August 14, 2007

American Revolutions

I wrote the following in November of 2006. It was a difficult time for me as I struggled to make sense of the war in Iraq. I took to reading as much as possible about the situation and the complex role of the United States. Very characteristically, I choose to express myself through words. What resulted is not another fact book about Iraq, but rather my personal thoughts about the war set against the events surrounding the American Revolution.

In the coming weeks, I will elaborate on my current stance regarding the war and strategic options therein.


I have been reading Joseph Ellis' book Founding Brothers, which recounts a few of the major events coinciding with the formation of our country. While I am fully aware that every successful revolution in history has secured victory through disparate methods, I am compelled to believe each movement has shared similar characteristics that enabled the victor. From a macro perspective and at the risk of missing some of the finer details, I recognized two of these characteristics in Founding Brothers. These are obvious in the American Revolution and owe their existence to the charismatic leaders and pure vision for the new country. My fears as I have read about our nation's success, however, are the vast differences that permeate any comparison to the modern day "revolution" occurring in Iraq. I will share some of the passages from the book that have caused me to make my own comparisons to Iraq and question the probability of success considering the current situation and strategy.


Ellis in Founding Brothers: "Bound together in solidarity against the imperialistic enemy, the leadership fragments when the common enemy disappears and the different agenda for the new nation must confront its differences. Securing a revolution has proven to be a much more daunting assignment than winning one."

Focusing on the first part of this quote, the American Revolution was based around the pervasive hatred of Britain and its imperial rule. American citizens were “bound together in solidarity” and were determined to win the war to gain their independence. Our countrymen experienced several years of fighting side by side to achieve a common goal that had been brought about through the citizen’s unanimous initiative (Declaration of Independence).

Iraq has no such common thread. The citizens were not the impetus for the beginning of the revolution. This was spurred by the invasion of Iraq by an American led force to expel Saddam Hussein from power. To our credit, we are highly skilled at modern day warfare (winning a war, not to be confused with winning the peace) and it was not long before we declared military victory from the deck of a naval carrier. Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 20, 2003 and the announcement that major combat operations in Iraq had ended was made by President Bush on May 1, 2003, a mere matter of weeks. Iraq did not experience a unifying war for freedom and democracy initiated and fought by its own citizens. Essentially a revolution had been thrust upon the nation, despite the incompetence of its people to engage it. American and coalition forces had faced our equivalent of Britain based on a fear of weapons of mass destruction and a tyrant in power that would likely use them.

While I believe the fear of Saddam Hussein was supported by the intelligence we had and the invasion was justified based on these fears, was there no prophecy of the unique problems that would arise once the ruling government was displaced? Additionally, if there was some forethought concerning the need for a new government, was the consensus that the Iraqi people would cast aside their inveterate differences for a stable, Western-style nation to emerge? The Iraqi nation has been freed from a fascist leader, yet subsequently verges on anarchy. From the beginning of this conflict to today, the resonating theme has been success through military tactics and persistence. Therefore, while the composition of the nation has changed, the strategy for success has not. American soldiers increasingly face an indefinable enemy and support a increasingly divided government.

Current American desires to dictate a particular type of government for Iraq are simply "sentimental attachments or fleeting ideological enthusiasms." A country divided by religious factions and thousands of years of conflict face separate and much more challenging obstacles to a unified society than a young American nation. To assume we can win the peace in Iraq through American military force with American motives and methods while being led by American backed politicians is a vision that can be supported only by the most imaginative minds. Until the Iraqi people develop a unified, peaceful vision for the country and commit their efforts to attaining this, they will continue to be embroiled in an increasingly fragmented civil war.

