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Thursday, June 19, 2014

David Brooks, "In the Land of Mass Graves": Can 300 Americans Make a Difference in Iraq?

In 480 BC, King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fought a valiant rear-guard action against the Persian army of Xerxes at Thermopylae. The Spartans fought valiantly and held off the Persians over the course of three days of battle, but ultimately all of the vastly outnumbered Greeks were overwhelmed. Obama is now sending 300 American troops into Iraq to fight a belated rear-guard action (to save Obama's ass from charges of cowardice and inaction), following the evacuation of American forces at the end of 2011. Will these 300 Americans be able to protect themselves or undertake any meaningful activity to slow the forces of ISIS?

In his latest New York Times op-ed entitled "In the Land of Mass Graves" (, David Brooks suggests that with regard to the "murderous sectarian violence" currently sweeping across Iraq, there are lessons to be learned from Rwanda, which is now showing signs of economic growth and intertribal tolerance. Brooks writes:

"Well, one possible lesson from Rwanda is that sectarian bloodletting is not a mass hysteria. It’s not an organic mania that sweeps over society like a plague. Instead, murderous sectarian violence is a top-down phenomenon produced within a specific political context.

People don’t usually go off decapitating each other or committing mass murder just because they hate people in another group. These things happen because soul-dead political leaders are in a struggle for power and use ethnic violence as a tool in that struggle.

If you can sideline those leaders or get the politics functioning, you can reduce the violence dramatically. These situations are gruesome, but they are not hopeless."

Murderous sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq is "a top-down phenomenon produced within a specific political context"? Rubbish. As explained by Dr. Mordechai Kedar in a compelling op-ed entitled "The Most Deadly Middle East Conflict is Shia vs.Sunni" (, the Shiite-Sunni struggle began in the year 632, when Mohammed died without naming a successor. Dr. Kedar observes:

"The murder of Hussein [grandson of Mohammad and leader of the Shiite sect] occurred in Southern Iraq, near the city of Karbala. He was murdered together with several dozens of his friends and family members, with only one baby surviving to continue the dynasty. The murder, which occurred in 680 - remains the defining event for 'Shi'at Ali', the 'sect of Ali', which is the source of the name 'Shia' or Shi'ite, the name of the stream of Islam that supports the leadership of Ali's descendants.

This family conflict has been ongoing for almost 1400 years. Until the year 1258, with the fall of Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid dynasty, all of the caliphs of Islam for over six hundred years were from Muhammad's tribe, the tribe of Quraysh, but they were never the descendants of Ali. This situation placed Shi'a in continual opposition to the ruling regime and they became a harshly persecuted group throughout the history of Islam."

In short, the fighting in Iraq represents the latest manifestation of a war of succession that has been waged for many centuries, and it is not a recent "top-down phenomenon."

Brooks's conclusion:

"The Iraqi state is much weaker than the Rwandan one, but, even so, this quick survey underlines the wisdom of the approach the Obama administration is gesturing toward in Iraq: Use limited military force to weaken those who are trying to bring in violence from outside; focus most on the political; round up a regional coalition that will pressure Iraqi elites in this post-election moment to form an inclusive new government.

Iraq is looking into an abyss, but the good news is that if you get the political elites behaving decently, you can avoid the worst. Grimly, there’s cause for hope."

Nonsense! Can 300 Americans make a difference? No, and I desperately pray that none of them will be captured.

Get the political elites in Iraq to behave "decently"? Brooks is ignoring  almost 1,400 years of savagery between Shiites and Sunnis.

"[T]here's cause for hope"? Not a chance, although we could ultimately witness the emergence of an independent Kurdistan.

Bottom line: Brooks is plainly better off speculating about the "structures of growth" (see: than writing twaddle about the Middle East.

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