Columnists > Voices

Desert miracle

It would take an "extremely outstanding or unusual event" for things to work out well in Iraq

Issue: "Bush: Holding the line," June 5, 2004

DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?" NOW THAT THE film Miracle is out on video, many more will hear announcer Al Michaels's famous question as the U.S. hockey team upset the heavily favored Soviets in 1980. I do believe in miracles, both in individual lives and in international events: Just look at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the world's unlikely record of 59 years now without a nuclear war. But I don't routinely expect them.

WORLD is highly decentralized-our seven editors live in six different cities-so we spend a lot of time talking on the phone and sending instant messages by computer. We ordinarily keep no records of such communication, but I saved one IM exchange with our international editor, Mindy Belz. It seemed to me that she had crystallized our Iraq position. Here's the crux of the Marvin and Mindy (not to be confused with Mork and Mindy) dialogue:

Marvin (in Austin): Late night question: Given the nature of Iraqi society and the nature of American society, how steep are the odds against the Iraq War ending well? To put it Christianly, how big a miracle do we need?

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Mindy (in Asheville): Big big miracle. The kind God loves to give and politicians hate to take. I don't know how to empower the good guys at this point. We've spent nearly a year empowering everyone over there, good and bad, and so we have a stew. To survive long term Iraq needs a federal system, but to survive until December they will need strong central govt.

Marvin: How about this definition of an international politics miracle: an event that would have seemed near-impossible only a short time before it happened, like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. OK, how will we know in December if we're seeing a miracle?

Mindy: The miracle would be if this mess in Fallujah served to unite Shiites and Kurds in common cause against Sunnis. That to me is a prescrip for the future. Shiites & Kurds hate each other traditionally but they have a lot in common. If they act together and learn to govern together they have a 2/3 majority, and can give each other autonomy in their own regions.

Marvin: That would be good.

Mindy: If the US would take care of bin Laden and patrol Iraq's borders then perhaps Sunni terror would begin to dry up and blow away. Now there's a miracle.

Marvin: Hey, it's midnight in Asheville. Go to sleep.

Mindy: But it's early in Baghdad, and my INC [Iraq National Council] contact is IMing me about threats his sister received today from Baathists. What a world ... no plumbing, no lights probably, but they have aol.

Marvin: Like the mountain climber who, dying on top of Everest, was talking to his wife on a cellphone.

Let's stop here, because I'd like to draw your attention to the last exchange before mulling over the import of the whole. Marshall McLuhan was hyping his thesis when a generation ago he argued that "the medium is the message," but it's certainly true that communication technology, like material advancement generally, changes everything and changes nothing. The struggles remain, but a wife can learn about her husband's death before it happens; Mindy can hear about danger as it develops; and the whole world can see the perversions of a few prison guards.

That technology makes it hard to ignore the brutality of war, and makes warfare asymmetrical: Open societies with high standards of justice are at a military disadvantage when facing brutes who torture and kill their opponents in secret. Abu Ghraib makes us lose either way: If more people get skittish about the war because of Abu Ghraib, we lose militarily. If we harden ourselves enough to say that war is war and degradation happens, we lose culturally.

How can we be as tough as we need to be, in this war against terrorism, without brutalizing ourselves? How can the Kurds, the Shiites, and the (non-Baathist, non-al-Qaeda) Sunnis overcome their age-old hostilities and build a peaceful democracy within a culture used to hatred? Seems highly unlikely: Iraq will probably work better if divided into three countries. But both getting along and separation -particularly given the concerns of Turkey and Saudi Arabia-seem extraordinarily difficult.

Maybe it's time to review the standard dictionary definition of miracle: 1: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs 2: an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment. Most Americans can hope for No. 2. Those who believe in the God of the Bible can also pray for No. 1. Is this any way to run a foreign policy? Maybe not, because by definition we should not routinely expect the extraordinary to happen. But now that we're in Iraq and cannot retreat without leaving terrorists stronger than ever, we need to pray very hard.


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