The Bush Admin's How-to Guide for Using Religious Warfare to Destroy Iraq

Here's a thought exercise.

Imagine if the greatest minds this country has to offer were assembled in a conference room and tasked with drawing up a post-invasion plan that would lead to sectarian bloodshed in a country like Iraq -- where different groups had long lived side-by-side, intermarried and thought of themselves first and foremost as Iraqis, rather than as Shiites and Sunnis.

Their first recommendation would probably be to create an environment in which conflict would be likely to flourish. It would be a good idea to go into the country with enough heavy weaponry and air power to defeat the national army, but too few troops to provide security on the ground after the fact. When anarchy reigns, people look inward -- to their family, neighborhood and, yes, their religious community -- and develop a distrust of members of other communities.

If some military experts -- say the Army Chief of Staff -- said that the planned force would be insufficient for providing day-to-day security, one would probably want to humiliate and undermine him publicly. Maybe announce his successor 14 months before the end of his term so that he appeared before the world as some batty lame duck without any support from his superiors.

Then, dismantle the entire government, instead of just the senior leadership, and fire all of the country's bureaucrats, police and security personnel -- even if there were a half-million of them. But don't disarm them -- those weapons will come in handy later.

It would be good to destroy the country's infrastructure, too -- people get pissed off when they lack reliable electricity, working sanitation facilities, clean running water and the like. Make sure not to get those things up and running within five years of the invasion, either. That's a challenge, especially if one wants shovel tens of billions of dollars of American tax-payers' cash into the reconstruction effort.

The best way to achieve that trick would be to create enormous umbrella contracts with dozens of projects within their scope -- far too many for any firm to complete without farming out projects to dozens of subcontractors -- and hand those out to well-connected firms -- firms with terrible track records if possible. Make those contracts "cost-plus" - guaranteeing a profit regardless of the quality of the work -- add in minimal oversight and you've created excellent incentives for graft, corruption and incompetence (this solution would likely come from an economist sitting on that prestigious panel).

While you're at it, it would probably be best to rapidly privatize the large state-run companies that guaranteed employment for a large portion of the population. Make sure to ship in tens of thousands of foreign guest workers from places like India and the Philippines, and, if possible, pass a binding law that prevented any new government from giving preference to domestic firms or firms that employ large numbers of locals in its contracting. Otherwise, with a huge influx of foreign investment coming in, it's unlikely that there'd still be an unemployment rate of between 25-50 percent five years after the invasion.

If a working group within the government -- say at the State Department -- recommended that a job program be created for the newly-unemployed -- including those heavily armed members of the former regime's security forces -- ignore it at all costs. Idle hands are, after all, the Devil's tools.

When chaos first breaks out, as it inevitably will, dismiss it with a sound-byte -- maybe just say, "democracy is messy."

Make sure to leave dozens of large weapons caches unguarded for easy looting -- they'll come in handy later.

With the stage set, now comes the tricky part. How would that group of August thinkers replace a strong national identity -- one of the strongest in the region -- with a fractured sectarianism?

It would require some sophistication -- the key task is taking a population that has had all the "ancient blood-hatreds" that one finds among American Lutherans and Methodists, and deepen that sense of sectarian identity to a very large degree.

That group of experts might come up with something like this: encourage the formation of political parties on sectarian rather than ideological lines. Discourage the formation of any nationalist parties that might draw support from all of the country's ethnic and sectarian groups. Then hold an election before establishing any neutral democratic institutions -- no credible electoral commission, no functioning judiciary. Do it while there's still chaos on the ground -- that way, it will be far too dangerous for the candidates to be listed by name and people will only be able to vote for sectarian-based "lists." What will be achieved is not an exercise in democracy, but an ethno-sectarian census. If done right, this will effectively replace the population's concrete political and economic interests with a sense that their futures are explicitly tied to their sectarian or ethnic group.

Before holding elections, it would be wise to pass a law effectively banning thousands of leading members of a powerful minority from the political process.

Then prop up a ruling coalition dominated by one sect. But not dominated by just anyone from that sect; make sure it's a government with a deeply unpopular agenda that includes partitioning the country into small regional quasi-states, privatizing its energy sector and accepting the long-term presence of foreign troops.

With a little luck, and the smart appointments of a few highly-sectarian individuals to key ministries -- hopefully individuals with a lot of blood on their hands -- the new government's security services will quickly be infused with sectarian militiamen loyal to the dominant group. If this is handled right, sectarian militias will also no doubt rise from within the minority's ranks to defend the community from the government which, by this time, will be seen as highly sectarian and not at all democratic.

When that nice, hot mix of fighting factions has been established, make sure to arm and fund all sides.

All of these efforts should keep things boiling nicely. But it needs to be accompanied by a media strategy; it would be best to repeat, over and over and over again, that everything going wrong in the target country is a result of sectarian strife, and sectarian strife alone.

