June 1, 2006  

What If Not an Amnesty?

The war in Iraq will not, as President Bush has recognized, end with a formal, World-War-II-style, surrender ceremony. (And if U.S. troops withdraw, it will end after we’re gone, when one coalition of Iraqis has killed enough of another.) So it’s almost certain that, as the insurgency loses steam and the Iraqi security services assert control, there will be Iraqis who simply tire of the fight and go home.

What to do with those who have fought in opposition to a new Iraq and in opposition to Americans? With those irregular or even unlawful combatants who have killed American soldiers? Who should decide what to do with them?

The brief firestorm over a suggestion by a member of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s government that such fighters might receive amnesty provided one of the few moments of unscripted drama during yesterday’s congressional debate over the war. It was a moot point in the sense that the Iraqis withdrew their suggestion, but it did serve to show that long-term thinking about Iraq is in short supply. Again: how do we imagine this war will come to an end?

While at first blush the idea that “terrorists who have killed Americans” must be “brought to justice” is hard to take issue with, it quickly becomes clear that it won’t be that simple. At one time or other, many Iraqis have and will have taken up arms against us and against their own countrymen. And the tactics of a Zarqawi – suicide bombs, beheadings, execution-style murders – are criminal in themselves, regardless of the cause.

But our own larger interest is in Iraqi reconciliation and enough unity to allow a fractured society simply to stay together, let alone heal itself politically. The one thing Iraqis need – and we need the Iraqis to develop – is some level of social trust. We can help provide a secure space where that can happen, but it has to happen on the Iraqis’ own terms. We cannot dictate the terms of the solution to them, unless we fully occupy the place as we did postwar Japan.

We’ve also badly botched our original effort to deal with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athists. We can’t afford to botch it again. And we especially owe the Maliki government a good deal of latitude to chart its own course; we’ve had to be patient simply to create a legitimate government in Baghdad – and it was painfully hard for the Iraqis themselves to come to this compromise. We need to stand by our man, even when he does things – or makes suggestions – that don’t play well in the U.S. Congress or on cable news talk shows.