In 415 B.C., the Athenians tried to tip the balance of the 45-year-old Peloponnesian War by invading the Sicilian city of Syracuse.
The city was protected by a large inner harbor, accessible through a narrow strait. With superior ships, the Athenians entered the calm inner waters and quickly laid siege to the city. They expected the population to capitulate within a few months.
Drawing on reserves from the countryside and alliances with other cities, however, the people of Syracuse showed more resistance than expected. Meanwhile, the Athenians began to face their own problems of their own extended supply lines. Reinforcements finally arrived from Athens but before anyone had noticed, the Syracusans had occupied the narrow entrance to the harbor and fortified it. As Thucydides recounted later, "Without realizing it, the besiegers had become the besieged."
The rest is history. Realizing too late that they were trapped, the Athenians could only fight their way out. Without waiting, the Syracusans attacked with their own ships, forcing the Athenians onto dry land. Marooned hundreds of miles from home, the entire expeditionary force was wiped out. The destruction marked the turning point of the Peloponnesian War. Within a decade, Spartan armies were camped on the Acropolis.
Now I'm not suggesting that Muslim militias will be camped on Capitol Hill any time soon. But there is a point to be made here. Our expeditionary force in Iraq is only one of a long, long line of distant forays in search of elusive goals, many of which have led to a disaster. Historians even have a name for it -- "Imperial Overreach."
WE ARE NOW OCCUPYING Iraq under the premise that the Iraqi people are yearning to create a peaceful, free-market democracy that will be a beacon of hope -- an example of order and stability in an otherwise turbulent and hostile Middle East.
This is an illusion. But that shouldn't surprise us. All wars begin with such illusions.
During the entire era of the Crusades, Western Europe lived with the illusion that it was seeking Prester John, a mythical Christian emperor on the other side of Araby who was waiting to link up with the Crusading armies. When we started the Spanish-American War, it was in part to rescue Evangelina Cisneros, a young woman who -- according to the Hearst newspapers, at least -- was being raped and tortured in a Havana jail. Napoleon thought he was liberating Russia when he arrived in Moscow. Some wars are worth pursuing, some not. We obviously shouldn't have quit in the middle of World War II or the American Civil War, but that doesn't mean every war is worth expanding. If we are really involved in a 100-year War on Terror -- which we probably are -- the question becomes: Do we want to expend everything we have right here and now?
The notion that we should get rid of Saddam Hussein was not a romantic illusion. Everyone except a few die-hard Baathists are happy to see him gone and the world is safer as a result.
The question now is whether we can seriously hope to create a democratic society in Iraq? Everything -- absolutely everything -- tells us that this is a romantic illusion.
The Weekly Standard, which has in many ways been leading the charge, ran a cover story just before the invasion, "Democracy in Iraq," arguing that the Shi'ites were a latent democratic constituency -- almost like some lost tribe of Americans -- waiting to be liberated from the yoke of Saddam Hussein. This is wrong on two counts. First, we are not a democracy in any simple sense -- as the last Presidential election should have convinced everyone. Instead, we are a "complex adaptive system" of checks and balances designed as much to slow the workings of democracy and protect minorities as to ensure that the majority gets its will. Outside a few highly educated elites, there is hardly any constituency in Iraq that appreciates this system. If anything, the Shi'ites are simply another majority waiting to impose their own yoke on the minority - the Sunni and probably the Kurds as well. These are the same Shi'ites, after all, who have run a theocracy in Iran for the last 25 years.
Nor is it at all certain that Iraqis are ready and willing to embrace a contemporary economy. Now that we're in there, neoconservatives who cheered us on to victory are suddenly blinking their eyes.
"The immensity of the task in Iraq is really breathtaking," writes Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, from Baghdad the other week:
Iraq is a large country, with the north as different from the south as Boston is from Birmingham. All at once, America and its allies are trying to modernize a primitive banking system, asses and exhume scores of mass graves, revive Iraqi agriculture, create a respectable press corps, recruit and train police and a new army, replace worn-out and antiquated infrastructure, establish regulatory agencies like an Iraqi version of the Federal Communication Commission [aren't we getting a little ambitious here?], start a public broadcasting system, and persuade Iraqis they're better off without heavily subsidized food, gasoline, and electricity. And that's just off the top of my head.
Gee, that's great Fred, but don't you think somebody should have thought about all this before we decided to occupy the entire country?
