AN AMERICAN IN BAGHDAD….In an article written before the bombing of the al-Askari shrine, Lawrence Kaplan writes that Iraq is hopelessly divided between Shia and Sunni:

Sheik Humam Hamoudi, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shia and a leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq…likens the effect of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to “a child when he wants to walk and you ask him to play football.” Absent the Americans, he says, Baghdad would be transformed into another Beirut.

….Sheik Abdullah Al Yawar ? Hamoudi’s mirror image in the Sunni community ? echoes his concern….”If the Americans leave,” he warns, “there will be rivers of blood.” In their own way, then, both sheiks see the U.S. military presence for exactly what it has become: a buffer ? between Iraq’s sects and between relative order and complete mayhem.

It’s worth reading the whole piece, which contains lots of telling detail. Kaplan demonstrates pretty convincingly that Iraq is corrupt, divided, and hopelessly sectarian, and takes this as evidence that the United States needs to stay. And I suppose that’s the conventional way to look at it.

But it’s not what I got out of Kaplan’s description. Rather, his article persuaded me that the American presence is hopelessly ineffectual and increasingly pointless. Sure, it’s possible that our presence can prevent Iraq from descending into an immediate, full-scale civil war, but Kaplan’s own evidence seems to indicate that while we might be preventing immediate mayhem, we’re not changing any of the underlying dynamics of Iraqi society, even at the margins. If we stuck around for a decade and finally left in 2016, Iraq would be a bloodbath in 2017.

It may be that I’m just reading my own prejudices into Kaplan’s accounts, but I think there’s more to it than that. He pretty much convinced me that Baghdad really is Beirut, and that’s hardly a comforting comparison. Does anyone think the United States would have been well advised to spend a couple of decades occupying Lebanon? Would things have turned out any better there if we had?

At this point, it’s impossible to say if things might have turned out differently if George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had roused themselves to care about the messy and tedious business of nation building back in 2002. I don’t pretend to know the answer for sure. But go ahead and read Kaplan’s article and decide for yourself. It certainly didn’t have the inspirational effect on me that I think he was aiming for.