May 18th, 2007

The occupation of Iraq: forty years in the wilderness?

I was at a talk recently given by one of my favorite Boston journalists and bloggers, Jules Crittenden. The conversation turned—as conversations often do these days—to the war and occupation in Iraq.

One of the themes that came up is the pace of change in a nation such as Iraq, previously subject to decades of bitter strife and vicious violence. This is where the realms of the political and the psychological intersect; generations brought up under a system such as was present in Iraq under Saddam are likely to hold different assumptions about the social contract, cooperation, and violence as a political tool than people brought up in a more civil and peaceful society tend to share.

That’s one of the reasons I always thought the postwar occupation of Iraq was going to have to be longer, and more directive, than those planning it seemed to think it would need to be. I had hoped they were correct, but it turns out they were not. Part of the reason, it must be said, is not anything about the Iraqi people themselves, but rather the intervention of their non-good neighbors Iran and Syria. But part of the reason is the understandably heavy and destructive psychological, political, and sociological legacy of the Saddam years.

I don’t believe, as some therapists do, that the mind is set virtually in stone very early in childhood. But I do believe that fundamental change is difficult, and that it is much easier to work with a younger generation to effect change in a society than it is to count on the older people.

The Palestinians know that full well, as do the makers of cigarettes. Still another example is the Biblical Passover story.

As the tale goes, after the Jews were freed from slavery they wandered in the wilderness (that’s the correct translation; it was not technically a desert) for forty years, one of those numbers in the Torah that is meant to stand for “a long time.”

Why? Why weren’t they rewarded by being shown the Promised Land instantly, or at least more quickly? The text says that they sometimes pined for the safety of their days of slavery in Egypt, and yearned after some of the good food that wasn’t available to them any more (manna from heaven apparently wasn’t quite as tasty as good old Egyptian melon).

The interpretation that I learned years ago, and that appeals to me most, is the following:

The [story] teaches us that there are no short-cuts to the Promised Land, and no instant transformation from bands of liberated slaves into responsible, self-governing nation; no generation of redemption (dor geulah) without a generation dying out in the desert (dor ha-midbar) preceding it.

So it’s not surprising that things are going slowly and laboriously in Iraq, and as I’ve written earlier, I never expected otherwise. Trying to create fundamental change in a broken society is one of the most difficult things to effect, and always has been, but as I wrote in the piece just linked, all the alternatives we faced (and still face) were worse.

It would be great if the Iraqi people had forty years in which to wander in the wilderness. But they don’t; the forces trying to destroy what they are trying to build are too powerful. But they certainly need and deserve more than a couple of months of our continued patience.

41 Responses to “The occupation of Iraq: forty years in the wilderness?”

  1. Bravo Romeo Delta Says:

    This reminds me a lot of comments about the growing pains of the New Russia. The general sentiment in many quarters is that it would take two decades for the Soviet Union to finally expire and for Russia to emerge. I don’t know how much, exactly, we like the new Russia, but the Russia that has emerged since 9/11 certainly isn’t the car wreck we knew during the 1990’s and certainly isn’t Brezhnev and May Day.

    I think Iraq’s transition may be quicker, simply because it is becoming evident that there are many in the west who simply don’t have the patience to let them grow on their own terms.

    I just hope that it doesn’t mean that Iraq is forced through this transition so quickly that it ends up being a weaker, less mature state in the long run.


  2. Fat Man Says:

    julescrittenden.comRussia Iraq and the Exodus connected.

  3. Ymarsakar Says:

    Biologically speaking, all of humanity is designed to safeguard the children, the next generation. Both the instincts and wiring of men and women are processed with this goal in mind. Our self-awareness and sentience, combined with our free will, the ability to choose to do something against our instincts and hard wiring, is both a boon and a curse. Because if you know of the Knowledge of Good and Evil… then knowing good is good, but knowing evil is bad, bad to balance the good.

    So why do some people choose to destroy the next generation for their own selfish purposes and self-aggrandizement, Neo? Is it the bad to the good undertaken via free will?

    Evolution has an easy answer for such folks. Extinction.

  4. TBinSTL Says:

    lastdaysministries.orgI had an old, barely remembered song rolling around in my cranium and you helped it gel…
    “So You Wanna Go Back To Egypt” heh…

  5. J.Hodges Says:

    anncoulter.comNo insult meant, o great Magrittess.

