Monday, September 13, 2004

Fareed Zakaria: The British Raj vs. American Iraq

Though I've always opposed the war in Iraq, I resist describing the U.S. as "imperialist" the way some of my friends and colleagues tend to do. Whether or not the motives for going into Iraq were entirely above-board, there is no question that the U.S. will get out in time. The war may be a pretty awful thing, but it's not quite the same as imperialism in its classical form (and distinctions matter).

However, the U.S. is starting to use policies in Iraq that resemble what the British did in India. Specifically, Fareed Zakaria suggests, they seem to be starting a "Shia stratgy." The U.S. will favor one ethno-religious group, and pit it against the other major group -- essentially divide, flatter, and conquer. If the strategy continues, the winner will be Ayatollah Sistani and the small Shia majority, while the ostensible losers will be the Sunnis. I say "ostensible," because the real loser would be Iraq as a whole. Imperial favoritism in the British system inevitably led to more blood being shed:

In many of its colonies the British would often favor a single group as a quick means of gaining stability. Almost always the results were ruinous—a trail of civil war and bloodshed. If Allawi and the United States make the same mistake, there will be 140,000 American troops in the middle of it all.

The context of this, of course, is the ongoing -- seemingly intractable -- uprising in the Sunni cities of central Iraq. While hurricanes are leading on all the news channels in the U.S., the situation in Iraq is deteriorating again:

The American Army cannot use military superiority to take Sunni cities from the guerrillas because it would mean high civilian casualties and an angry public. The interim Iraqi government may itself not have the necessary credibility to take on such a task. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is a tough guy, but he is clearly aware of the limits of his legitimacy. . . . Last week Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Samir Sumaiada'ie, predicted to The Scotsman that unless the United States and Britain added "a considerable amount" of troops to Iraq, the insurgency would grow.

But for all its resilience, the insurgency has not spread across the whole country, nor is it likely to. Its appeal has clear limits. While it has drawn some support from all Iraqis because of its anti-American character, it is essentially a Sunni movement, fueled by the anger of Iraq's once dominant community, who now fear the future. It is not supported by the Shias or the Kurds. (The Shia radical al-Sadr has been careful not to align himself too closely with the insurgency, for fear of losing support among the Shia.) This is what still makes me believe that Iraq is not Vietnam. There, the Viet Cong and their northern sponsors both appealed to a broad nationalism that much of the country shared.

Well, at least Iraq is not another Vietnam. But is it another British India?


Rob Breymaier said...

This seems a bit different from the British India model in that they didn't exactly favor one over the other. Instead, they pitted each against the other with benefits for both. Including a nasty little thing called partition. So, maybe it will turn out to be similar.

10:55 AM  
Slogans said...

I guess the American oil companies would love to stay back in Iraq even after the army leaves. Wouldn't that make the Americans imperial?

2:49 AM  

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