A reader writes:
I agree that there is something extraordinary about the newness, intelligence, and inclusiveness with which Obama tackles some of the most divisive issues in American culture. (Alas, the issue of Iraq is not among those he tackles well).
But I have to say that I yelled out loud when I heard you say that occupying an Arab country for a long time would be a much bigger deal than occupying Japan or South Korea for a long time.
The Arabs wilt into the most ready surrender and subservience at the sight of .00001% of the firepower that the Japanese were able to withstand and keep fighting against even after the inevitably of defeat became utterly apparent to all. Japan had never in its 3,000 year history been conquered by anybody; there were plans for the distribution of 20 million bamboo spears to the population if the home islands should be invaded, plans put on the shelf only because of the destruction of two of their cities by nuclear weapons. By that point, the Japanese had bravely withstood carpet firebombings of their major cities for years -- bombings designed to kill as many civilians as possible (in total contrast to our operations in Iraq). And after we had killed literally millions of them -- still they would not surrender. Who could think that the ensuing occupation would be tolerated well? The only reason the Japanese obeyed the occupier was that we had made it plain that were ready and indeed happy to kill every last one of them if we were not obeyed. This was the price we exacted for the thousand or two we lost at Pearl Harbor. Appeasement, it turns out, has its virtues.
Your point also skips past a difference I saw with my own eyes in Iraq when it comes to Arab religiosity. Iraq is not Saudi Arabia. At least among the Sunnis, religious leaders have nothing like the power or prestige of tribal sheiks. These people are in fact quite secular when you get down to it, even among real traditionalists -- which highlights the very modern and revolutionary nature of the Salafist and Khomeneist movements, which are "classical" only in their raiment. Even traditional and pious Iraqis habitually make fun of the imams -- I heard jokes at their expense over lunch with tribal leaders more than once when I was there.
But most important of all, perhaps, is the distinction that mainstream Iraqis of all three communities make between foreign interference and the presence of Coalition forces. The text of the 15-point joint statement released by the Presidency Council on Saturday, which all major political blocs in Iraq underwrote (except the Sadrists) demanding that Sadr disarm his militia, had this amazing point in it (among other amazing points):
10. Condemning foreign interference in Iraqi affairs; and urging the international community to assist Iraq deter the neighbouring countries which are still showing interference into its internal affairs and which are working hard to destabilize Iraq and its security. [Sic in translation]
Anyone familiar with public discourse among Iraqis will see in this statement an unmistakable reference to Saudi Arabia and especially Iran, who are widely thought among Iraqis (and quite accurately) to be engaged in a proxy war of which Iraq has been the main collateral victim. (Although many Lebanese would vie for that trophy.) The plea to the "international community" to "deter" such interference is an obvious plea to support the Coalition. One of the Kurds who signed the statement explained its import starkly: Now Sadr's militia will have to disarm, "or face the Americans" as if that were the hammer of Allah Himself.
This makes sense to me. Last September, I walked past an old man in a village outside Ramadi, who was balancing his grand-child on his knee in front of a local establishment (a lot of onions in sacks I remember) and who waved to me and said in his simple English, "Thank you, Coalition." I can forward you the picture that he asked me to take on the spot. I couldn't hold back tears as I took it. It's beautiful.
We're giving them freedom from fear -- And that is something they've never had. It may not be worth the candle to many Americans, but I daresay we've earned a friend for a long time to come in that part of the world.