Big Gulp of the Gulf


If Fouad Ajami really is optimistic about a postwar Iraq, he does a swell job of making it look like pessimism. Even he doesn't seem to believe the U.S. will have the patience or interest or capacity to remake Iraq after the war is over, nor to establish the MacArthur-style viceroyship he's proposing. His argument seems to boil down to "We failed in Egypt and we failed in Saudi Arabia, so let's give it a try again in Iraq."

That having been said, he has a feeling for the nuances of regional politics (maybe too much feeling, in fact; some of his nuances are so subtle it's unlikely even the people involved take much notice of them). One example is his brilliant dismantling of the notion that Iraq's Shi'a majority will inevitably seek to make the country over as Iran West:

To begin with, the bogeyman of a Shi`ite state emerging in Iraq as a satrapy of the Iranian clerical regime—the fear that paralyzed American power back in 1991—should be laid to rest. The Iranian Revolution's promise has clearly faded. The clerics there are in no position to export their "revolutionary happiness," for they would find no takers anywhere. Then, too, the Shi`a of Iraq must be seen for what they are: Arabs and Iraqis through and through.

Shi` ism was a phenomenon of Iraq centuries before it crossed to Iran, brought to that land by the Safavid rulers as a state religion in the opening years of the sixteenth century. But even long before that, it had been an Arab religious-political dispute. Moreover, the sacred geography of Shi`ism had brought Shi`a religious scholars and seminarians from India, Lebanon, and Persia to Iraq. Thanks to geographic proximity, the Persian component had been particularly strong: it had used the shrine cities of Iraq as sanctuary, checking the power of their own country's leaders in the ceaseless tug-of-war between rulers and religious scholars. But in their overwhelming numbers, the adherents of Shi`ism were drawn from Arab tribesmen. Arab nationalism, which came to Iraq with the Hashemite rulers and the officers and ideologues who rode their coattails, covered up Sunni dominion with a secular garb. As Iran was nearby, larger and more powerful, it became convenient for the ruling stratum of Iraq to disenfranchise its own Shi`a majority, claiming that they were a Persian fifth column of Iran.

This invented history took on a life of its own under Saddam Hussein. But before the Tikriti rulers terrorized the Shi`ite religious establishment and shattered its autonomy, a healthy measure of competition was always the norm between the Shi`ite seminaries of Iraq and those of Iran. Few Iraqi Shi`ites are eager to cede their own world to Iran's rulers. As the majority population of Iraq, they have a vested interest in its independence and statehood. Over the last three decades, they have endured the regime's brutality yet fought its war against Iran in 1980-88. Precious few among them dream of a Shi`a state.

Ajami was born in Lebanon to a Shi'a family with an Iranian background, and sometimes these insights start to sound like advocacy. But he's almost alone in understanding the law of unintended consequences, and, I think, totally without peer in his understanding of how many forms shackles can take—delusional hopes, loser friends, etc. Witness his contention that the Iraqi opposition may actually be better off because nobody else in the Arab world has ever supported them. Thanks to Alan Kornheiser for the link.