Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The American Iraq

The American Iraq
Not the stuff of glory, but with a power and legitimacy all its own.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

So this government in Baghdad, fighting for its life, has not mastered even the grim science of the gallows, and has no knowledge of the "drop charts" used for hangings around the world. The Tikritis had been much better at this sort of thing. They had all the time in the world to perfect the skills and techniques of terror; they had done it against the background of relative indifference by outside powers. And they had the indulgence of the neighboring Arabs who gave their warrant to all that played out in Iraq under the Tikriti despotism.

Pity those men now hunkered down in Baghdad as they walk a fine, thin line between the yearning for justice and retribution in their land, and the scrutiny of the outside world. In the annals of Arab history, the Shia have been strangers to power, rebels and dissidents and men on the run hunted down by official power. Now the ground has shifted in Baghdad, and an Arab world steeped in tyranny reproaches a Shia-led government sitting atop a volcano. America's "regional diplomacy"--the name for our earnest but futile entreaties to the Arab rulers--will not reconcile the Arab regimes to the rise of the Shia outcasts.

In the fullness of time, the Arab order of power will have to come to a grudging acceptance of the order sure to take hold in Baghdad. This is a region that respects the prerogatives of power. It had once resisted the coming to power of the Alawites in Syria and then learned to accommodate that "heretical" minority sect and its conquest of Damascus; the Shia path in Iraq will follow that trajectory, and its justice is infinitely greater for it is the ascendancy of a demographic majority, through the weight of numbers and the ballot box. Of all Arab lands, Iraq is the most checkered, a frontier country at the crossroads of Arabia, Turkey and Persia. The Sunni Arabs in Iraq and beyond have never accepted the diversity of that land. The "Arabism" of the place was synonymous with their own primacy. Now a binational state in all but name (Arab and Kurdish) has come into being in Iraq, and the Shia underclass have stepped forth and staked a claim commensurate with the weight of their numbers. The Sunni Arabs have recoiled from this change in their fortunes. They have all but "Persianized" the Shia of Iraq, branded them as a fifth column of the state next door. Contemporary Islamism has sharpened this feud, for to the Sunni Islamists the Shia are heretics at odds with the forbidding strictures of the Islamists' fanatical variant of the faith.

Baghdad, a city founded by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansour in 762, was sacked by the Mongols in 1258: The invaders put it to the sword, and dumped its books and libraries in the Tigris. In the (Sunni) legend, a Shia minister by the name of Ibn Alqami had opened the gates of the city to the invaders. History never relents here. In a commentary that followed the execution of Saddam, a Palestinian commentator in the West Bank city of Jenin wrote in a pan-Arab daily in London that a descendant of Ibn Alqami (read Nouri al-Maliki) had put to death a descendant of al-Mansour.

These kinds of atavisms cannot be conciliated. The truth of Iraq will assert itself on the ground, but the age of Sunni monopoly on power has passed. One of Iraq's most respected scholar-diplomats, Hassan al-Alawi, has put the matter in stark terms. It is proper, he said, to speak of an "American Iraq" as one does of a Sumerian, a Babylonian, an Abbasid, an Ottoman, and then a British Iraq. Where Iraq in the age of the Pax Britannica rested on an "Anglo-Sunni" regime, this new Iraq, in the time of the Americans, is by the logic of things an American-Shia regime. The militant preachers railing against the fall of Baghdad to an alliance of the "American crusaders" and the "Shia heretics" are the bearers of a dark, but intensely felt conviction. We should not be apologetic, in Arab lands seething with bigotry and rage, about our expedition into Iraq. We shouldn't fall for Arab rulers who tell us that they would have had the ability to call off the furies had we had in place a "process" for resolving the claims of the Palestinians, and had we been able to "deliver" Israel. Those furies have a life of their own: In truth, they are aided and abetted by these same rulers in the hope of tranquilizing their own domains and buying off the embittered in their midst.

