October 29, 2006

What Could Be Worse?

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Anthony Shadid is an Arabic-speaking American reporter who writes for the Washington Post. Shadid's reporting is down-to-earth, transmitting the voices of ordinary people. Shadid may or may not have an agenda, but he doesn't seem to be blinded by commitment to a predetermined point of view.

According to him, life in Baghdad has deteriorated greatly in the last year or two. The vibrancy of a great city has been silenced by fear.

It's not that some single insurgency is on the verge of triumph, but rather that no one is in control but constant and unpredictable violence.

Although it is no doubt true Anbar and Sulaimaniya provinces and Baghdad are the centers of the violence, and other parts of the country, especially Kurdistan, are more peaceful and orderly, what's happening is terrible. He describes a visit with Karima, a widow:
Her first grandchild, 2-month-old Fahd, sat next to her. His expression was rare in Baghdad: eyes expectant, fearless.

"Is it not a pity to bring a baby in a world like this?" she asked. "It's a shame."

Her eldest daughter, Fatima, looked on.

"One-third of us are dying, one-third of us are fleeing and one-third of us will be widows," she said.

"This is Iraq," Karima added.
And in Amman, Jordan, he visits an old man, who had once debated with his wife whether his son was right to flee the country.
The last time I had visited Faruq Saad Eddin, he and his wife, Muna, had argued over whether their eldest son should have left the country. We sat in Jihad, a neighborhood so dangerous now that a stranger risks death by entering it. A generator droned in the background; occasional bomb blasts thundered in the distance, probably homemade mines targeting U.S. patrols. An urbane former diplomat, Faruq had been upset. He worried about what would become of his ancient land if its capable fled.

"You can't just cut out and run away," he told me. "This is our country and sooner or later our children will come back. The resilience of the people, that's what 11,000 years means," he said. "Someone who has 11,000 years, 100 years to lose here or there is not that much."

On April 17, Faruq and Muna left Iraq at the insistence of their son, who had paid a year's rent for an apartment in Jordan. A month later, a car bomb detonated outside their Baghdad home, shattering the windows in the room where we once had shared bitter coffee.

On a cool morning in the Amman neighborhood of Umm al-Summaq, Faruq shook his head at the arbitrariness of fate.

"We would have been killed, no doubt about it," he said.

"We are all stranded, here and there, Iraqis," he added.
Yet another interview is with a political science professer, Wamidh:
Well into 2005, Wamidh has bristled at the notion of a sectarian divide, even as the very geography of Baghdad began to transform into Shiite and Sunni halves divided by the Tigris River. Like many Iraqis, he blamed the Americans for naively viewing the country solely through that sectarian prism before the war, then forging policies that helped make it that way afterward. He ran through other "awful mistakes": the carnage unleashed by Sunni insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda, the assassination of a Shiite ayatollah in 2003 who may have bridged differences, the devolution of Sadr's movement today into armed, revenge-minded mobs.

As Wamidh finished, he flashed his customary modesty. "Perhaps you could correct me?" he offered.

I asked him whether it would become worse if the American military withdrew.

He looked at me for a moment without saying anything, as though he were a little confused.

"What could be worse?" he asked, knitting his brow.

I saw Wamidh again a week later, and the question had lingered with him. "I sometimes wonder what I would do if I were the Americans," he said over a traditional Ramadan dinner. His answer seemed to hurt him. "I have no idea, really."

"It's like a volcano that has erupted. How do you stop that?"
I was one of those who in spite of doubts supported the war in the first instance, mostly because of the horrors of Saddam's rule, but also in the hope that something new and better might arise in the Middle East, beset as it has been with tyranny and corrupton.

What is clear is that there was no plan for the aftermath of what was bound to be a militarily successful invasion. In the absence of such a plan, the wisdom and justice of an invasion without a goal come into question.

The Iraqis, surely, are beset by their narrow loyalties to family, tribe and sect, abetted by the practice of cousin marriage. But we have surely also been corrupted by an ignorant faith in the universal applicability of our own institutions, the power of technology, and the notion that all are good at heart and fundamentally like us. In short, we are guilty of a kind of idolatry toward our own institutions, culture and power.

And yet, it could get worse. We smiled as we mounted this tiger, and we don't know what will happen when we return from the ride.

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