Ideally, one would try to get the media to avoid reporting -- or even mentioning -- the significant political divides that one has helped establish, in the hope of creating a conventional wisdom that is so universal that it spreads to the far reaches of the global media.

With the American press hard at work on the story, that shouldn't be too difficult.

The final task is to keep a powerful nationalist movement from rising, especially one with a popular agenda. That's fairly simple - one would need to ignore indigenous reconciliation efforts, launch attacks and detain nationalists whenever possible and marginalize them when it's not. Try to exclude them from the political process as much as is practical. If a charismatic nationalist should emerge, always refer to him as a "radical," even if he consistently shows restraint (don't worry, reporters won't ask exactly what it is that makes him so radical).

If all this is done correctly, it will result in a great prize of propaganda. First, one can shift some blame. Even if, as the final authority, everything one touches turns to crap, one can simply blame it on the wild-eyed, primitive Muslims, with their inability to accept the gift of freedom.

Even better, one can then claim that an indefinite occupation is necessary because if one withdraws, genocide is likely to ensue. This'll work even if none of the conditions that experts say lead up to genocide are present in the country. It'll even work on many of the people who opposed the war in the first place and who now want to do the right thing for a country that their government decimated in the first place.

Now, here's the interesting thing about all of this. It turns out that this plan -- one that might have been cooked up by that hypothetical panel of brilliant thinkers -- is exactly what the United States has in fact done in Iraq since its unprovoked invasion of the country in 2003.

It might have been part of a strategy to "divide and conquer," but it also could have been achieved through a potent combination of cultural ignorance, ideological rigidity, rank incompetence and a touch of cronyism.

According to a "briefing for Western readers" found on the Iraqi newsblog, Gorilla's Guides, The U.S., seeking to create a compliant government in Baghdad ...


...searched for Iraqi political actors [who] would act as an adjunct to the occupation. Local secular political forces were marginalized by the American occupiers who did not want people who it deemed to be too nationalist in the Iraqi government ... Instead it sought out religious parties, groupings, and politicians who it believed would be less experienced and more compliant.
...Intensifying Iraqi resistance to the American occupation of Iraq strengthened the occupying forces' opposition to Iraqi nationalism in all its forms. The US occupiers aggressively promoted a view of Iraqi politics that focused entirely upon ethnic/religious questions and completely ignored the long tradition of secular nationalism.
Iraqis appear to grasp this dynamic quite well, even if consumers of the Western media don't. As the Washington Post reported in late 2006, "a strong majority of Iraqis want U.S.-led military forces to immediately withdraw from the country, saying their swift departure would make Iraq more secure and decrease sectarian violence, according to new polls by the State Department and independent researchers" (emphasis mine).

The U.S. is not the first to encourage sectarianism in Iraq - the Ottoman Empire, the British and even Saddam Hussein worked to "divide and rule," but with very limited success in each case. As the Gorilla's Guides briefing notes:
The British colonial policy of "divide et impera" by fostering sectarian and or ethnic bitterness was notably less successful in Iraq than elsewhere. Iraqis had then and have now, a strong sense of being specifically Iraqi, and referred to themselves as "Iraqis" and the country in which they lived as "Iraq."
Despite our best attempts, we don't appear to be doing much better than the Brits did in the last century. The Iraqi government that began with power divided along ethnic and sectarian lines has substantially realigned itself. What began as a largely Shiite ruling coalition has seen a number of nationalist Shiite parties defect, and has replaced them with compliant Sunni and Kurdish parties (the governing coalition now rests on two Shia, two Kurdish and one Sunni party, all of which support the United States' agenda for Iraq). At the same time, a bloc of nationalists -- also representing all of Iraq's major ethnic and sectarian groups -- has formed to oppose that agenda in the parliament. That nationalist bloc now has a majority of lawmakers in that body (this dynamic, which the New York Times and Washington Post will get around to reporting any day now, is what American politicians don't discuss when complaining about Iraq's "dysfunctional government").

And that divided identity also hasn't caught on with the Iraqi people as a whole. Sociologist Mansoor Moaddel, with the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR), was part of a team that conducted a series of surveys of Iraqi attitudes between 2004 and 2007, and concluded: "Iraqis have a strong sense of national identity that transcends religious and political lines." The survey found that Iraqi nationalism is on the rise, with twice as many Iraqis identifying themselves as such than the number who see themselves as Muslims first and foremost. "This is a much higher proportion than we found in other Middle Eastern capitals," said Moaddel. He concluded that it's a mistake to believe that the sectarian street-fighting of recent years "represents widespread sentiment among Iraqis as a whole... the Iraqi public is increasingly drawn toward a vision of a democratic, non-sectarian government for the country."

Now we have to set a timetable for an orderly withdrawal and leave the Iraqis free to create that "democratic, non-sectarian state" on their own terms.

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