The Sunni Arab regimes, it has to be noted, are not of one mind on Iraq. Curiously, the Arab state most likely to make peace with the new reality of Iraq is Saudi Arabia; those most hostile are the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Palestinians. The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, has read the wind with accuracy; he has a Shia minority in his domain, in the oil-bearing lands of the Eastern Province, and he seems eager to cap the Wahhabi volcano in the Najdi heartland of his kingdom. There is pragmatism in that realm, and the place lives by its own coin. In contrast, Jordan and Egypt present the odd spectacle of countries heavily invested in an anti-Shia drive but with no Shia citizenry in their midst. The two regimes derive a good measure of their revenues from "strategic rent"-- the aid of foreign powers, the subsidies of Pax Americana to be exact. The threat of Shiism is a good, and lucrative, scarecrow for the rulers in Cairo and Amman. The promise of standing sentry in defense of the Sunni order is what these two regimes have to offer both America and the oil states.

The Palestinians, weaker in the scale of power and with troubles of their own, are in the end of little consequence to the strategic alignment in the region. But to the extent that their "street" and their pundits matter, they can be counted upon to view the rise of this new Iraq with reserve and outright hostility. For six decades, the Palestinians have had a virtual monopoly on pan-Arab sentiments, and the Arabic-speaking world indulged them. Iraq--its wounds, and the promise of its power and resources--has been a direct challenge to the Palestinians and to their conception of their place in the Arab scheme of things. A seam is stitched in Palestinian society between its Muslim majority and its minority Christian communities. Palestinians have little by way of exposure to the Shia. To the bitter end, the Palestinian street remained enamored of Saddam Hussein. Iraq's Shia majority has returned the favor, and has come to view the Palestinians and their cause with considerable suspicion.

For our part, the Pax Americana has not been at peace with the Shia genie it had called forth. We did not know the Shia to begin with; we saw them through the prism of our experience with Iran. Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut: This was the face of the new Shiism and we were spooked by it. And we were susceptible as well to the representations made to us by Arab rulers about the dangers of radical Shiism.

This was odd: We had been in the midst of a searing battle with al Qaeda and the Taliban, zealous Sunni movements, but we were still giving credence to the Arab warnings about the threat of Shiism. Nor were the Shia who would finally claim power in Iraq possessed of an appreciable understanding of American ways. Nouri al-Maliki speaks not a word of English; with years of exile in Syria behind him, he was at considerable disadvantage in dealing with the American presence in his country. He and the political class around him lacked the traffic with American diplomacy that had seasoned their counterparts in Cairo, Amman and the Arabian Peninsula. Without that intimacy, they had been given to premonitions that America could yet strike a bargain, at their expense, with the Sunni order of power.

We held aloft the banner of democracy, but in recent months our faith in democracy's possibilities in Iraq has appeared to erode, and this unnerves the Shia political class. President Bush's setback in the congressional elections gave the Iraqis legitimate cause for concern: Prime Minister Maliki himself wondered aloud whether this was the beginning of a general American retreat in Iraq. And there was that brief moment when it seemed as though the "realists" of the James Baker variety were in the midst of a restoration. The Shia (and the Kurds) needed no deep literacy in strategic matters to read the mind of Mr. Baker. His brand of realism was anathema to people who tell their history in metaphors of justice and betrayal. He was a known entity in Iraq; he had been the steward of American foreign policy when America walked away, in 1991, from the Kurdish and Shia rebellions it had called for. The political class in Baghdad couldn't have known that the Baker-Hamilton recommendations would die on the vine, and that President Bush would pay these recommendations scant attention. The American position was not transparent, and there were in the air rumors of retrenchment, and thus legitimate Iraqi fears that the American presence in Baghdad could be bartered away in some accommodation with the powers in Iraq's neighborhood.

These fears were to be allayed, but not put to rest, by the military "surge" that President Bush announced in recent days. More than a military endeavor, the surge can be seen as a declaration by the president that deliverance would be sought in Baghdad, and not in deals with the rogues (Syria and Iran) or with the Sunni Arab states. Prime Minister Maliki and the coalition that sustains his government could not know for certain if this was the proverbial "extra mile" before casting them adrift, or the sure promise that this president would stay with them for the remainder of his time in office.