    Chairman Ann spoke about this subject here.

  6. Chuck Says:

    So why do some people choose to destroy the next generation for their own selfish purposes and self- aggrandizement, Neo?

    If the faithful are convinced, and many are who weld great power, that their savior is coming, whether that’s the Christian rapture, or the revelation the Mehdi or 12th imam, or (I’m not sure what the Jewish equivalent is – but I think there is one and in other faiths, too) – then, and here’s the horror of it all, the faithful really don’t need a next generation. And perhaps they may begin to think that little children of the present generation are a mistake, or tools from god to use at their disposal. Well, how horrible is this! This is what fanatical religionist give us, or is this what religion “period” gives us? It’s all written down in their books and plain see. I’m not an atheist (probably more of a deist) and I have respect for benign religious people. I hope this is at least part of the answer to your question, Ymar. This is all difficult to write and realize — and our only hope is a new Enlightenment, for us and the world.

  7. Ymarsakar Says:

    Religion cannot make men do evil and it cannot make men do good. Fate and destiny is still in mankind’s hands, regardless of what anyone else says.

    I would probably be classified as a Deist as well, although labels never really say much of anything unless they are specific and literal like fake liberal.

    It is a good answer, Chuck, in that if people believe in a sort of nihilistic fate, they will start looting and blowing stuff up. Those who don’t believe in a future, for themselves, also don’t become builders and fighters for human progress. The environmentalists, the Left, the Islamic Jihad, and cults like Jim Jones are more similar to each other than they will ever admit. Environmentalism, the new doomsday cult. Doom and gloom.

    In a sense, Iraq, is an offering of hope, to those who might have nothing to live for but plenty to die for. It’s a chance, for their redemption.

    Neo certainly became a therapist because she wanted to help people. Not dance in the streets as human beings died and suffered.

    In the end what separates Neo from fakes and con-artists, is the difference between motivation. Do you really want to help people’s lives get better?

  8. Promethea Says:

    Above posters and others should check out the link Neo gave to a Torah interpretation by a reform rabbi. The rabbi discusses some of the reasons why the “forty-year” period was needed for the Israelites to learn how to create a working society based on justice and a sense of community.

    That’s what I was hoping the American military was doing in Iraq–helping the Iraqis develop institutions that they could use to run a stable and democratic society based on the rule of law.

    I still have hope, but it’s hard to know what’s really going on there.

  9. alphie Says:


    We’ve spent $500+ billion on military operations and maybe $30 billion on civilian operations in Iraq.

    You get what you pay for, I guess.

  10. Oldflyer Says:

    Alphie, if we can stabilize the security situation the Iraqis have the resources (petro$) to cope with the rest. I know it is virtually a cliche to say it, but we who access information outside the MSM know that the infratstructure already is, in important measures, stronger than it was pre-war.

    Neo, nice post. My fear all along has been that the U.S. political and popular culture would not persevere to see this through. I have never understood why anyone thought that it would, or should, be a short process.

  11. Ymarsakar Says:

    Money does not create justice.

    If it did, Soros and Gore would have them in spades.

  12. alphie Says:


    “Stabilizing the security situation” is a long shot bet.

    Humanitarian aid is almost a sure thing.

    We squandered the mortgage money on a losing bet.

  13. Bravo Romeo Delta Says:


    What, really, does it matter to you? Your sole pleasures are peeing in someone else’s Wheaties, poking a stick in a hornet’s nest, and being uselessly contrarian. Have, at any point, you ever gone anywhere with any of the nonsense you’ve trotted out, or is your ambition to be the intellectual equivalent of the Taliban destroying the Bahmian Budhas?

  14. alphie Says:

    Wow, BRD.

    I’m just one person expressing his opinion here.

    If you still believe we can bomb countries into democracies, so be it.

    But I think most reasonable people would have started doubting that theory about three years ago.

    Can you at least admit that the half a trillion dollars we’ve spent on your experiment sure would have alleviated a lot of misery in the third world?

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    Alphie, if you actually understood military history, tactics, strategy, and logistics, that bit about bombing countries might make more sense. But you don’t, and that’s why you neither elaborate nor explain why your position is our position, when it clearly is not the position, only a strawman.

