You don’t make jokes about a civil war, but I couldn’t read the papers this week without seeing some very dark humor at work in headlines like “Bombs, shootings fuel Iraq civil war fears.” As if what was going on in Iraq before Wednesday’s bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra was anything other than a civil war, albeit a slow-moving one. It has at least not been a state of civil peace.
Still, the bombing was a terrible development in the unfolding tragedy in Iraq, a tragedy even more terrible for having been predictable and, in fact, predicted. (Robert Dreyfuss quotes a paper by neocon David Wurmser, buddy of Doug Feith and Richard Perle, saying that after Saddam’s overthrow, Iraq would “be ripped apart by the politics of warlords, tribes, clans, sects, and key families.” This was written in 1997 by a proponent of invading Iraq.) The question now is what to do with the mess.
Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn principle makes sense morally — we as a country bear an enormous responsibility for what we’ve done to Iraq, both in the invasion and subsequent war and with the years of inhumane sanctions before that. But right now, the presence of American troops seems to be making the situation worse. I’m persuaded by people who know a lot more about this than I do that the best choice, of all the horrible choices, is to get our troops out.
Don’t expect that to happen, though. The real reason we invaded Iraq wasn’t WMDs, of course, and it wasn’t to promote democracy, although maybe that’s what Paul Wolfowitz actually believed. We went there for oil, although not in the straightforward sense of taking Iraq’s oil and pumping it directly into fat American SUVs. Rather, it’s a key move in a geopolitical strategy for dominating the entire Middle East, necessary to keep the oil moving in our direction as the world reaches peak production and enters a time of increasing competition for diminishing oil supplies. To do this, the architects of the Iraq invasion figured we need permanent military bases in Iraq — and lo and behold, that’s what we’re building. Bush and company clearly don’t envision ever leaving Iraq, although the issue of permanent bases isn’t something they like to talk about.
But I wonder if it doesn’t even matter to them how many Iraqis are dying each day in sectarian violence, or even how many American soldiers die in roadside attacks and skirmishes, as long as our soldiers and tanks and high-tech weapons are still there, projecting American power. In any case, expect the administration to keep the troops there no matter how bad the civil conflict gets, and expect a broad political consensus in favor of “staying the course,” even among Democrats like Senator Clinton.
America’s (and Europe’s) insatiable thirst for oil will keep us involved in conflicts with the Muslim world for the foreseeable future. And cultural clashes should prove to be the persistent accompaniment. For weeks now, rolling riots have washed through Muslim lands from the south Pacific to North Africa, and not least the Muslim immigrant ghettos of Western Europe, angry about cartoons of the prophet Mohammed published as a sort of free-speech publicity stunt by a Danish newspaper in September of last year. Never have such lame cartoons cause so much fuss; they are universally unfunny, and although a few of them are breathtakingly mean spirited they don’t rise to the aesthetic level of images that could cause offense. But apparently you don’t make jokes about Mohammed, or at least not illustrated ones.
The riots have prompted some bizarre political discourse in the West. Andrew Sullivan took them as a reason liberals should finally stand up and get behind Bush’s Iraq policy, if not ethnic cleansing of Muslims from Europe. Matt Yglesias sensibly replied that he can be for free speech, against an individual newspaper’s decision to publish awful cartoons, and against Bush’s terrible Iraq policy without any contradiction whatsoever. Stanley Fish, whom I usually defend, wrote a very odd Times op-ed (sorry, I can’t link to it) in which he claimed that the rioting Muslims were better than us Western liberals because our liberalism has sapped us of our moral convictions, while the rioting Muslims clearly still get properly offended about things. Nonsense, of course. Good liberals can have strong morals and take offense all they want; they draw the line at rioting, and at demanding laws that make it illegal to insultingly portray their special prophet or deity or whatever. In fact, liberals take offense at such laws.
There is a tension in liberalism that the riots highlight. (By liberalism, I mean the general political theory of individual rights and civil responsibility that forms the intellectual framework for modern democracies, not the political views of Ted Kennedy.) Liberalism guarantees each citizen a private sphere of state non-interference, and freedom of religion is one of the core rights that make up that sphere. But liberalism also demands religious tolerance and in fact a high degree of government neutrality towards various religions; that way, the religious (and free-speech) claims of all citizens can be accommodated. The cartoon problem, at least in Western Europe, belongs to a class of problems where some particular form of religious belief makes demands on other citizens that those citizens find unacceptable. Most Danes don’t want to give up their right to make fun of Mohammed, but many (most?) Muslims are offended by the cartoons to the point that they believe the government should protect them from such insult.
Similar but more familiar conflicts in the United States include Jehovah’s Witnesses not wanting to salute the flag, the Amish wanting their children exempted from mandatory schooling laws, or fundamentalist Christians demanding that some sort of creationism be taught in schools. In each case, the demands of a private faith go outside the sphere that usually delimits the private and start making a ruckus in the public arena. We resolve these issues in various ways, but as we’ve seen with the Religious Right, conflicts between religion and liberalism can fester for decades.
So Fish was right that liberalism makes a demand on religious believers: to remain lawful participants in liberal society, they have to suppress any parts of their belief that conflict with the liberal social order. And yes, I suppose religious belief loses out in such instances. But that’s not a bad thing. Rioting over cartoons is a distinctly illiberal thing to do; by contrast, lawsuits and political posturing are much nicer to live with.
In any case, we shouldn’t let free-speech triumphalism obscure other real issues involved here, like the justified resentment of Muslims living in Western Europe against the racism and economic oppression they endure, or the equally valid concerns of many Western Europeans that new Muslim immigrants could alter the political consensus in ways unfavorable to women, gays, and the liberal order more generally. These are complicated issues, made all the more difficult as they play out against the backdrop of a worldwide clash of Western and Islamic cultures. A clash that Bush administration policies, including the Iraq war, have raised to unprecedented levels. And a clash that America’s oil thirst, what Dick Cheney called “the American way of life,” makes inevitable.