But there can be no denying that with the surge the landscape has altered in Baghdad, and that Mr. Bush is invested in the Maliki government as never before. Mr. Maliki's predecessor--a man who belongs to the same political party and hails from the same traditional Shia political class--was forced out of office by an American veto and Mr. Maliki could be forgiven his suspicion that the Americans might try this again. It was known that he had never taken to the American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and that he fully understood that American officials would rather have other Shia contenders in his post--our old standby Ayad Allawi, the current vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi, both more worldly men at ease with American ways. So if this is America's extra mile in Baghdad, it has to be traversed with a political leader whose abilities and intentions have been repeatedly called into question by American officials.

This marriage of convenience may be the best that can be hoped for. Mr. Maliki will not do America's bidding, and we should be grateful for his displays of independence. He straddles the fence between the things we want him to do--disarming the militias, walking away from Moqtada al-Sadr--and the requirements of political survival. We have been waiting for the Iraqis to assume responsibility for their own affairs and we should not be disconcerted when they take us at our word. The messages put out by American officials now and then, that Mr. Maliki is living on borrowed time, and the administered leaks of warnings he has been given by President Bush, serve only to undermine whatever goals we seek in Baghdad.

With Saddam's execution, this prime minister has made himself a power in the vast Shia mainstream. Having removed Ibrahim Jaafari from office last year, the American regency is doomed to live with Mr. Maliki, for a policy that attempts to unseat him is sure to strip Iraqis of any sense that they are sovereign in their own country. He cannot be granted a blank check, but no small measure of America's success in Iraq now depends on him. If he is to fall, the deed must be an affair of the Iraqis, and of the broad Shia coalition to be exact. He may now be able to strike at renegade elements of the Mahdi Army, for that movement that once answered to Moqtada al-Sadr and carried his banners has splintered into gangs led by bandit warlords. In our concern with Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, we ought to understand the reluctance of Mr. Maliki's ruling coalition to take on the Shia militias. The terror inflicted on the Shia--an unrelenting affair of the last three years--makes it extremely difficult for a Shia-led government to disarm men who pose as defenders of a community still under brutal siege.

Boldness and despair may have come together to carry forward this new drive in Baghdad. Fear of failure often concentrates the mind, and President Bush's policy could yet find its target right as the skeptics have written off this whole project in Baghdad. Iraq has had its way of meting out disappointments at every turn, but the tide of events appears to be working in the president's favor.

There is a "balance of terror" today between the Sunni and Shia protagonists. More and more Sunni Arabs know that their old dominion is lost, and that they had better take the offer on the table--a share of the oil revenues, the promise that the constitution could be amended and reviewed, access to political power and spoils in return for reining in the violence and banishing the Arab jihadists. The Shia, too, may have to come to a time of reckoning. Their old tormentor was sent to the gallows, and a kinsman of theirs did the deed with the seal of the state. From the poor Shia slums of Baghdad, young avengers answered the Sunni campaign of terror with brutal terror of their own. The old notion--once dear to the Sunnis, and to the Shia a nagging source of fear and shame--that the Sunnis of Iraq were a martial race while the Shia were marked for lamentations and political quiescence has been broken for good.

The country has been fought over, and a verdict can already be discerned--rough balance between its erstwhile Sunni rulers and its Shia inheritors, and a special, autonomous life for the Kurds. Against all dire expectations, the all-important question of the distribution of oil wealth appears close to a resolution. The design for sharing the bounty is a "federal" one that strikes a balance between central government and regional claimants. The nightmare of the Sunni Arabs that they would be left stranded in regions of sand and gravel has been averted.

This is the country midwifed by American power. We were never meant to stay there long. Iraq will never approximate the expectations we projected onto it in more innocent times. But we should be able to grant it the gift of acceptance, and yet another dose of patience as it works its way out of its current torments. It is said that much of the war's nobility has drained out of it, and that we now fight not to lose, and to keep intact our larger position in the oil lands of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. This may not be the stuff of glory, but it has power and legitimacy all its own.

Mr. Ajami is a 2006 recipient of the Bradley Prize, teaches at Johns Hopkins and is author of "The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq" (Free Press, 2006).

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