    There’s at least a chance at argument for people who understand the military expediency and necessity questions, there is no chance of argument for those who neither have an interest in it nor an interest in his opponent’s real positions, rather than the strawmen you draw for them.

  16. Cappy Says:

    The trolls must be getting old. No direct blame on Bush so far.

  17. Bravo Romeo Delta Says:


    I’ve seen you trot out the same nonsense on other sites at great length. I have, in past, gone to great lengths to try to engage you, draw information from you, give you credit where due, and otherwise act as if you were a person actually interested in discussion. To which, you’ve done nothing. Not. A. Thing. Nothing worth reading. Nothing, as far as I’ve ever seen, has justified the expenditure of energy on your part involved in applying your fingers to a keyboard to type the drivel you spout.

    So, at this point, I am genuinely curious as to what the heck it is that you see yourself doing or accomplishing? Why do you even bother? Do you have a point? You’ve already announced that you don’t have a worldview. But why you persist in being such an aggressively vapid sophist is entirely beyond me.

    What’s your point?


  18. alphie Says:


    No offense, but your idea of a “rational discussion” is that everyone has to first agree that:

    1. George Bush is the greatest president ever
    2. Iraq is a huge victory for the U.S.

    Then go from there.

    If you don’t agree that the $100 billion a year we’re spending in Iraq could instead be used to save millions of lives a year, how about coming up with some facts to back it up?

  19. Bravo Romeo Delta Says:


    Have I ever – ever – made either of the assertions you assign to me? Ever? Even once?

    Honestly, tell me – the internet tubes, search engines aplenty, and my words slathered from here to kingdom come for you to quote and this this is what you have?

    A hastily constructed strawman?

    This is what I get for trying to engage you?

    You never got around to answering the only question I put to you in my last comment, and THIS is what I get?

    You don’t even pretend to go anywhere near the question posed, opting instead to pull out a non-sequitor, go haring off on a tangent, decorated with a nice frosting of inanities and imaginary constructions. Is your world populated by straw-golems, who you go tilting off at like some demented Quixote? Is there some mysterious ideological Dulchinea that you’re pining after? Or are you some sort of stunted Sanchez, a squire to the delusional Quixote of Kos and the rest?

    DO you actually believe in anything – do you actually think anything – do you actually have an opinion that isn’t derived from a reflexive vapid sophistry devoid of of some sneering, condescending, point scoring, important in an otherworldly form of bizarre solitaire, that only you play?

    Have you any solutions that extend beyond carping and playing Monday-morning armchair General? Have you any proposal that doesn’t involve hanging some 50 million people out to dry? Is there anything there in your empty little brainpan aside from this masturbatory self-congratulatory claptrap that you seem to equate with discussion in your own dank little soul?


  20. alphie Says:


    My point is a simple one: If your goal is humanitarian, the money we’re spending in Iraq could be put to much better uses elsewhere in the world.

    I’m not sure what your problem is with me, but this is hardly the place to vent it. I have my own tiny blog where you are welcome to post whatever you want. I won’t edit your posts or ban you from posting there.

    Bring it on.

  21. Bravo Romeo Delta Says:


    My problem is that I have yet to see I discussion that doesn’t proceed along the following lines:

    Event Occurs:

    Alphie: What about A?

    BRD: Well, with A you have X and Y and so on.

    Alphie: Well, B has nothing to do with X.

    BRD: Well, see A goes with X and Y, but B is different and goes with 1 and 2. What do you think about A?

    Alphie: Well, you didn’t say anything about C when you mentioned B.

    BRD: It’s because we’re talking about A (and therefore X and Y) – you brought up B (and therefore 1 and 2). C is a different discussion.

    Alphie: A is not the same as C

    BRD: …

    Alphie: …

    et al.

    I’ve tried discussing with you from base principles, from three different ethical models, from different political schools of thought, and using historical templates as viewed through theoretical constructs for analysis of wars.

    And I get from you what?


    Answer a question once in a while in something that vaguely resembles a serious attempt at higher cognitive functions, and I’d be happy to do the same.

    But for the life of me, I can’t see why you even bother commenting if you add nothing and gain nothing from the exchange.


