Bumbling into Baghdad.

America's adventure in Iraq has not benefited from our elites' persistent ignorance of the history and culture of the region.

Good policy can't flow from bad analysis, and we're swimming in it.

A good example is the common wisdom that the Iraqis have only a weak sense of national identity. According to that popular tune, Iraq was less a legitimate nation-state than a colonial carve-out of the Brits. Only Saddam Hussein's brutality kept the whole powder keg from blowing up.

Because of that, anything resembling "Iraqi nationalism" is simply a figment of your imagination (and never you mind the daily attacks on the occupation forces, that's "sectarian violence" as well).

While it's a widely accepted narrative, it's also crap.

William Pfaff made quick work of the idea in the International Herald Trib:


[Iraqi nationalism] is often dismissed, with the comment that Iraq "only became a nation in the 1920s." The implication is that several loose and ethnically incompatible bits of the old Ottoman Empire were stuck together by British imperial officials, and could easily be taken apart today by their American successors.
The modern Iraqi state is roughly coterminous with Mesopotamia, the oldest of the Middle Eastern civilizations. It emerged 3,000 to 5,000 years ago in the fertile land along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and remained a coherent cultural and political entity over the millennia, through the brilliant era of the Arab Abbasid caliphate and its successors in Baghdad, continuing through the Ottoman Empire that followed, lasting until 1918.
Iraq's 20th century resistance to foreign threats has typically been national in character, not separatist, beginning with the revolts against British occupation in the 1920s.

And Juan Cole added his two cents in Le Monde Diplo:
…despite being open to political and religious currents from neighbouring countries, the Iraqis have forged a profound national identity in the past century. Sectarian groupings in the country do not see their religious identities as superseding their national ones. […]
Observers who saw Iraqis as having a weak sense of national unity and as naturally divided into the Shia Arab south, the Sunni Arab centre and the Kurdish north, missed numerous signs of a strong sense of continued national identity.
Iraqi nationalism today is fueled by the American occupation. The political confusion and heavy-handedness of the occupation, and the toll of civilian victims, contribute to it, but fundamentally the current violent resistance to the United States is an inevitable reaction against foreign military occupation.
The myth that Iraqi nationalism doesn't exist is purposeful. As soon as it became clear that there were no "WMD" to be found, hawks in the West started saying that if we pulled out, the country would dissolve into civil war. That threat wasn't justified historically - Iraq didn't have a series of civil wars in its rearview mirror--so we got the 'weak country held together only by tyranny' meme to support the idea that the coalition forces couldn't declare victory and go home.

During the first year of the occupation, there were a slew of editorials in the regional press about how ridiculous it was to predict civil war, given the country's past.

But now, of course, those predictions have become true. Our bad policy choices have made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. We demanded an over-arching program of "de-Ba'athification" that left far too many Sunnis on the outside looking in, and we've run our program of "democratization" based on domestic benchmarks for consumption back home instead of on institution building and conflict resolution.

So now sectarian violence is a reality. But it's a reality of our own, rather than colonial Britain's, creation.
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