"They envy us our optimism, because theirs are deeply pessimistic societies, deeply scarred societies- societies hemmed in by ancient tribal and religious boundaries, where the most frequently heard political statement is: "No, you can't."
"The Marines wanted to help the Lebanese rebuild their country, but the Lebanese had other fish to fry, other scores to settle, which came first."
From Beirut to Jerusalem
There has been much talk recently about an Op-Ed piece Thomas Friedman wrote for the New York Times in which he said Iraq's Ramadan spike in killings was a "jihadist Tet Offensive."
In an interview with George Stephanopolous shortly thereafter, President Bush appeared to agree with this assessment and allowed that there was an increased level of violence coinciding with U.S. elections. Then he said:
"They believe that if they can create enough chaos, the American people will grow sick and tired of the Iraqi effort and will cause government to withdraw."
(Hat tip: Daniel Drezner, among dozens of others.)
This same idea was also aired in an NPR Interview with Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Host Robert Seigel spoke with Kohut for several minutes about the public's reaction to the Tet Offensive and it's gradual effect on polling, then compared it with assessments of current public opinion on the conflict in Iraq.
I would like to draw your attention to something at this point. In his much-ballyhooed concession to Stephanopolous, President Bush said that he believed the jihadists in Iraq were motivated by the opportunity to sway American public opinion. In an interview on the same subject, Mr. Kohut spoke at length about fluctuating American polls regarding first Viet Nam, then Iraq.
Does this somehow "prove" that Iraq is the New Viet Nam?
No, it does not. I stand by my original statements on this subject. But says a great deal about the way the American public- and possibly the U.S. Military establishment- perceives this conflict, and those misperceptions could lead us down many blind alleys.
Using the Tet Offensive as a metaphor does misleading things. First, it indicates that the United States is facing a single, monolithic enemy in Iraq. It is not. The problem of Iraq is the problem of multiple enemies with multiple agendas- private militias, death squads hiding among the ranks of the police, outside actors fomenting sectarian violence, and vicious, opportunistic street crime. Imagining all these forces as a single enemy will not lead to effective strategies any more than treating a single symptom will cure a complex disease.
Second, the Tet metaphor implies that the prime motivation of the enemy is to simply drive the United States out of Iraq and take control of that country. Again, this is misleading. While driving the U.S. out of Iraq may be high on the agenda of many groups, it is far from their only motivation. In fact, I would argue that for most, forcing out the U.S. is only a means to an end. Their ultimate goals could range from creating a Shiite theocracy to controlling a single province to merely securing spoils for their family or clan.
Just owning a hammer labelled "Viet Nam" does not make everything a nail.
The final distinction between the Tet Offensive and the Ramadan killing spree is the most crucial and the most telling. It is also the one everyone seems to be trying to avoid.
What I am about to say next will not sound nice.
The U.S. invasion did not create the horrors we now hear of on a daily basis. Iraq did not suddenly become a deadly place because Saddam Hussein was deposed and American troops were garrisoned within its borders. The toppling of Hussein merely ripped the lid off an artificially imposed unity and revealed ugly realities that exist throughout the entire Middle East region.
These same realities are on open display right now in Gaza and Lebanon for anyone who cares to look:
Tribe and clan are the reality; citizenship and patriotism are hazy concepts at best. "Belonging" breaks down to family ties and "loyalty" is defined by sect or ethnicity. The looting that took place when Baghdad fell is an example of this. Provide for your family while you can; you could be executed tomorrow for having the wrong last name.
Weak governments held in place by private militias are no help. They are unable to provide even basic security, much less set an example of rational, impartial law enforcement. A population that has no confidence in its equality before the law is not equipped to engage in democratic debate. It will rely instead on armed strongmen to safeguard its various sectarian interests and force their conflicting agendas while said "government" looks on helplessly.
This is how self-protection trumps nationhood. The identities at war here- Sunni, Shia, Moderate, Islamist, Christian, and all their gradations- have little in common with each other, let alone a Communist insurgency. Their conflicts had been keeping the region in turmoil for generations before a single U.S. soldier ever set foot on Iraqi soil, and the presence or absence of U.S. troops will not solve the problem. At best it can only provide another lid.
Ironically, the problem will not be solved unless or until enough factions in Iraq decide to become a monolith- a nation ready to absorb its differences into a single Iraqi identity, sharing weaknesses and riches alike. This is the Tet Offensive to hope for- and if it ever happens, it will deserve its own unique name.