Monday, August 02, 2004

Column 9: Realistic Expectations For Iraq

This one's kind of disorganized. Sorry.

This political season, Kerry and Bush have been falling all over themselves to try to prove to Americans that they can "get the job done" quickly and effectively in Iraq. Each candidate claims that if they are elected, they can bring peace and stability to Iraq.

Yeah, right.

Revolutions do not sort themselves out overnight. The history books are littered with countries who have overthrown oppressive regimes, only to become bogged down with internal issues for decades. One country in particular became tormented with regional factionalization, racial discrimination, and social unrest caused by poverty immediately after the end of their successful revolution. The various tensions led to outbreaks of violence for decades, culminating in a catastrophic civil war some ninety years later.

I refer, of course, to the United States.

America enshrined racial inequality in its founding document by endorsing the existence of slavery; the Civil War was a direct, though avoidable, result. Furthermore, early Americans' regional loyalties often trumped loyalty to the central state. The maintenance of these conflicting loyalties led to the faulty Articles of Confederation, numerous armed rebellions, and the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s. They also contributed to the Civil War.

Other instances in early American history bear a striking resemblance to what is happening in Iraq now. Had the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 made use of roadside bombs, Pittsburgh might well have looked like Fallujah looks now. George Washington was able to quell the rebellion with a combination of a confident show of military might and sheer force of personality.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 probably provides a better picture of the road ahead for Iraq. A somewhat unified force overthrew antidemocratic dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1910. Soon after, the revolutionary forces began to bicker. The assassination of new President Francisco Madero in 1912 led to a somewhat organized display of force against the overthrower, Victoriano Huerta. However, after it became clear that Huerta's days were numbered, the revolutionaries separated into no less than four factions. Years of fighting interspersed with attempts at peace ensued. The attempts at peace failed because one of the groups would generally feel excluded. It wasn't until 1920 that peace finally stuck - and then only because Alvaro Obregon had managed to definitively eliminate his competition. It seems that the issues of the Mexican Revolution were resolved mostly by attrition.

Mexico's revolution was likely a lot cleaner and more conclusive than its American counterpart, but issues raised during the Mexican Revolution still simmer. Even now, people claiming the legacy of revolutionary Emiliano Zapata lead the occasional armed insurrection in the southern state of Chiapas. The party founded by Obregon's successor became increasingly corrupt and was accused of rigging elections as recently as 1994. Indeed, the election of Vicente Fox in 2000 represented for many Mexico's final proof of democratization. Mexico, too, had its personalities that held the country together - the scrupulously honest and well-liked Lazaro Cardenas fended off an effort by the cronyists that likely would have plunged Mexico into deeper unrest.

The factionalization in 1910-1920 Mexico represents closely the divisions between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in Iraq, and the further factionalization within the Shiite camp. The Mexican Revolution can demonstrate to Iraqis and Americans that it is important for all factions to be brought to the bargaining table if we desire a workable peace. Iraq can also learn the dangers of dishonest and unpopular leaders; Mexico suffered through several minor rebellions between the presidencies of Obregon and Cardenas. And last but not least, the danger of leaving factional loyalties in place cannot be underestimated.

Iraq probably has a Washington or a Cardenas out there somewhere. Perhaps it is Allawi. But the point I have been trying to make is this: while there is much for Iraq to learn from the histories of the U.S. and Mexico, we can expect nothing less than a long road ahead. Even if the Iraqis learn from the mistakes of the American and Mexican Revolutions, the issues that now exist in Iraq will take years, even decades, to sort out. There will probably be a civil war or two. To expect a quick and painless overnight solution to this ordeal is fantasy, and shame on Bush and Kerry for scoring political points from perpetuating such unrealistic expectations.

One more point. In 1916, when the factionalization in Mexico was at its height, Woodrow Wilson saw it fit to authorize a military intervention. While the factions of the revolution tended to agree on very little, everyone agreed on this point: the Americans should just go home and let the Mexicans sort this one out. We left, and within three years the Mexicans had come to a difficult but workable peace. Keep that in mind next time you weigh the importance of "staying the course" in Iraq.

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