Saturday, October 04, 2008

Visser on the Democrats again
During yesterday’s vice-presidential debate, Joe Biden repeated the basic thrust of Barack Obama’s comments on Iraq one week ago. According to Biden, “John McCain was saying the Sunnis and Shiites got along with each other without reading the history of the last 700 years.”

In other words, Barack Obama’s apparent assumption of an endless conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq was more than a slip of the tongue. Instead this seems to constitute a key ingredient in the Democratic narrative on Iraq: the country can be held together only by a strong ruler, otherwise Shiites and Sunnis would be at each other’s throats. Biden’s incarnation of the argument also served to clarify that Democrats quite literally are thinking of hundreds of years when they advance this contention; by his counting, the problems began in the early fourteenth century. That is certainly a slightly odd place to start, since Baghdad at the time was governed by Mongol rulers who themselves were rather difficult to label, sometimes they were pro-Shiite, sometimes pro-Sunni. At any rate, even if the exact number of centuries in this case may be attributable to a Biden idiosyncrasy, the main point is clear. Democrats do not think Shiites and Sunnis have any tradition of coexistence in Iraq.

This assumption overlooks the fact that there were in fact no more than three major episodes of large-scale sectarian violence in Iraq prior to the rise of the Baathists: in 1508, 1623 and 1801; in all cases violence was instigated by foreign invaders from Iran or the Arabian Peninsula. Still, many will dismiss this entire discussion. Why should we care about such historical details when there are bigger issues at stake such as the US economy? The reason these matters are important is that they relate to a more fundamental aspect of Democratic strategy in Iraq which has become clearly evident over the past weeks, despite apparent attempts by Joe Biden to avoid going into too much detail about his notorious “Iraq plans”. Democrats want a “settlement” in Iraq, otherwise they think that US forces will have to be sent back there again. (Biden told reporters a few weeks ago, “Without a political settlement, Tom, we’re going to be back there in another year or two or three or five.”)

A shift to the political sphere instead of the almost exclusive emphasis on the military found among many Republican strategists, now that seems perfectly plausible. But the danger with regard to Democratic strategy has to do with exactly how they want to perform this shift and what sort of knowledge about Iraq is going to inform it.

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