Instead of facing the uncomfortable realities, Barnes quickly falls back on press-briefing jargon:
The most encouraging trend in Iraq is solid economic growth, sure to be followed by torrid growth. Already GDP for 2004 is expected to reach $24 billion or $25 billion and joblessness has dipped below 30 percent, according to Bill Block, a Princeton-educated economist for the Treasury Department now working for the CPA. Bremer thinks unemployment may have already fallen to less than 20 percent."
Close your eyes and you're back in Saigon in 1966 listening to Robert McNamara rhapsodize about the future of Vietnam. All that's missing is the body counts.
AND NOW WE'VE GOT them as well. Perhaps it was unavoidable, but the simple act of closing down a newspaper has led to a Shi'ite uprising that is probably going to turn the whole country against us. It is almost inevitable. Now that the liberation is over, America is perceived as an occupying army -- which in fact we are. That can only attract people's hatred. It is the same as American ghettoes, where people kill each other every day almost without anyone noticing, but when the police finally kill someone it is remembered and resented for years to come.
Everyone from Donald Rumsfeld on down is insisting that this is only a "contest of wills." The way to deal with rebel mullah Moqdata Al-Sadr is to "arrest him and put him on trial." Do they think this is all happening in downtown Inglewood? Would it be possible to hold one day of trial in Iraq without somebody blowing up the courthouse? The constant illusion here is that we will do something and they will interpret it the way it is described in our newspapers.
"Yesterday's televised images of U.S. and coalition forces battling Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq give the appearance of a conflict spiraling out of control," writes the New York Daily News in a "News Analysis." "The truth is that Iraq is not falling apart and none of the groups behind the current mayhem are strong enough to dislodge American forces.…What is needed is a prompt, strong and measured response that demonstrates we will not be intimidated, but that we will not strike out blindly and create new enemies among the Iraqi people."
Unfortunately, on the very next page comes this report from Fallujah:
U.S. Forces called out a weapon rarely used against the Iraqi guerrillas: the AC-130 gunship, a war plane that circles over a target, laying down a devastating barrage of heavy machine gun fire. Fallujah hospital officials said they received 16 Iraqi dead and more than 20 wounded, including women and children."
How long before we resort to napalm?
All this is drearily familiar. The entire Vietnam War was fought on the premise that we were creating a little "island of freedom" in Southeast Asia, that we could surgically distinguish between guerrillas and civilians, that we were winning the "hearts and minds of the people," that the war could be "Vietnamized" by propping up a local constabulary (which is only hated all the more for collaborating with the enemy), and that putting in just another 100,000 to 250,000 troops would finish do the job.
Many conservatives still live with the fond illusion that if we had only "put everything we had" into Vietnam, we could have "won the war." What is this supposed to mean? Sure we could have leveled the country and everything in it, but "pacifying" it? That would have meant staying another 30 years.
The Vietnam War was fought to stop the spread of Communism to other Southeast Asian countries -- Thailand, Burma, Indonesia. We won that war. Nearly all of Southeast Asia -- and even China -- have now embraced market economies and given up trying to subvert each others' governments. Meanwhile "winning" Vietnam has remained the most backward nation in the region, precisely because they fought us and the French for so long. So who was the loser there?
Unfortunately, the analogy ends there. Southeast Asia proved capable of adopting a market economy -- and even rudimentary forms of democracy -- because it had the social infrastructure to support it. Moslem countries do not. As I shall explain in a moment, there is a fatal flaw in Islam that makes social peace virtually impossible.
SO WHAT ARE THE STAKES in Iraq right now? We have eliminated Saddam Hussein and his pathological regime. Fine and good. What happens next? Do we really think Iraq is going to adopt a Federal Communications Commission? Is it conceivable they can hold a successful election? Maybe it's time to go back and read one of Rudyard Kipling's most famous poems (I'll substitute the word "American" here for the other term, just so there won't be any confusion):
Take up the [American's] burden --
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard --
The cry of hosts ye humour
Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
"Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"
Islamic cultures are different. Except for Turkey, the most fragilely Westernized Islamic nation, there has never been a successful democracy in the Moslem world. Islamic cultures haven't even achieved reproductive equality, which is something that Western society has had since the Greeks.
What is "reproductive equality"? It revolves around that core value of Western culture -- monogamy -- as opposed to that old "heathen" custom, polygamy.
