Two top U.S. generals said yesterday that the sectarian violence in Iraq is much worse than they had ever anticipated and could lead to civil war, arguing that improving the situation is now more a matter of Iraqi political will than of U.S. military strategy.

“The sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it,” Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war.” ~The Washington Post

Reading the senators’ questions for Abizaid and Pace, one is struck by how elementary their grasp of the situation seems to be.  Thus we have this gem from Lindsay Graham:

“There’s something more going on in Iraq at a deeper level . . . for this violence to be sustained so long and grow, not lessen…What do you think that something is?”

It may have something to do with three years of civil disorder,  regular bomb attacks and the formation of sectarian militias.  But those are just proximate causes.  It also probably has something to do with “tribe or religion or whatever” to which these people belong.  You know, they were those things that were supposed to matter less to Iraqis than sweet, sweet freedom, according to such wise men as Charles Krauthammer.  Everyone yearns for liberty, they tell us, which may or may not be true.  (It is also sometimes said that everyone wants to be rich, or everyone wants to be happy–but wanting and knowing how to become these things are so completely different that it is stunning that people think this is some sort of argument for this or that policy.)   What is true is that most people around the world put a lot more store by their relationships, their honour (however that is defined locally), their homes and their community than they do by somebody’s paper scheme for a better government or, even more worthless for most folks, the opportunity to mark a paper ballot that will change nothing and empower thieves.

A lot of fairly smart and not-so-smart people have pondered why many Islamic and Arab countries seem to have a much more difficult time fashioning the sorts of representative institutions and rule of law that obtain to varying degrees in most other kinds of countries, and they have come up with all kinds of reasons (Islam, lack of a large middle class, lack of economic development, etc.), but perhaps this has always been the wrong question. 

The question we might ask instead is why anyone thinks that there is something aberrant about people who prefer traditional loyalties to religion, clan and family over the dubious benefits of the nation-state, “rational” legislation, social atomisation and secular democratic politics.  We may find their religion deficient and see other problems in their political culture, but that is beside the point. 

At bottom the democratists are puzzled by the peoples of the Near East not because the latter are an aberration, a glitch in the universal progression towards global liberal democracy, but because they are far closer to the normal human experience found throughout recorded history.  It is an experience from which the democratists have been divorced for a fairly long time; it is a kind of experience they have grown up learning to look down on and ridicule as primitive or regressive.  To find people for whom the usual god-words (democracy, equality, rights, etc.) have no real meaning in the final analysis is a bit like landing on an entirely foreign shore to encounter people almost beyond your understanding.  How could they not want freedom more than anything, after all?  But for such people, avenging slights to honour, protecting hearth and home and fighting your kin’s ancestral or new enemies are the stuff of life; they are things that endure regardless of the regime, regardless of the laws on the books, and they count for a lot more than what any new Iraqi government or “free society” has to offer them.  Indeed, if they knew what “rational” legislation and “free society” entailed for their traditional loyalties and customs, they would probably stop killing their sectarian enemies and direct all their efforts to preventing these things from coming to their country.