A Poet’s Wisdom

Only Iraq Can Save Itself From Chaos

At a time when all manner of nonsense is being written about Iraq, wisdom comes from odd corners, including Rand Paul and a Palestinian poet.

Like many others in this country, I lie awake at night, thinking about the chaos in Iraq, as that sad nation rushes into a full-blown civil war, with consequences hard to predict. Should we intervene? Is there any intervention that would do more than help to rearrange the rubble?

Rand Paul is an odd duck, but he was right last week to suggest that we created a terrible vacuum in Iraq by arming the Shia without taking into account the delicate balance of competing claims for legitimacy in this complex region. Paul also said that ISIS—the militant group now seizing villages and cities, as well as oil wells, and marching toward Baghdad for a showdown with their Shia rivals—isn’t planning to send ballistic missiles to the United States. They probably have other things to think about.

But there is a lot of nonsense being written about Iraq just now. I was quite frightened when I read a recent piece in The Weekly Standard by William Kristol, one of the loudest cheerleaders behind Bush and Cheney before the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003; he asks with an audible sigh of frustration, “Are Americans today war-weary?” He acknowledges that, indeed, we are. But he issues a ringing call to arms, suggesting that it’s time to man up, to fight. We must get over this dovish thing, this lily-livered and feline urge to withdraw from battle.

This nonsense comes from the man who, before the war started, predicted that it “was going to be a two-month war.” Let’s try on well over a hundred months, and counting.

Kristol also said at the time that there was “almost no evidence” that the Shia “can’t get along with the Sunni.” In his blissful fantasy life, he imagined an era of peace in the Levant, with those liberated from Saddam tossing flowers at the feet of their liberators, electing leaders devoted to the tenets of Jeffersonian democracy, and opening their pipelines in the desert for Mobil-Exxon.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course. Let’s just say it didn’t work out so well, and now we’ve done what Rand Paul has suggested: created a vacuum by withdrawing from Iraq. Maybe it’s not so much a vacuum as a hydra with many heads, some of them proclaiming a Shiite version of Islam, others going for the Sunni version, and many others with allegiances mostly to their families and friends, in desperate need of peace.

It goes without saying that we should never have invaded Iraq in the first place. That remains one of the worst foreign policy decisions of all time, a blunder that has taken 5,000 or so American lives, more than 100,000 Iraqi casualties, and will ultimately cost American taxpayers billions of dollars, as we continue to pay for the health care of wounded veterans well into the middle of this century. And what did we get for this massive price? Dislodging Saddam had the unintended effect of emboldening fundamentalist Islamic fighters (not al Qaeda necessarily) in Egypt and Syria, with predictably unhappy results. Democracy has not spread throughout the Middle East, as many neocons predicted. Instead, we’ve got groups like ISIS and the Syrian insurgents, many of whom are quite terrifying, willing to sever limbs to establish Sharia law. In an odd twist, al Queda has actually rejected ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as being too extremist!

I’ve been to the Middle East half a dozen times in recent years, speaking at universities and libraries in Egypt and Jordan, Morocco, Israel and the West Bank. In Amman in the midst of the Iraq War, I had dinner one night with the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Darwish spoke to me urgently, saying that the origin of violence in the Middle East came from the Israeli-Palestinian divide. He said that only deep and real sympathy for both sides in this conflict would ever yield anything of value. I asked him about Iraq, and he shook his head sadly. Americans would leave in a few years, he said. After that, there would be chaos for a while. But the people of Iraq were strong-willed, a great people, and he trusted them to sort out their affairs. He took my wrist at the end of the evening and squeezed it tightly: “The true nature of the people will insist on itself, and it’s the only victory that matters.”

I wrote his remark down in my diary, and I’ve been thinking about it for some time, trying to understand it more fully. The other night, quite by chance, I came across some lines in Rumi, the 13th-century poet—a Sufi mystic from Persia. Here is that stanza, and it says it all:

There are many winds full of anger,And lust and greed. They move the rubbishAround, but the solid mountain of our true natureStays where it’s always been.

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His latest book is Jesus: The Human Face of God. Follow him at Twitter@JayParini.