Islam is the only major world religion that sanctions polygamy. Mohammad allowed his followers to have four wives (the same number he had). About 12 percent of marriages in Moslem countries are polygamous. This is not as bad as East and West Africa, where successful men often take more than a hundred wives and where almost 30 percent of marriages can be polygamous. But the solid core of polygamy at the heart of Islamic culture is enough to produce its menacing social effects.
What are those effects? Do the math. Into every society is born approximately the same number of boys and girls. If they pair off in monogamous fashion, then each one will have a mate -- "a girl for every boy and a boy for every girl." In polygamous societies this does not occur. When successful men can accumulate more than one wife, that means some other man gets none. As a result, the unavoidable outcome is a hard-core residue of unattached men who have little or no prospect of achieving a family life.
The inevitable outcome is that competition among males becomes much more fierce and intense. Mating is an all-or-nothing proposition. Women become a scarce resource that must be hoarded and veiled and banned from public places so they cannot drift away through spontaneous romances. Men who are denied access to these hoarded women have only one option -- they can band together and try to fight their way into the seats of power.
AND THAT IS WHAT happens, endlessly. The entire history of Islam is a story of superfluous males going off into the desert (literally or figuratively) and deciding that the religion being practiced by the well-furnished elites of the cities is "not the true Islam." They then burst back upon the cities, violently attempting to overthrow the established authority. The Shi'ites, the Wahabis, the Assassins (yes, that's the origin of the word), the Muslim Brotherhood -- all are the fruit of this eternal warfare in Moslem societies between the "ins" and the "outs."
The only defense Islam has been able to construct for itself is to recruit these unattached males, inculcate them into the religion, and convince them that if they turn their violence and sexual frustrations outward¸ they will be rewarded with "70 virgins in heaven." This is how the ranks of martyrs and suicide bombers are created.
Martyrs and suicide bombers are men who have internalized the fundamental axiom of polygamous society -- that some men are expendable. When Muslim warriors proclaim, "We love death," they are not kidding. Golda Meir said famously that the Palestinian conflict would end when Arabs loved their own children more than they hated Israelis. That moment is not likely to arrive any time soon. In a polygamous Islamic society, some men's lives have very little intrinsic value. They are literally better off seeking death.
Monogamy, on the other hand, fulfills the proclamation that "All Men Are Created Equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Monogamy is the social contract -- albeit poorly understood and little appreciated -- that lies at the heart of the relatively peaceful societies of Europe and the Orient.
It is no accident that Islam has "bloody borders" with both these civilizations. We practice different social customs that give human life very different values. If the UN wanted to something really useful, it would declare reproductive equality a "human right" and ban polygamy throughout the world. Don't hold your breath.
In the meantime, do we really want to get in a spitting fight with these people? The military used to warn about "land war in Asia" -- getting into a war of attrition with overpopulated countries that didn't mind sacrificing millions and "had no respect for human life." Well Islamic societies are worse. They are constantly throwing up "suicide brigades" of young martyrs and fanatics who literally welcome death.
SO WHAT SHOULD WE do? Since we have accomplished out mission of removing Saddam Hussein, I suggest we pack up and leave. The world is now a safer place, there are no nuclear weapons in Iraq waiting to be pointed at Israel or America, and we can now regroup and gird ourselves for the next confrontation in Pakistan or Syria or wherever it may take place. Al Qaeda will be no better able to penetrate our defenses than it has been for the past two-and-a-half years. We are never going to "teach a lesson" to these people. They have already learned their lessons.
Or here's another possibility. Let's hold a national referendum on June 30th -- do you want us to stay or go? We'll abide by the results. If they want us to stay, we'll turn peacekeeping over to the Iraqis and continue humanitarian aid wherever possible. If they tell us to go, fine. Call it a democracy and the hell with it.
Will Iraq dissolve into chaos? Almost certainly. So who cares? Moslems were killing each other long before we arrived and they will continue killing each other long after we leave. Spending the next five years trying to impose our way of life on them will only turn things from bad to worse. Ann Coulter probably had the right idea when she said we should convert them to Christianity. Anything less is likely to fail. And remember, like the Athenians, we still have to get our troops out of there at some point.
But what about all those wonderful plans for a "little America" - a free press, a market economy, the FCC? Let's make a deal. If the Iraqis ever decide who's boss and ask us to come back in and help them build them a modern society, we'll be happy to do it.
Meanwhile, keep in mind the old admonition from that guy Kipling (who wasn't nearly as bad as people say):
Take up the [American's] burden --
The savage wars of peace --
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.
William Tucker is a columnist for the New York Sun.
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