Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sunni-Shiite Battles Underscore Bush's Ignorance of Islam and the Middle East

I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves.
- Geroge W. Bush, Sept. 21, 2003, according to mutliple Internet sites, including this one

In the last few days, we have seen the same story, played out over and over again, in different parts of the region. Fatah and Hamas are at war in Gaza, even though they are both groups of Palestinian Muslims. In Lebanon, the Muslim government is fighting a bitter war with Islamists in Palestinian refugee camps. Also in Lebanon, pro-Syrian Muslims are killing anti-Syrian Muslims, with an anti-Syrian member of parliament killed in an explosion today. In Turkey, the Kurds have fought a long war against the government, with the Turkish Army operating in northern Iraq to root out Kurdish rebels. And, in Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are not just killing each other, but today Sunnis blew up (for the second time) a sacred Shiite mosque in Samarra.

It makes you wonder, how could we have walked into this intra-religion warfare in Iraq without seeing it coming? The answer is simple, and it goes back to the 2000 election, when then Governor of Texas George W. Bush was able to eke out an electoral college victory over then Vice President Al Gore to secure the White House, despite losing the national popular vote.

[For those of you pounding your desks screaming, "He didn't win! He didn't win! the Supreme Court, Katherine Harris and a bunch of senile old ladies in Palm Beach County stole the election!", I will only say that while you're probably right, the fact that Gore ran such a lousy campaign that let Bush get close enough to steal the election eliminates most of my sense of outrage. More on this later.]

The victory defied logic, in that Gore was the sitting Vice President in a popular administration that had romped to re-election four years earlier. Polls showed that Clinton would have won again if he was constitutionally permitted to run in 2000. And, while Gore had a resume that included a tour of duty in Vietnam, stretches in the House and Senate, and two terms as Vice President, Bush's CV was as weightless as Nicole Richie after a purge. He benefited from his father's influence to avoid Vietnam by being assigned to the National Guard (duty he could not even complete), knocked around with virtually no work experience until he bought the Texas Rangers baseball team, and finally served as Governor of Texas (only after being turned down in his quest to be the MLB Commissioner), a position that is largely ceremonial and lacks the clout enjoyed by the chief executives of other states.

Simply put, Gore ran an awful campaign. He distanced himself from the Clinton administration, failed to talk about the issues that meant the most to him (Mr. Global Warming barely mentioned the environment on the stump) and behaved like a crazy person during the debates (the moment he wandered over to Bush's side of the stage, his face fire engine red, as Bush spoke, you could feel the election slipping away from him).

The election, though, turned on the candidates' demeanors and images. Even though both candidates were children of powerful politicians and grew up in wealthy families, Gore allowed himself to be portrayed as a distant, intellectual wonk, while Bush, with his crooked smiles, folksy expressions and mangling of the English language, convinced voters that he was a regular guy, someone who could fit in well at the dinner table as the discussion turned to Jesus, guns and football.

Put another way, the American people made a conscious choice to value personality over intellect. There was no argument that Gore was smarter than Bush, but, contrary to basic logic, Gore's intellect was looked at as a negative. So, we were left with a leader that had virtually never left the United States, didn't read newspapers and looked to the bible more than any other book to determine his policies.

And it is that value judgment, made six-and-a-half years ago, that is being felt right now, especially in Iraq.

For Bush to start a war to overthrow the leader of another country without understanding that the nation's citizens, while all Muslims, were from three different cultures with centuries of hatred between them, is mind-boggling in its ignorance. I promise you that Al Gore knew about the history of the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq. What is shocking is that Bush didn't have to leave his family's compound in Kennebunkport to learn the lesson. After all, his father made the decision not to topple Saddam Hussein in 1991 because he said that the result would be chaos, since there was division in Iraq and no stable force waiting to take over the government.

So now we're caught in the middle of a civil war in Iraq, more than three thousand American soldiers have been killed, the military is so stretched that we cannot exert force anywhere else in the world (and, in some cases, in our own country, with the National Guard unable to help with natural disasters), and the world has lost respect for us after the atrocities of Abu Graib and the shame of Guantanamo Bay.

All because we chose personality over intelligence.

As I discussed in the first paragraph, all over the region, Muslims are killing each other. And yet, Bush believes that these same Sunnis and Shiites can kiss and make up and sit together in a government. Why? Because he wants them to? No, because he was not smart enough to see that the situation in Iraq (and throughout the Middle East) is far more complicated and nuanced than the simple idea that Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator. There is no way to know if Gore would have been a good president or not (it's hard to imagine he could be any worse than the disaster that is George W. Bush), but it is certain that he would have known that if Hussein was removed, the Sunnis and Shiites would not dance hand-in-hand through the streets of Baghdad.

We are in a no-win situation in Iraq because of the ignorance of the President. If it wasn't so tragic, it would be pretty entertaining.

Where do we go from here?

I would love to hear a Presidential candidate from either party stand up and say, "Here is the deal. It was a big mistake to overthrow Hussein, and the aftermath of the toppling of Hussein was poorly planned. But, the purpose of the war in Iraq was to topple Hussein. We accomplished that goal. We won. Hussein is gone. Now, we have hung around Iraq for five years, providing some measure of security for the Iraqi people to decide how they are going to handle their post-Hussein independence. It's up to them. They can come together, share the oil revenue, and move forward in peace and prosperity. Or, they can fight centuries-old tribal battles and kill each other. They have had five years to decide, and their time is up. We are not spending another dollar or American life on people that seemingly can't get their acts together. We gave them a chance. We're done. It's now up to them."

That wouldn't be "surrendering," like the Republicans like to term troop withdrawal dates. On the contrary, we can manipulate language to frame the debate, something the Republicans normally are experts at doing. We won, the ungrateful Iraqis lost. In fact, it would be great if the Republican propaganda masterminds would help with the "we won" campaign. It would be worth it, knowing that no more Americans would die for the ignorance of a President who didn't know a Kurd from a Shiite, and who probably thought that Sunnis were the funny-looking bald guys passing out flowers in the airport.