Monday, September 20, 2010

On the Surge

It's a week late, but Walter Russell Mead's reflection on the 9th anniversary of 9/11 is still worth reading.  In particular, his commentary on the turning point in Iraq circa 2006 is spot-on:

[But] the Sunni Arabs of Iraq made a choice. They saw Al-Qaeda at its best — volunteer freedom fighters come from around the world to fight for them — and they saw America at its worst: incompetent, insensitive, vacillating and violent.  And they chose the United States... What those Sunni Arabs in Iraq came to understand is the basic truth of this conflict.  The war unleashed nine years ago is not a clash of civilizations between Islam and the west.  It is a clash between civilization and barbarism, and in that clash the Americans and true Muslims are on the same side.
The strategic realignment that occurred in the Iraq theater during 2006-2007 -- what was sold in the US media as "the Surge" -- laid a foundation for a far more momentous and far less heralded realignment of the Iraqi Sunni tribal leadership.
I wholeheartedly agree with Mead that the (self-)rehabilitation of Iraq's Sunni Arabs was more pivotal than any US Forces strategic decision.  Furthermore, I attest (from my own conversations with Iraqis themselves) that a significant element of that realignment was distinctly generational in nature.  The worst of the sectarian violence circa 2005-2006 was committed by Iraqis of my own generation, those with birthdates of roughly 1980-1990.  These young Iraqis came of age during Saddam's most desperate struggles to hold on to power by playing sects against one another, and after the US invasion were egged on by foreign extremists, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Iran among the Sunna and Shi'a, respectively, who both looked to a bountiful harvest in political influence and cold hard cash resulting from the bloody collapse of Iraq.  The violence finally ebbed when Iraqis of my parents' generation -- who fondly remember a long-ago era when nobody knew or cared who was Shi'i and who was Sunni -- stood up and said, "This is not the Iraq we remember, this is not the Iraq we hope for."

I, like Mead, am optimistic for the future of Iraq, and am guardedly so for the future of the Arab world as a whole, and that of the "Muslim World" beyond that. But it is worth remembering, with humility, how limited the American role in directing that future really is.

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