04/24/2003WASHINGTON -- Welcome to the New Iraq!
The war party within the Bush administration has said from the beginning that they were going to transform the entire map of the Middle East, and one has to hand it to them -- they certainly have.
Instead of the instant-coffee democracy the American policy-makers wished to encourage ("impose" is no longer a nice word), this week a million fanatic and newly empowered Shiites in the country marched to their ancient shrines of Najaf and Karbala, telling the Americans, "Thanks, but now get out!"
In place of Iowa-style voting, the Shiites were flagellating themselves, blood coursing down their heads, in a sacred ritual of the assassination of their prophet, Hussein, in 680 A.D. that was forbidden in Iraq for 30 years. In place of respectfully campaigning for one interchangeable American-style political party or another, these Shiites were calling for an Islamic state with Islamic law. And this long-oppressed majority accounts for more than 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people.
The culturally naive but avid civilian war party in the Pentagon has called its candidate for the Iraqi presidency, Ahmed Chalabi, the "George Washington of Iraq." But these men of such overbearing self-assurance are being forced to think the unthinkable -- that the George Washington of Iraq is more likely to have a name like the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Najaf, the Ayatollah Bakr al Hakim of Teheran or Muqtada al-Sadr of Iraq.
Generals at the Pentagon were quoted as saying that Iraq might take not the weeks estimated, nor the months, but perhaps as long as 25 years.
Yes, they surely did change the map of the Middle East. This week it looks as though they are changing it with eerie precision into exactly what we went in to prevent: a major revival of impassioned, anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism.
When I took my own little poll among some of the most reliable experts on that part of the world, most of them were deeply alarmed, but hardly surprised, at what they were seeing.
Karen Armstrong, a brilliant analyst of Islam in London, told me: "Remember, Shiism represents a constant battle against injustice and tyranny, and these Shiites in Iraq are already saying that George Bush is the 'new unjust ruler,' because apparently American troops already killed one Shiite cleric." Bulent Aliriza at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here said: "They've set up neighborhood committees, and traffic police, and councils. The Shia never really separated political power and devotion, because they believe in links to Ali, the father of Hussein, and the ayatollahs. Is it possible there could be an Islamic state? It looks as though they've already got one."
The comparisons between earlier, similar events and what is happening before our eyes -- televised from sacred Najaf and Karbala, two of the lesser-known cities of the world to most Americans -- are revealing.
Change only the names and dates, and historical analogies abound. In 1979, for instance, the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and overthrew the pro-Western and largely secular Shah of Iran in a frenzy of nationalist and anti-Western bloodletting. Khomeini then founded the first (and disastrous) Shiite state. But he did it by appearing to compromise with other forces, by building the same-style local committees and playing on the complexes of exclusion and martyrdom that abound in all the Shia.
Much the same thing happened in Lebanon. When the Israelis first invaded in 1978, the Shia community welcomed them as a power against the Palestinians and the Christians. But when the Israelis came again in 1982, the Shiites fought them in the streets. The fight almost always ends up being waged against the outsider.
Against this kind of fear-ridden past, the words from Washington sound untranslatable to people with such a history. Donald Rumsfeld calls it an "untidiness." Our reconstruction people have already planned a "new English class" for Iraqi students. Ultra-conservatives praise the councils being formed in the south, as if they were New England meeting halls instead of being closer to the deceptive Komitehs of the communists when they took over Russia. This moment in southern Iraq marks a similar twilight zone of history.
The major problem from the beginning of this war has been that the war party members, who are both cynical and utopian, have never been able to offer any substantive argument about how you get from winning a war to "democratizing" an alien country like Iraq -- institutionally, politically, psychologically.
Yet one thing could be done in the brief window we have. The United States could send a diplomatic personage with impeccable credentials to talk to the Shia leaders (if you can believe it, they have barely talked to any of them) and offer a "grand compromise" of some sort -- one that would respect the community's needs and offer American support as a bridge and control. We have a few polished and culturally aware diplomats who can do this -- retired ambassadors Robert Oakley, Richard Murphy and Edward Djerejian come immediately to mind.
But that would be admitting that democracy does not take root in countries because we proclaim it -- and that we still don't really know the reasons for this war.