhaps, we can excuse all this. As I said, she's had to live with the situation, and we haven't. But it also has to be kept in mind that she presents a special, one-sided, and in some ways quite misleading perspective--that of the Sunni Arab minority, and especially its urban professional classes.

This comes through in everything she says, including the post from which you quoted. Riverbend remembers that, before 2003, it didn't matter whether you were Sunni or Shiite in Arab Iraq. But one reason she remembers it that way is that she was a member of a privileged minority. (Similarly, many whites in the US south sincerely believed that race relations were basically OK until things got stirred up by "outside agitators".) It's very clear that very, very large numbers of Iraqi Shiites saw things very differently. (Let's just ignore the way Kurds might have seen the situation--since Riverbend generally ignores that, too.)

There's no question that there has been a great deal of sectarian polarization since 2003 (though, to my knowledge, Riverbend has never acknowledged that some of it might have been promoted by the ongoing mass murder of Shiite civilians by the so-called Sunni Arab "insurgency"), but many Iraqi Shiites believe that before 2003 it actually mattered a lot whether you were Sunni or Shiite. (Riverbend never seems to mention such topics as historic patterns of ethnic & sectarian discrimination, mass graves, and the like, either.)

And her latest post demonstrates, once again, that Riverbend simply can't imagine that other Iraqis who don't come from the Formerly Dominant Minority (to repeat, non-FDM Iraqis add up to at least 80% of the population) might see the situation differently from the way she sees it, and why they find it hard to see the period of Saddam Hussein's rule as the good old days.

If Riverbend wants to argue that the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath have been a disaster for Iraqis, that's certainly a respectable position. But this is different from her repeated claims that when that when Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled (along with his statues), only some "imported American-trained monkeys" applauded. (I wonder how Iraqi Shiites like being called "monkeys"?) We know that's not true. In 2005, during the national elections, Riverbend reported that no one in Iraq took them seriously--at least, no one she knew. They were just an American charade. ("Most people I've talked to aren't going to go to elections. It's simply too dangerous and there's a sense that nothing is going to be achieved anyway.") In fact, we know that millions of Iraqis risked their lives to vote--even Robert Fisk could not help being moved by the spectacle. And so on.

Like too many others among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, Riverbend can't shake loose from the notion that her perspective is that of "Iraqis" in general. The perspectives of non-Sunni-Arab Iraqis are simply ignored or dismissed. But this produces a rather misleading overall picture, to say the least.

The reality is both more complex and more tragic. We know that most Iraqis are (justifiably) exasperated or even enraged by the many failures of the Americans in the post-Saddam occupation and non-reconstruction of the country. However, whenever public opinion polls have asked Iraqis directly whether, despite all the chaos and suffering since 2003, it was worth it to get rid of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath regime ... solid majorities of both Shiites and Kurds have consistently said yes.

Maybe they're wrong, but that's what they say, and (unlike Riverbend) we shouldn't simply pretend otherwise. The implications are actually pretty sobering. Given how bad things look now, try to imagine how bad most Iraqis (not Riverbend, but most Iraqis) must have thought things looked then.

And if one wants to understand why it has been hard for Iraqi political factions to work out a reasonable solution, then the kind of Sunni Arab mind-set that Riverbend represents--also represented by most of the Sunni Arab political and religious leadership, unfortunately--is certainly part of the story. It reinforces the feeling among many Iraqi Shiites that members of the Formerly Dominant Minority continue to view them with contempt, utterly fail to recognize their concerns and grievances, and would still like to take back Iraq to the good old days of unquestioned Sunni Arab dominance.

Contrary to Riverbend's repeated assertions and contemptuous dismissals, all the available evidence indicates that most Iraqis genuinely hoped that the 2003 war and the overthrow of the Ba'ath regime would mean a better life for themselves and for Iraq as a whole. (Actually, in comprehensive polls substantial proportions of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds still say that their lives have gotten better individually--this study is just one example--though they think the situation looks bad for Iraq overall.) The fact that this hasn't happened is a tragedy--a tragedy for which a lot of responsibility goes both to the spectacular incompetence and almost criminal irresponsibility of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld gang and the savagery & irredentism of the so-called Sunni Arab "insurgency." But the whole meaning of that tragedy is totally distorted if we simply swallow the premise of people like Riverbend that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was basically OK for most Iraqis, and that most Iraqis look back to the period of Ba'athist rule as the good old days. It's just not true.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

[P.S. For one roundup of some Iraqi bloggers' reactions to Riverbend's latest communication, see this post on Iraqi Bloggers Central ... a website that also has a useful and fairly comprehensive collection of links to English-language blogs by Iraqis, as well as non-Iraqi blogs that deal with Iraq.]