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The ouster of Saddam was supposed to usher in a new era of political freedom in Iraq, where the country and its people would be united behind a pro-American, democratically elected government. Iraq would be pluralistic, secular, and committed to women’s rights, and it would help spread political and economic freedom all over the Middle East.
Instead, open elections have made Iraq and Palestine safe not for liberal democracy but for nationalism and other atavistic and combative forms of identity—religious fundamentalism, ethnicity, and tribalism. In Iraq, the power of Kurdish separatists and Shiite clerics with ties to Iran has been consolidated while the Sunni minority has been “Al Qaedicized.” The rise of Hamas in Palestine has made it even less likely that Israelis and Palestinians will find peace anytime soon.
The history of “great power” intervention in the Mideast should have warned Bush and his advisers to proceed with caution and humility. The Greater Middle East that stretches from the Balkans to the borders of India is what political scientists would describe as the most “penetrated” area of the world—one where numerous tribal, religious, ethnic, national, regional, and extra-regional political players combine and divide in a shifting pattern of alliances. Chaos and instability have been the rule, not the exception, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Outsiders who want to play the Middle East game should expect to become part of this chaotic system, not vehicles to stabilize it.
In the old imperial movie, the British created Iraq. They put the Hashemites and the Saudis in power. They maintained influence in Egypt. They tried to end this or that cycle of violence between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land. We know how that movie ended. Resistance from regional players (including terrorism), challenges from global powers (including their U.S. ally), economic decline, and opposition at home led eventually to a long and painful British withdrawal from the region, culminating in the 1956 Suez debacle.
“Our armies do not come to your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators,” General F. S. Maud, the British commander who occupied Baghdad in 1917, pledged to the people of Mesopotamia back then. The U.S. said the same thing in 2003. The name of the movie is now The American Unilateral Moment in the Middle East. The actors are different, but the script is familiar: The Americans are trying to recreate Iraq, navigate between the Saudis and the Hashemites, preserve influence in Egypt, and bring an end to another cycle of Arab-Jewish violence.
The neoconservatives driving this imperial project have added a Wilsonian soundtrack to the old realpolitik script and raised the costs of the American production by suggesting that the United States has the power and the will to create an Iraqi federation of Arabs, both Sunni and Shiite, and Kurds based on liberal principles and trickle-down democracy, secularism, and pro-Americanism. Once we accomplish this, all the dominos of Middle Eastern instability, including rogue regimes and terrorist gangs and centuries of tribal and religious strife, will smoothly fall.
History has shown that outside powers may indeed tilt the Middle East kaleidoscope. But the many tiny pieces of colored glass promptly fall into a new configuration that looks very different from what the tilter expected. The ousting of Saddam Hussein from power, for example, is creating an environment in the Middle East in which nationalism, religious extremism, and tribal warfare are becoming the central driving forces. Consider the dilemmas the U.S. faces in finding the right balance in its relations with Israelis and Palestinians, and multiply that again and again, and you will get a sense of the enormous problems Washington will be facing in Iraq and its peripheries in the coming years.
Americans should recognize that their interests in the Middle East are not only not being advanced; they are actually harmed by pursuing a hegemonic policy there. Americans should regard the Islamic Green Crescent of Instability ranging from the Balkans to the borders of China with a sense of benign neglect coupled with effective security measures to contain the destructive effects of the political chaos and violence that will probably dominate that region for years to come. Constructive disengagement from the Middle East—“We’ll leave, and you’ll let us live”—needn’t be seen as a sign of weakness. Not if it’s bolstered by an active containment policy that makes it clear that those who dare harm us will be punished.
Those involved in the formulation and implementation of U.S. policy in the Middle East assume that people in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan think like them and want the same things they do. At a 2004 conference at the Pentagon, a U.S. Army colonel asked Thomas Barnett, a strategic thinker at the U.S. Naval War College who was trying to convince a group of military officers that American power could be used to democratize the Middle East, whether that assumption was justified. “Everyone wants a better future for their kids,” Barnett said. “I’ve been around a lot of people who don’t think like us,” the colonel replied.
In the Middle East, Americans are encountering a lot of people who don’t think like us and who see U.S. power as an obstacle to achieving their goals or as a tool to advance their own tribal, ethnic, religious, and national interests. We should—for our good, not theirs—remove that obstacle, reclaim that tool, and advance our own interests.
Six Facts About Iraq
Tom G. Palmer
I’ve been to Iraq three times since the fall of Baghdad, and I expect to be back soon. I’ve learned a few things there that I probably wouldn’t have learned had I not gone. Based on those lessons and the kind of information that’s available to anyone who takes the time to read, here are six theses about the future of Iraq.
1. Anyone who is certain about how things are going to turn out doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The number of variables is simply too great to foresee the outcome, even in broad terms. The political and military conflicts take place along religious fault lines (Sunni, Shiite, secular); ethnic fault lines (Arab, Kurd, Turkmen); tribal fault lines (too numerous to mention); the fault lines of personal ambition (Moqtada al Sadr vs. Abdel Aziz al Hakim for leadership of the religious Shiite bloc, for example); and regional fault lines (with oil-poor western Iraq pitted against relatively oil-rich northern and southern Iraq). The international situation complicates matters further, with Turkey ready to intervene (with at least tacit Iranian and Syrian support) if the Kurdish autonomous area declares its independence, and with Iranian agents spreading walking-around money throughout the country, but especially among the Shia factions in the south.
Further, as the recent bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra shows, the role of contingency and accident is enormous. A gap in security that allows in a suicide bomber or the direction of a single mortar shell could completely change the direction of events. For example, were the Sunni insurgents or Shiite rivals able to assassinate Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, it’s impossible to predict the consequences, other than to say that they likely would be horrific, since al-Sistani has been a prominent voice for restraint among the Shiites.