  22. sergey Says:

    Alphie, money themselves can not alleviate anything without proper social structure to use them. Trillions of dollars poured into failed states as humanitarian aid did nothing except aggravating corruption and stabilizing kleptocracy that should be destroyed before any meaningful help can be delivered. Marshall’s plan worked because it has political dimension and was implemented with military administration at place to control use of money. That is, effective occupation and colonization is necessary precondition of efficiency of humanitarian aid. “Oil for food” fraud is the best illustration of this situation: it did not help population, but it helped Saddam to stay at power.

    Neo, I agree that some changes in society’s norms and ideals usually can’t be done without generation change. Period of socialization in humans is short, and after this period only lesser corrections can be made for majority of adults. In my estimation, only one from a hundred can do this by his/her own initiative; Catholics prefer to name such changes “conversion”. Examples are Chesterton, Evelin Vaugh, T.S. Eliot, many ex-communists that became fanatical anti-communists. But sometimes conversions are epidemic. I was a witness to two such periods in Russia: the first in early 80s, when Jewish struggle for right to repatriation very quickly became a religious movement, and hundreds of Torah-studying groups emerged in Moscow and Leningrad; and at the late 90s, when Russians in vast numbers became Church-going. This religious awakening is still present, may be, even in enhanced tempo.
    A striking feature of such mass conversions is their complete unpredictability and possibly huge political consequences. Nobody expected that Judaism can resurrect after many decades of total decline, and that it will return in the most orthodox, mystic form of Hasidism; that spiritual leader of this movement will be Lubavitcher Rebbe from Brooklyn. Also, nobody expected that the leading group of these new faithful would be students of the most prestigious universities, like MSU, or that they can convert their parents, often famous scientists and academicians. But exactly this happened. Most of these young people soon repatriated to Israel and became there important group of voters, which can in immediate future radically change Israeli political landscape.

  23. neo-neocon Says:

    sergey: You always provide an interesting and unusual perspective on things.

    One of my major interests is change, both personal and political, and it’s true that sometimes change does seem to be accelerated and sometimes it seems to lag greatly. In general, change is very difficult, though, both for individuals and for groups. Education is certainly one key element, and it helps to get to people early in life. But you’re absolutely correct to say it can occur later in life. After all, look at me! My change wasn’t so much a fundamental one in my self as it was learning new things about history and the media. That led to my realization that my old point of view was based at least in part on distortions and misrepresentations by the media.

    But some changes are more fundamental–perhaps one might call them spiritual–such as the one you mention.

  24. The Unknown Blogger Says:

    BRD wrote:

    “Have I ever – ever – made either of the assertions you assign to me? Ever? Even once?”

    Welcome to the club, BRD. I get that kind of thing all the time.


    The Unknown Blogger

  25. stumbley Says:


    Re: money spent on “humanitarian” efforts and its relation to success…I have one word for you—Africa. Should be Switzerland by now, right?


  26. alphie Says:

    By that measure, so should Iraq, Stumbley.

  27. Ymarsakar Says:

    By that measure, so should Iraq, Stumbley.

    But that’s not his measure, that’s your measure, and it doesn’t work.

  28. Ymarsakar Says:

    Bravo Romeo Delta Says:
    May 20th, 2007 at 5:04 pm


    Have I ever – ever – made either of the assertions you assign to me? Ever? Even once?

    The club of what Unk, are you somehow on our side when disagreeing with Alphie? Imagine that.

    So, at this point, I am genuinely curious as to what the heck it is that you see yourself doing or accomplishing?

    Well B, what does the jihadists think they are accomplishing by blowing up women and children? Everybody has an internal logic of their own, you know, but it doesn’t mean it will make sense to the rest of us.

    This is what I get for trying to engage you?

    Diplomacy doesn’t work with or for them, and therefore that is why they always advocate diplomacy. And that has a logic all its own.

    That’s a nice recap BRD.

  29. stumbley Says:

    “By that measure, so should Iraq, Stumbley.”

    Exactly why it’s foolish for you and those like you to use money as a yardstick for success. Look at “Palestine”—how many billions have the EU and the US poured into that “country”—and to what result? Civil war?

    Look, either you accept the fact that democracy takes a long time to get started in a country that’s never experienced it (and one that’s a front in continuing proxy war), or you just don’t care about the Iraqi people, for all your posturing otherwise. If we were to “occupy” Darfur, for example, to attempt to do the same thing we’re doing in Iraq, we’d hear the same complaints from the Left we hear now about Iraq, were there to be American casualties. It’s not about “humanitarianism,” it’s about anti-Western and anti-American sympathies.