An article from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a nonpartisan resource for information and analysis, on October 26 emphasizes the lack of unity and outlines society's limited choices of anarchy or militia allegiance:

"The presence of militias and death squads in Iraq threatens to drive a wedge between U.S. officials and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The U.S. military and Iraq's government blame militias for the recent bout of mass kidnappings and sectarian killings. The prime minister has dismissed calls from Washington for a timetable or ultimatum for the Iraqi government to disband the militias... There are a growing number of small, homegrown, paramilitary-style brigades being formed by local tribes, religious leaders, and political parties. Many have taken up arms against Iraq's Sunni insurgents since the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. Larger, more established militias, such as the Badr Brigade and the peshmerga, are tied to Iraq's leading political parties, organized along sectarian lines, and in existence to enforce order in their respective regions... Whereas in 2004 and 2005, these militia groups primarily targeted ex-Baathists, rival militia groups, or U.S. troops, now they target everyday Iraqis based on their ethno-religious sect."

One important reminder for strategic planners concerning Iraq is the slavery issue facing the nascent American nation. This was such a divisive issue that a compromise was reached at the Constitutional Convention to prevent legislators from addressing it for twenty years. The American leadership understood that society was not capable of agreeing on every issue and without compromise, they would jeopardize the stability of the country. Without the agreement, southern states might have chosen succession and thereby ruined the grand vision for the country. Additionally, even when the abolition of slavery was discussed, leaders agreed that it would be necessary to relocate the freed African-Americans, as white and black could not coexist in that society. Those making assumptions that Iraq is capable of immediately securing a homogeneous republic should reevaluate the situation. If splitting the country into provinces, with equal political representation, oil rights, etc., would mitigate the divisive militia violence and lead to a renewed democratic effort, this option should not be ruled out.

Militias simply reinforce and incite the inveterate beliefs of the Sunni and Shi'a alike. An environment where they are clashing not only ideologically, but also violently, has facilitated a growing variance between each group in their society. Iraq does not currently fit the requirement for a successful revolution in the area of unified public sentiment. To assume that American influence can ameliorate this deficiency would be highly speculative and unrealistic.


Ellis in Founding Brothers: "To secure the Revolution and stabilize its legacy on a national level required a dominant leader who focused the energies of the national government in one "singular character." Washington had committed himself to that cause, and in so doing, he had become the beneficiary of its political imperatives, effectively being cast in the role of a "republican king" who embodied national authority more potently and more visibly than any collective body like Congress could possibly convey."

Founding Brothers: "Throughout the first half of the 1790s, the closest approximation to a self-evident truth in American politics was George Washington. A legend in his own time, Americans had been describing Washington as "the Father of the Country" since 1776 - which is to say, before there even was a country."

In order for historical perspective and in an effort to continue my comparison to the American Revolution, I would like to look at George Washington's progression to the presidency. According to Wikipedia, Washington led the Continental Army to victory over Britain in the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783. Instead of installing himself as king of the newly independent nation, which is widely believed to have been attainable, he retired for a short time to his home at Mount Vernon. He returned from retirement to preside over the Constitution Convention in 1787. The founding fathers were drafting the Constitution in order to replace the weaker Articles of Confederation. Finally in 1789, fourteen years after he began leading the Continental Army, Washington became the first president of the United States. His commitment to our country and its success was grounded in the sacrifice of his own blood and an unrivalled vision for the newly formed republic. He took the helm of the youngest national government in the world and was required to collaborate with his fellow American leaders, not foreign powers, to fulfill its destiny. During this time, Washington was praised for his ability to remain independent and his influence rose above any political infighting. His unsolicited withdrawal from consideration for the presidential election of 1796 contributed to the formation of a less centralized national government and eliminated the possibility of America becoming a monarchy. Does a modern day revolution demand a leader of Washington's preeminence? If so, we should examine the current leader of the Iraqi government for any resemblance.

The leading politician in Iraq is the current Prime Minister Maliki. It goes without saying that Maliki has never been compared to George Washington. It also goes without saying that Maliki has not been afforded the same opportunity to develop the reputation, respect and aura of omnipotence that Washington wielded as the first political leader of the United States. However, despite these deficiencies, Maliki compounds these problems by failing to maintain personal and national independence from the sectarian militia groups.

In two recent articles from the CFR, Maliki and his relationship with militia/religious/political leaders is discussed. These reports provide more than sufficient evidence to question his competence and ability to lead and "focus the energies of the national government in one "singular character.'"

