Sunday, August 23, 2009

Do 'good fences make good neighbors'?

I read an interesting post in Dick & Sharon's LA Progressive today
Iraq: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors | The LA Progressive: "Iraq: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
by Ivan Eland posted on Thursday, 20 August 20090"
and being an English major, I couldn't resist commenting on Ivan's use (or possible misuse) of the line from Robert Frost' Mending Wall.  It's an aphorism often quoted, and seldom with real understanding.
Frost, like that 'something' in his poem, 'doesn't love a wall,'  and his poem portrays a man of very dim wit indeed, slaving to build a wall without conscious understanding of his own motivation.  Listen anew to Frost:
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. 30

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That wants it down!" ........ 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, 40

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."

... so I have to wonder if partitioning Iraq might be a terrible blunder by a well-meaning but ignorant coalition.  After all, it is a single nation, isn't it?  Like our States are United?  Before we build a wall we should consider what we're walling in or walling out, and to whom we are like to give offence (little spelling pun there, eh?)  Those folks all look and sound pretty much the same to me; 'why can't we all just get along?'
A quick Google search will yield some disturbing enlightenment, like this from Larry Everest :

Take three crucial dimensions of British actions: the creation of Iraq by combining three demographically distinct administrative units of the Ottoman Empire: Basra in the Shi'a south, Baghdad in the Sunni center, and Mosul in the Kurdish north, without regard to the aspirations of their peoples; the drawing of border?s to prevent Iraq from becoming a major power in the Persian Gulf; and the institutionalization of a pro-British ruling elite.

Consider Iraq's Kurds. They had been promised independence by the world's major powers after World War I. Yet their aspirations, like those of the Arabs, were betrayed and then suppressed for British imperial interests. The British wished to incorporate the former Ottoman Province of Mosul, an area populated mainly by Kurds and Turkomans, into the new state because without the oilfields of Mosul and Kirkuk, the new state of Iraq would not be economically viable.

Britain had no desire to see a strong state arise in the midst of the world's greatest oil fields, so when, in 1922, British High Commissioner for Iraq Sir Percy Cox delineated the borders between Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait with the stroke of his pen, he made sure to limit Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf: Kuwait, a much smaller country, was given a Gulf coastline line of 310 miles, while Iraq was given only 36 miles."

Everest gives what seems to me one of the clearer explanations of the tremendous divisions and passions fueling the strife in Iraq (and Afghanistan in somewhat similar fashion) and his account does not conflict with other accounts I have read.

I'm beginning to see more clearly why even the ministers of the 'nation' of Iraq itself have considered partitioning it into smaller ethnic / religious districts.  The West-Bank barrier, the Gaza Strip Barrier and the walls springing up along the US-Mexico border all stand in a long history of attempts by mankind to keep things sorted out and relatively peaceful.  When we are not getting along, we tire of the fighting and want to separate the combatants.  We don't really like walls, and a wall is not a real solution, but they may at least give us some time to work out something better.
Most of us like the idea of one day sharing peace and commerce uniformly across this globe, but we know that it is not going to happen any time soon.  In the meantime, we need to find ways for neighbors to co-exist with as little havoc as possible.  If this means delineating borders and separating peoples who have centuries of enmity to overcome, I can imagine it being a good thing.

Frost asks in lines 29 & 30, "Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. "  And yet we know that there are 'sacred cows' in Iraq over which much blood has been shed.  The Shi'a/Sunni schism, the partition of Kurdistan, and the long history of European meddling in the affairs of that region all militate toward a cooling-off period during which the final state of the region is carefully considered and settled.  Mr. Eland sounds hopeful that if we convince the fledgeling government now present in Iraq to let the de-facto geographoic segregation of the warring parties continue, and even formalize it, they will be able to manage this adjustment period with minimal foreign involvement.  Perhaps this is the time when the adversaries have become both tired enough of fighting and pragmatic enough to brook compromise.  Perhaps the interminable list of grievance and counter-grievance can be at least deferred if not totally resolved.  I hope with him that this time, carefully thought-out and constructed fences can help to make good neighbors out of peoples who have been at war for generations.