Iraq, Whose Model?

Bernard Lewis and grand design in the Middle East


On May 31, Princeton professor emeritus of Near Eastern history Bernard Lewis will be celebrating his 90th birthday, but the festivities have already begun. On May 1, he was honored at a luncheon in Philadelphia, where Vice President Dick Cheney displayed unnatural humility in calling him the "very ideal of the wise man." In the Wall Street Journal's opinion section, Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies published a warm tribute, calling Lewis "the oracle of this new age of the Americans in the lands of the Arab and Islamic worlds." And on his website, Israeli-American scholar Martin Kramer, a onetime student of Lewis', has been regularly linking to articles on the great man, under a box with changing graphics showing stages in his life.

The sense of excess is motivated by two things: first, that Lewis merits accolades for being among the most erudite specialists on the Middle East alive today; and that the man's reputation has unfairly suffered from systematic attack, frequently at the hands of devotees of the late Edward Said. In his 1978 book Orientalism, Said described Lewis as someone who, in his later works, was "aggressively ideological" in pursuit of a "project to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam." Lewis' use of knowledge, like that of previous Orientalists, Said argued, was part of a Western bid for domination of the East. That's why, in praising Lewis, his admirers are also taking a position on one of the many great divides in Middle Eastern studies today: that between those who believe the Middle East's maladies are mainly the result of Western intervention and imperialism; and those convinced the ills are often self-inflicted, so that a democratic West can bring benefits to the region.

Nowhere has this divide been more visible than in the debate over the war in Iraq, which Lewis supported and, in a way, provided intellectual justification for through his influence in the Bush administration. It so happens that in late April, as Lewis was donning his trunks to wade into ponds of appreciation, critics began highlighting statements of his that were quoted by Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough in the Washington Times. The critics' point was to depict Lewis as an insensitive old boor. Lewis said that the U.S. needed to "get tough" in Iraq, where it was close to "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." He added: "The best policy would be to deal with [the insurgency] by suppressing it," instead of pursuing "halfhearted" measures involving compromising with insurgents.

Three days later, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) and Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, published a much-talked-about op-ed piece in the New York Times. They called for something along the lines of a Bosnia approach to Iraq, through a division of the country into separate, largely autonomous Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni regions, with Baghdad to be turned into a federal zone. Their plan involves giving more oil revenues to the Sunnis to bring them into the normalization process, adopting measures to protect women and minorities, withdrawing U.S. troops by 2008 (except for a small force "to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest"), and organizing a regional conference to pledge respect for Iraq's borders and system.

While Biden's and Gelb's proposal had nothing to do with Lewis' legacy, it had everything to do with the single factor most coloring attitudes toward Lewis, namely a perception of how knowledge must interact with political power. The scheme to divide Iraq, like Lewis' earlier willingness to place his vast expertise at the service of the Bush administration so it could implement deep transformation in the Middle East, has revived accusations that the U.S. is redeploying hubris in its dealings with the Arabs.

This was well expressed by Gary Sick, a former National Security Council staffer during the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, on the private Gulf 2000 mailing list which Sick hosts. In a powerful critique of the Biden-Gelb plan, Sick wondered how the weak Iraqi central government outlined by Biden and Gelb could prevent sectarian fighting, defend women and minorities, ensure an even distribution of oil resources, terminate the pernicious role of militias, and avoid regional interference in Iraq's affairs. He concluded that it simply could not, while the autonomous regional governments would likely make matters worse in pursuing their parochial interests. It would be up to the U.S. to resolve and regulate sensitive issues, undermining a principal Biden and Gelb goal, namely offering the U.S. an effective means of exiting Iraq.

But it was in a final comment that Sick made his perspective most clear: "[A]ccepting partition as the solution to U.S. misfortunes in Iraq requires a leap of faith no less breathtaking than the original neo-con conviction that Iraq would be a cakewalk with adoring crowds to welcome us." Sick was not being doctrinaire in his dismissal of the Bush administration; he was just recalling that great aspirations often bump up against unforgiving reality.

Biden and Gelb are trying to set the agenda, but they were also reacting to a growing mood, stretching into the American officer corps, that the present strategy must be overhauled. While there is little agreement over whether Iraq is on the verge of civil war, there is a consensus across the board that the Bush administration has done little to improve its own lot. The paradoxical conclusion, therefore, is that the U.S., short of pulling out of Iraq without delay and allowing the situation there to collapse into mayhem, can only really stabilize the country and then leave by conjuring up a new grand strategy that may be as ambitious as the initial intervention. In other words, it may take, to cite Sick, a fresh breathtaking leap of faith—albeit based on a more realistic reading of the Iraqi reality than the one existing on the eve of the war in March 2003.

This realization will not unite the hopelessly split congregation of American Middle East experts. However, it does transfer the quarrel over the roots of Middle Eastern woes away from simplistic considerations of "neocolonialism" to new ground where grand visions that allow Western countries to ameliorate the destiny of the region become palatable. When even the most vociferous critics of American involvement in Iraq are mapping out colossal pie-cutting arrangements for the country on their weblogs—arrangements that would require vital, multi-layered American cooperation—then somewhere in there a statement is being made that U.S. power is essential for Iraqi harmony.

If everyone agrees on that point, then Lewis deserves an apology. He supported an invasion of Iraq and still does, even if he has criticized the Bush administration's tactics. However, he has not fallen to the level of the war's ideological foes who, while blaming American intentions in Iraq, now affirm that only the U.S. holds the key to averting the breakout of civil war there.