From the CFR: "Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has come under fire from U.S. officials for his refusal, or at least inability, to disband the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr's militia, known as the Madhi Army, is accused of carrying out a number of attacks against Sunni insurgents, coalition forces, and rival militias like the Badr Brigade. Maliki relies on Sadr, who controls a large bloc of parliamentary seats, for political support and can ill afford to alienate his religious and conservative base. Experts say the alliance between the two poses a serious threat to American efforts to hand over security duties to the four-month-old government and begin scaling back U.S. forces."

Additional evidence demonstrating a lack of independence and influence by Maliki in Iraqi politics from the CFR: "'The problem is that ultimately Maliki is completely dependent on Muqtada al-Sadr and Hakim (leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) and a variety of other groups out there who, quite frankly, have no interest in doing the right thing," says Kenneth M. Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, in an interview with As he grows increasingly isolated from his American benefactors, says Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, Maliki is reaching out more to clerics like Sadr and the Supreme Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to seek support in curbing the violence." (Sadr who ironically leads a militia group, the Madhi Army. Sistani who in September, according to Wikipedia, "announced that he had abandoned attempts to restrain his followers, admitting that there is nothing he can do to prevent the country from sliding towards civil war, and would in the future advise only on religious matters.)

Speaking of Maliki, the CFR continues to say "his temperament is not suited to strong decision making." This characterization hints at the balancing act he has perpetuated between the various other leaders in Iraq.

The article goes on to suggests that I should not have even bothered to compare him to Washington in the first place: "Most experts say Maliki lacks sufficient power to properly rein in Iraq's militias and reach a power-sharing agreement. "He doesn't even have control over his own branch or government, let alone the activities of al-Qaeda, the Kurdish militias, and Sunnis," Abbas Kadhim says, assistant professor of Islamic studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Some say it is not Maliki's personality but his post that is to blame. "Maliki is not a weak person per se but he is in charge of a very weak institution, the premiership, which does not really have any teeth," Kadhim says. Adds Nasr, CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow: "He faces the dilemma of a prime minister who relies on powerful factions and is hamstrung by a constitution that requires an overwhelming majority [of parliamentary] to vote and be able to do anything.'"

For the time being, I think we can assume that a singular, dominant political leader is no where to be seen on the Iraqi revolutionary horizon. America was blessed with a generation of men who were destined and capable of leading our nascent nation. Despite any action taken by the United States, Iraq maintains no such men.


My reason for writing this paper and primary concern is the lack of influence that America has over these two characteristics of a successful revolution. The Iraqi people have failed to demonstrate a unified initiative to transform their nation into a functioning republic. While the American military can attempt to enforce a general level of security within the country, our presence does not inherently bestow the United States’ democratic ideals upon the Iraqi population. It will take something other than troops and elections for this society to embrace a peaceful way of life.

The current rhetoric expressed by the Bush Administration uses phrases like “finishing the job” and “winning the war” to describe our purpose in Iraq. I find both of these phrases flawed due to the context in which they presented. Each one has been used to define not only our mission in Iraq, but also our strategy. I no longer find it acceptable to say we will win the war by finishing the job, or vice versa. "Finishing the job" infers that our current methods and resources will be effective if given enough time and effort. "Winning the war" construes there is a defined enemy capable of being defeated. It is unacceptable that the same tactics that were applied to the situation three years ago seem to remain in existence today. Our role has shifted to that of a mediator over an increasingly expanded civil war and it necessitates an original approach toward strategy. I am hopeful the Iraq Study Group and Dr. Robert Gates will provide this in collaboration with the current administration. For America’s own public sentiment regarding this conflict, it is imperative that our leaders produce a progressive strategy after clearly defining success in Iraq.

A senior military official recently said to me, “We must get back to the point where, when people saw the American flag on the trucks rolling into town, they knew everything was going to be alright.” Going forward, our position in the world will be strengthened by focusing our efforts on genuine humanitarian aid and a willingness to combat terrorism in a manner that is appropriate to vanquishing the illusive enemies of the United States.

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