When U.S. troops detained Sheik Hazm Aaraji, an aide to Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr, they were taking a huge risk. In the tinderbox that is Iraq today, any such provocation can be explosive. Yet the American boss of Iraq, Paul Bremer, said he did not even know Aaraji had been seized. Who's in charge here, anyway?
Probably no one, exactly. Governments and their armies like to give the impression that they are highly organized and firmly disciplined, directed from the top down. In fact, though, they are big debating societies, where powerful people are constantly wrestling each other for control. From where I sit, ten thousand miles away, the U.S. occupation of Iraq looks like a two-headed beast, torn between its own hawks and doves. And no one is in firm control of the beast.
The hawks have a simple philosophy: Overpower the bastards. Smash the opposition as soon as it appears. Leave no doubt about who is really running the show. It was once known as the Weinberger Doctrine and then the Powell Doctrine. If you are going to use force, use it overwhelmingly. Don 't hold back, as so many military people think they were forced to do in Vietnam.
The hawks' approach rests on a schizophrenic foundations. One half is the sunny American's eternal optimism. With enough power, used skillfully
enough, we can control everything, everywhere. The other half is rooted in
the gloomy Christian doctrine of original sin. The enemy is a wily yet irrational, innately evil animal, the spawn of the devil. If you think you get negotiate with the devil, you are fooling yourself.
Hearts and minds? Forget it. These devils understand only one language: force and more force. Show them the implacable iron fist, and you'll gain their respect, or at least their surrender. The hawks won a big victory last week. They used the public execution of four American corporate mercenaries as an excuse to launch an all-out attack on Fallujah. Now they are moving on Najaf, the holy city of the Shiites, where Sadr will be taken, says Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, dead or alive.
Surely, there are powerful figures in the U.S. military and civilian administration in Iraq who think that the hawks are nuts. The battle of Fallujah has already turned Iraqi publicly opinion massively against the U.S. occupation, uniting Shiites and Sunnis. Imagine what an assault on Najaf would do. If they assassinate Sadr, the aftermath is truly unimaginable. Surely, many top level Americans can't believe it when they hear Kimmitt talk about killing Sadr. They know it would be the height of insanity, the beginning of the end for the U.S. in Iraq.
These are the moderates, the folks who brought us the truces and negotiations in Fallujah. They are working behind the scenes to forge compromises, like the proposal that Sadr be safe from any prosecution until after the Iraqis take control of their government on June 30. No doubt, these doves are doing what they can to get the upper hand over the hawks in American decision-making in Iraq.
It is hard to imagine Karl Rove, the president's political guru, sitting back passively and watching all this happen. Election Day, 2004, is the culmination of his life's work. If, by then, Iraq has dissolved into a Vietnam-like debacle, Rove's man hardly stands a chance. But which path leads toward a Bush victory -- the hawks' iron fist or the doves' negotiated truce? The White House hasn't come to any conclusion yet. Maybe that's why, in his April 14 news conference, Bush said nothing of any substance about his future plans for Iraq. His advisors are still trying to figure it out.
Even if they decide what path they want to follow, can they make it happen? From the White House to a division or battalion headquarters in Iraq is a mighty long way. Orders can get twisted, distorted, or simply lost at so many places along that way. Most soldiers will tell you that the politicians give the orders; the military people simply carry them out. But a few soldiers will say publicly, and more will say privately, that once a war starts, the politicians should get out of the way and let the professionals do the job.
In Iraq, as in every war, the professionals don't agree among themselves about what their job is or how they should do it. So, whether the White House sees the iron fist or the negotiating table as its route to re-election, there will still be intense battles at every level over which direction to take. The American beast will remain two-headed, divided against itself.
What does this mean for us in the peace movement? We, too, are somewhat divided against ourselves. We want to stop the bloodshed and loss of life. So we certainly don't want the U.S. to do insanely inflammatory things like assaulting Najaf or killing Sadr. But we can't support the moderates' recipe for long-term U.S. occupation by winning hearts and minds. We want genuine Iraqi independence and sovereignty, not the neo-imperialist farce that Bush and company call "liberation."
Ultimately, we may want to see the hawks prevail. If they get full control of U.S. military policy, the outcome is pretty predictable. Massive anti-American resistance would lead to the horrors of full-scale war. In the end, an American president, be his name Bush or Kerry, would bow to inevitable defeat, while trying to tell us it was really a victory.
Would a second Vietnam be good or bad? It would be much worse than bad for those who would have to fight it. But the tragedy would bring the peace movement back to life as nothing else could.
Now, as U.S. elite hawks and doves vie for control, both agree that the conflict is just a small-scale "insurgency," and the mainstream press dutifully tows their line. The public accepts the illusion that the U.S. occupation is a legitimate and stable status quo, unjustly challenged by rebellious "insurgents." The public also accepts the spike in U.S. casualties, because it seems temporary. But if that spike becomes an endless upward curve, and the "insurgents" are seen to be the whole Iraqi people, public opinion will turn peaceward.
In the long run, this could create a huge historical turning point. No longer could anyone say that Vietnam was an aberration, or that we had learned its lesson. The "American century" of multinational corporate capitalism, protected by massive militarization, might finally see the beginning of its end. And if a disastrous war abroad provoked change on the home front anything like the Vietnam era's counterculture, would that be so bad? Or so good?
Reality is always a mixed bag. Our efforts always produce mixed, and unpredictable, results. A reinvigorated peace movement might pressure the administration to support its doves in Iraq. That might ease the immediate tensions and give the U.S. occupation breathing space to consolidate its power. But if the Kerry campaign decides to jump on the peace train, it might force the administration to support the hawks in Iraq. That would increase the bloodshed but perhaps bring a quicker end to the U.S. adventure in Iraq.
As we track day-to-day events, it is helpful to realize that the administration and its agents in Iraq are locked in a tense internal struggle. But both sides agree that the ultimate goal is permanent U.S. domination of Iraq. Their quarrel is only about tactics. So peace advocates must make it clear, every day, that we favor neither side, for our goal is to see Iraq truly free, liberated from the grip of both Saddam Hussein and foreign occupation.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org