The 12-foot-high, concrete ‘success’ in Iraq

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote the poet Robert Frost. But lately, that “something” hasn’t been the U.S. military. From Baghdad to Tall Afar, our military has been busily constructing walls between and around Iraqi neighborhoods. In Baghdad, 12-foot-high walls now separate Sunni and Shiite communities. Broken by narrow checkpoints, the walls turn Baghdad into dozens of replica Green Zones, dividing neighbor from neighbor and choking off normal commerce and communications.

The military isn’t building walls as a training exercise, of course. The walls are meant to make it harder for militias, insurgents and death squads to coordinate and reach their intended victims. With enough troops and enough concrete, the theory goes, you can keep the bad guys from operating effectively and gradually reduce the sectarian violence that has been tearing Iraq apart.

So far, it looks as if the wall-building strategy is paying dividends. Civilian deaths in Iraq are down significantly. And though 2007 has been the deadliest year of the war for U.S. troops, attacks on them have dropped sharply in recent months. After so many years of escalating violence, it’s almost eerie.

How do Iraqis feel about the walls springing up around their neighborhoods? Mixed, unsurprisingly: relieved by the lull in violence but dismayed by the cost. “Iraq is a prison, and now I live in my own little prison,” one Iraqi told the Christian Science Monitor. “We are not free; our neighborhood is barricaded,” complained another.


It’s against this backdrop that we should evaluate the success of the Bush administration’s troop “surge” in Iraq. Yes, violence is down. Some of that is because of the surge itself: More troops -- and smarter counterinsurgency tactics -- have indeed translated into a reduction in violence. But violence also is down because the process of “sectarian cleansing” is nearing completion: Sunnis have been driven out of Shiite neighborhoods, Shiites out of Sunni neighborhoods, the Kurds have retaken their own historic territories and smaller minorities have been shoved to the side.

Over the last year, sectarian cleansing has often occurred with reluctant American connivance. Our troops have watched helplessly as neighbors have driven out neighbors, and the walls that U.S. troops build help freeze the new sectarian boundaries in place. In Washington, the administration still speaks of a unified Iraqi central government and “national reconciliation,” but in practice, we’ve gained a respite from violence in part because we’ve given up on reconciliation and accepted sectarian segregation as the new status quo.

In other words, for all the early rhetoric about benchmarks, “political progress” and reconciliation, the truth is that most Washington insiders accept that we’re heading toward a different and much grimmer version of Iraq. As Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group comments: “Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias. The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the Green Zone.”

We used to say we wanted freedom and democracy. But these days, we’ll settle for more warlords, more segregation and fewer bodies.


Don’t get me wrong -- given our tragic early blunders in Iraq, and the diminishing likelihood that the Bush administration will launch a diplomatic surge to match the military surge, it may be that what we’re getting is, in fact, the best that we or the Iraqis can hope for: a divided state in which squabbling groups are kept physically apart until, someday, they can manage to simply coexist. Sectarian segregation isn’t ideal, but it beats genocide.

The wall-building impulse -- the impulse to separate groups that don’t get along -- is a time-honored one, as familiar to grade-school teachers as it is to counterinsurgency experts. But it has always had a darker side. Historically, the same impulse brought us Indian reservations and apartheid-driven Bantustans. It gave us the Berlin Wall. At its most paranoid and extreme, it led to the Warsaw Ghetto and concentration camps.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” insists Robert Frost’s smug neighbor in “Mending Walls,” a poem in which two men rebuild the broken stone wall that marks their rural property line. And maybe that’s right. Frost wrote “Mending Wall” in 1915, as nationalism and ethnic rivalries tore Europe apart. But meditating on the wall-building impulse, Frost also imagined, superimposed on his stolid New England neighbor, a darker image:

I see him there,

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.


He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Iraq today also still moves in darkness. We should be glad of the lull in violence, but if stability in Iraq depends on miles of concrete walls and an indefinite U.S. occupation, that’s not “victory.” It’s defeat.