Thursday, May 13, 2004
I really do feel for Arab liberals like Fouad Ajami. They understand, correctly, that Iraq is their last stand. Even if America "succeeds" in Iraq by stabilizing the situation, bringing things to some kind of modus vivendi, avoiding outright civil war or a return of Saddam II, the prospects for radical, democratic change in the Arab world look bleak indeed. And, having just fought a war to bring said change, America's stomach for more of the same will be very limited.
But look: for all his poignant despair, for all that I want the same things for the Arab world that Ajami does, there's a hollowness at the heart of his complaint about the Bush Administration. To whit: he wants America to stand firm with the democrats of Iraq. But who are they? And where are they?
Look, Ajami is a lovely man by all report. He's also a Lebanese Shiite of a pro-Western and modernizing type. The reason he says all these things that we want to hear - and that he believes - is that he is utterly unrepresentative of the region. And he knows it.
Listen to him on Jordan: "President Bush apologizing to King Abdullah II of Jordan for the scandal at Abu Ghraib. Peculiar, that apology -- owed to Iraq's people, yet forwarded to Jordan. . .Jordan in particular had shown no great sensitivity toward Iraq's suffering. This was a dark spot in the record of a Hashemite dynasty otherwise known for its prudence and mercy. It was a concession that the Hashemite court gave to Jordan's "street," to the Palestinians in refugee camps and to the swanky districts of Amman alike."
Jordan is, as he knows, the closest thing the West has to a genuine ally in the Arab world. But the Hashemites know that their own people are far more hostile to the West than the ruling class is. It's not the regime who idolized Saddam; it's the people who did so.
He complains that the Jordanians showed no sympathy for Iraqi suffering. Partly, that's because of Pan-Arab anti-Western ideology. But it's also because the Palestinians of Jordan are Sunni Arabs pretty similar to the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. And guess what? These folks understood the Baathist ideology to be their ticket to the top. The Hashemites are a bunch of Bedouin foreigners from Arabia; no wonder the people are the ones who were enthusiastic for the strongman from Tikrit.
The absolute best-case scenario I can imagine at this point for Iraq is something akin to the old dispensation in Ajami's Lebanon: a delicately balanced power-sharing arrangement between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. I can just imagine - just - that we pull something like this off. Having handed Fallujah back to the Sunni strongmen who most want to drive us out of the country, we turn to the Shiite leadership, and say: look: we are eager to help you negotiate a power-sharing arrangement. But we are not going to hand you the keys to the country. You're going to have to compromise with the folks in Fallujah; we're not going to kill them all for you. Then to the Kurds: look: we want you to keep your high degree of autonomy that you've had for the past 10 years. But you're not getting an independent state. If you push us, we'll let you choose between fighting the Turks or the guys from Fallujah. Then to the Sunnis of the triangle: look: we're in no hurry to leave. 80% of the country would love us to massacre you all. Now is the time to make a deal. Right now, there's still a functioning central government, and we're assuring it a chunk of the oil revenue and we're assuring you effective veto power over changes to the power-sharing. This is the best deal you're going to get. Take it, before the offer is withdrawn. As the offers are taken, redeploy American troops: out of the major cities, to the borders, oil centers and ports. Make it clear that all we're interested in doing is protecting Iraq from foreign incursion while we train a multi-ethnic Iraqi army to handle that task. Let ethnic militias operate within their zones to keep the peace internally. Let the UN supervise elections.
Would that work? I doubt it. The Shiites are behaving very well lately, trying to talk down that hothead Sadr. Very good. They're probably spooked by Fallujah. But you don't know how long that'll last. Iraq doesn't have a real leadership. It's a free-for-all. If Afghanistan, we negotiated deals with a bunch of established warlords who'd been kicked out of their fiefs only a few years before by the Taliban, and had never stopped fighting them - and while that's worked out OK, it's also got its problems (like, we care a lot more about getting the al Qaeda guys than they do; all they really want is to keep the heroin flowing). The Kurds have an established leadership we can deal with, but the Shiites and Sunnis really don't. That's why we're propping up guys like Latif, hoping they'll fill that void.
Iraq has a history of instability going back millenia - to before Saddam, to before the Ottomans, to before Islam. It's partly a function of the geography of the place - a flat plain open to invasion from the mountainous regions to the east, north and west. And if the Arabs were inclined to take a good deal when offered, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have been settled long, long ago. I am too pessimistic to think that we can readily cobble together a power-sharing arrangement that all sides will see is in their enlightened self-interest. Enlightenment is in short supply in that neighborhood. What's needed is bravery in a difficult cause, and that's always in short supply under the best conditions.
And even if we got the deal on paper, how long would it last? People should remember what destroyed Lebanon, and what stabilized it again. It was destroyed by the combination of Yasser Arafat (foreign agitator) deliberately trying to create chaos, coupled with Christian over-reaching in their attempts to hold on to the reigns of power. The parallel to Iraq is easy to see; plug in al Qaeda for the PLO and any of Iraq's ethnic groups for the Christians. Then came the Israelis, who succeeded in kicking out Arafat but couldn't figure out how to get out of the country safely once he was gone. Again, the parallels are pretty clear. And finally, the Syrians took over the bulk of the country, which they substantially control to this day. The parallel to Iraq is Iran, which dominated Mesopotamia repeatedly over the milennia. Iraqi Shiites might prefer living under an American aegis today. But tomorrow, inviting in the Iranians might seem more promising.
I was pessimistic before the war about the prospects for Iraqi democracy because there is no Iraqi nation, and only nations can be democracies. But I never appreciated the depth of the downside potential to the war. Iraq is consuming our military, leaving us exposed on every other front and potential front. If we leave it in chaos, no one will ever trust us again, and our terrorist enemies will gain a huge victory. But how many of us can stay for how long?
James Webb asks in a recent speech: what are the conditions to exit? Not what's the "exit strategy" - that formulation suggests that exit is the objective, which begs the question of why you entered in the first place. What are the conditions to exit - what would justify exiting? And what is the strategy for achieving those conditions? Saying that "victory" is the condition for exit is saying nothing; what does "victory" look like?
At this point, victory means an established government, recognized by the international community and the Iraqi people generally, capable of defending Iraq's borders, and not engaged in the kind of internal genocide that Saddam specialized in. The absence of civil war or external war, and the absence of al Qaeda-affiliated elements in the country. That's defining victory well short of a democratic transformation of the Middle East. And I'm not sure it's achievable. We may be there a very long time.