Saturday, June 14, 2014

Walking Away From Iraq

When do you walk away from an irresolvable mess?  When do you walk away from a mess that you yourself made?

After over a decade of American military engagement, tens of thousands of American casualties and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, Iraq today is falling apart.

As U.S. forces have stood down, the nation that we've left behind crumbles like a drying sandcastle in the desert wind.

Mosul has fallen, as 30,000 U.S. supplied Iraqi troops fled the city before an advancing insurgent force of 800.  In the north, Kurdish rebels have seized Kirkuk.  So much effort, so much energy, so many lives, and it is not possible to say that it made anything better.  Different?  Yes.  Better?  No.

There are reasons for this.  Iraq itself was held together by despotism.  That--as in Tito's Yugoslavia--was what gave that nation-state cohesion.  Assuming that waving the magic wand of democracy over a people will suddenly change the social dynamics?  That was, is, and will always be a tragic neoconservative foolishness.  Democracy must arise organically.  It cannot be imposed.  Empire?  That you can impose.  But a republic must be the creature of the people who yearn to be its citizens.

Our adventurism there, undertaken under false pretenses and with amorphous goals, has been a disaster.  I feel that strongly for the Iraqi people, who have and do suffer mightily.  But I feel that equally strongly for the men and women of our military.  These are Americans, my fellow citizens, doing their duty with honor, and being sent--for decades--into a bloody fray that served no coherent strategic or national purpose.

Now that we're finally out, things are collapsing.  The false stability we provided--the illusion of a nation-state, maintained only through our agency--is gone.

There will be those, as there always are, who want to double down.  Our only weakness was lack of commitment, they will insist.

And yet I can't imagine, not for a moment, that America has a heart to throw itself back into that fray.  The mess there is ancient and deep, and goes well beyond the cruel despotism of a now-dead tyrant.  There are hatreds and lines of conflict that run deep into the culture of that region, ones that have not been worked through to the point of resolution.

That we broke through the surface of one mess does not mean that the problem was solved.  We just shattered the evil that was repressing another evil.  Had we been thinking longer term and seeing clearly, we'd not have acted as we did--or at least been willing to acknowledge our motivations.

So now, with one mess replacing another, we are left with mess.  We cannot spin it as success.  Nor, frankly, does doubling-down work.

From church life, I know this.  If a ministry or church is failing, and has critical flaws in its assumptions about life together, pouring energy into failed efforts does nothing.  Simply "doing it harder" does not work.  It must be done differently.  It must be re-created.

But if a failing community does not want to live together differently, then it will fail, no matter how much energy and noise it pours into the process of doubling down on "the way we've always done it."  That desire for change must be organic, rising intrinsically from a repenting culture.  In a church, that desire is a work of the Spirit, given freely, and responded to freely.

Where that change comes in a society?  I cannot say, as I'm not quite sure even our fractious republic has that one down yet.

Again, the values of the good culture--freedom, tolerance, mutual care and a sense of shared purpose--cannot be imposed.  They can be taught, and modeled, and encouraged.  But they cannot be imposed.

Which is why sometimes, if you've modeled and worked and tried, and still nothing has changed for the good, you need to walk away.