Monday, November 27, 2006

Iraq and Collective Guilt

The most recent issue of the New Republic is devoted to the Iraqi quagmire, and what to do next. A large number of contributors wrote short essays, expressing various points of view. Of course, there is no easy answer to this vexing question. The lessons we can learn relate to the past. In particular, the tendency of the Bush administration to take liberties with the truth and resort to the most cynical form of moral relativism is now bearing fruit, as Iraq has descended into a hellishly vicious civil war, and become the world's largest terrorist training camp. But what to do next? Who knows.

But of all the proposed solutions in TNR's forum, one really sticks in the gut. A contributor called James Kurth proposes to "crush the Sunnis". His plan is admirably simple: create a Kurdish state in the north, a Shia state in the south, and leave the Sunnis "subordinated so that they have no state at all". Yes, you read that correctly. Why? "The Sunni Arabs of Iraq have much to answer for...They compensated for their small base by employing especially brutal methods against their Kurdish and Shia neighbors." And the bottom line: "The losers, of course, would be the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who would have to pay for the sins of the cruel regimes that represented them in the past and the cruel insurgents whom they support today."

This is a stunningly outrageous proposal on so many different levels. Notice the not-so-implicit accusation of collective guilt: all Sunnis must be punished because Saddam (and other bad guys) were Sunnis. Collective guilt is a feature of really bad theology, used notoriously to justify genocide in the past. Even putting aside the inherent immorality, think of the practical implications. Surely the entire postwar Palestinian experience is a cogent argument against leaving an entire people without a state? Doesn't the treaty of Versailles present an apt lesson about the dangers of foreign policy based on retribution?

One final note: the Vatican--from Benedict XV during the World War I down through Benedict XVI during the Lebanon war-- were indeed making these arguments. But the war party not only refused to listen, but never seemed to learn the lessons of the past. It still refuses, with Rumsfeldian obstinacy.

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