  30. Ymarsakar Says:

    Speaking about Anti Ameri, folks should check out David’s blog for the Euro perspective.


  31. alphie Says:

    Nobody complains when an aid group shows up with clean drinking water, mosquito nets and medicine, stumbley.

    It’s the soldiers they object to.

  32. Richard Aubrey Says:

    I don’t know who the “they” is, but a number of “them” will kill aid workers.
    Having the locals reasonably content and thanking the government is not accceptable.
    Having the locals deprived and knowing the government isn’t up to the task of relieving them, and that the local thugs are quite up to the task of killing them if they complain is the desired end state of some of “them”.
    Pardon me for telling you something you know but hope we didn’t.

  33. Bravo Romeo Delta Says:

    rawa.orginteraction.orgAlphie sez:

    “Nobody complains when an aid group shows up with clean drinking water, mosquito nets and medicine, stumbley.”

    Absolutely Not!

    Nope, Nope, Nope, Nope

  34. Bravo Romeo Delta Says:

    reliefweb.intFor something a little less “caveat wiki”:

    “An article in the British Medical Journal, Volume 321 (15 July 2000) entitled “Deaths among humanitarian workers” Shiek, Mani et al. does provide research and statistics on the topic based on information voluntarily submitted by UN aid agencies, NGOs and UN peacekeeping organizations between the years 1985 and 1998. This study reported 375 deaths among civilian (UN and NGO) aid workers and UN peacekeepers during the fourteen year period.”


  35. Richard Aubrey Says:

    alphie really thinks that people believe him and, moreover, have no way of checking on his assertions.
    I call that a serious blind spot.

  36. Anonymous Says:

    Good luck trying to post any anti-conservative views on a site such as this. I originally visited this blog to see if there really was any merit to a pro-bush view, or a conservative view at all.

    My discoveries to this point have not impressed me–one cannot simply try to cover up (or otherwise disguise) the Iraq disaster with a reference to the bible.

    My point, honestly, is not to start an argument–I am simply stating that the views expressed on this site have convinced me that there is no rational explanation for the Bush Administration’s mistakes.

    P.S.: I personally do not believe anyone in the Bush Administration has an evil inclination. They’re just not very good at what they do.

  37. Ymarsakar Says:

    Propagandists from the Left have a hard time now a days of cracking Neo’s spam blockage and comment filtering system.

    So since they can’t get the attention they need like the narcissist addicts that they are, they are reduced to talking amongst themselves about their injustice, ala Palestinian style.

    They’re just not very good at what they do.

    Not very good means bad. And bad means not good. And not good means… evil. Some of that cultural relativism is starting to rub off I see.

  38. Ymarsakar Says:

    # alphie Says:
    May 21st, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Nobody complains when an aid group shows up with clean drinking water, mosquito nets and medicine, stumbley.

    It’s the soldiers they object to.

    Some people are totally wack. I’m telling ya. They are.

  39. Ymarsakar Says:

    Ity is true, they don’t complain in the sense that they say “dont’ come here or else”.

    No, they just hack the heads off, that sends the message better than talking.

  40. stumbley Says:

    Oh, I agree with Anonymous, this administration has made many mistakes. The problem is, the alternative is much worse. We are truly in the position of choosing between bad and “Oh my G*d” awful.

  41. Bonnie Says:

    stumbly says:
    Exactly why it’s foolish for you and those like you to use money as a yardstick for success. Look at “Palestine”—how many billions have the EU and the US poured into that “country”—and to what result? Civil war?
    Washington DC doesn’t like the outcome of their election so they have been meddling around and so has Israel. They go in and stir hornets nests everywhere and make a mess of everything. They give money and weapons to corrupted folks who will do their bidding and leave the others hang to dry. Where have they been mucking around latley…Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine….and they leave these places to disintegrate into chaos. I don’t know what they do, only the fact that everywhere they stick thier greasy hands they leave a mess behind. Why, in Lebanon the children are still being murdered by cluster bombs given by the US to the Israelis last July. If anyone wants to really know who is the bad guy just do the math of the dead. Here is one example. 26 Israelis dead last July, mostly soldiers to 1000 and still counting in Lebanon, mostly civilians.

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