Sun Apr 22, 2007

Welcome ... to Fantasy Ireland

image Fantasy Ireland is a long-running cultural trope in America and a few other places (including, at times, Ireland itself). In the old days, it was a bucolic paradise, with a surfeit of pigs in the parlor and an absence of indoor plumbing, which Irish-Americans imagined they could visit in search of their roots. But its content has changed in recent years and it has popped up in various places this past week. First, Wil Wilkinson brought up Tom Friedman’s Fantasy Ireland, a neoliberal paradise of fast growth and low regulation, in conversation with Henry the other day.

Then I came across this piece by Johann Hari about Andrew Roberts, a historian who apparently has the ear of the President and Vice President. In Roberts’s Fantasy Ireland, if Hari is to be believed, internment was a successful policy pursued by the British Government in the Northern Ireland of 1971 instead of the ill-conceived, ham-fisted disaster that it was. In an exchange with Hari, Roberts says,

It is a mark of Hari’s sloppiness that he has accused me of telling President Bush that internment was pursued successfully in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, when in fact I said Southern Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s! Does Hari deny that Éamon De Valera’s internment policy in the Irish Civil War crushed the Irish Republican Army in the southern 26 counties?

Roberts seems confused. The Irish Civil War began in June of 1922 and ended in May of 1923. “Éamon De Valera’s internment policy in the Irish Civil War” was non-existent because De Valera was not in government at the time: W.T. Cosgrave was Chairman of the pro-treaty Provisional Free State government, and De Valera was the opposition (and Anti-Treaty!) leader. Roberts may be confusing the 77 IRA prisoners executed by the Free State government during the war (typically without trial, and in reprisal for IRA assassinations), with the internments of the later 1930s and early ‘40s, when De Valera was Taoiseach (Prime Minister). The IRA of the latter period was a poorly organized outfit with little public support. Internment broke down the organization further but this did not happen in a context where the country was at war with itself. Neither did the IRA’s futile bombing campaign in Britain at the time do anything other than further alienate public support in Ireland. In 1922-23 the Free State’s actions were undeniably brutal, but succeeded because a large majority of the population supported the legitimacy of the Free State in opposition to the IRA. So much for Roberts’s attack on Hari’s sloppiness.

If there is any analogy to be made between Ireland and Iraq on this point, it is to the early 1970s, when internment increased IRA support abroad and galvanized recruitment at home, with the policy itself and what Joe Lee called “the policital illiteracy of the army in implementing it” providing “a hitherto inconceivable surge of recruitment to the IRA.”

Finally, via Thoreau comes this report on General Petraeus’s current assessment of the surge, with Fantasy Ireland making another appearance:

BAGHDAD, April 21 — Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the ongoing increase of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in the country has achieved “modest progress” but has also met with setbacks such as a rise in devastating suicide bombings and other problems that leave uncertain whether his counterinsurgency strategy will ultimately succeed. … It is virtually impossible to eliminate the suicide bombings, the commanders acknowledged. “I don’t think you’re ever going to get rid of all the car bombs,” Petraeus said. “Iraq is going to have to learn — as did, say, Northern Ireland — to live with some degree of sensational attacks.” A more realistic goal, he said, but one that has eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces, is to prevent the bombers from causing “horrific damage.”

In fairness to Petraeus, it seems like he is at least trying to introduce a measure of reality into assessments of the situation in Baghdad. What about his analogy to Northern Ireland? It’s worth pointing out that there is still “some degree” of distance between the present situation in Iraq and that of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Even during the worst years, Northern Ireland typicially suffered fewer conflict-related deaths per year than Iraq presently suffers per week. Of course, Iraq is a much larger and more populous area than Northern Ireland. The point here is that those roughly hundred deaths a year over thirty years in the North was quite sufficient to make the conflict dominate the political life of the region and consume substantial amounts of time, energy and money in the two countries trying to deal with the problem.

Even if violence in Iraq dropped to the per capita equivalent of Northern Ireland, we should bear in mind that the spillover effects of a conflicts like this do not scale linearly. That is, the absolute number of attacks matters even if the per capita rate isn’t off the charts. For example, as Thoreau points out—and I’ve discussed before—were they to happen in the U.S., even a very small fraction of the “sensational attacks” Iraq is presently suffering would probably be enough to provoke an enormous political and legal backlash in the United States. (Much as the 9/11 attacks did: calculating per capita rates won’t help you explain the character and size of the U.S. response in that case.) A related point is that Iraqi insurgents are able to mount attacks of a much larger scale than anything ever perpetrated in Northern Ireland. In thirty five years of conflict in the North, only one bombing—Omagh, in 1998—killed more than twenty people. (Related bombings outside the North, in Dublin and Birmingham in 1974, killed 26 and 21 people, respectively.) Even if things improve in the direction Petraeus wants, the situation will still be pretty damn bad.