Thursday, December 23, 2004

Whither Iraq

We have now passed the midpoint between our own elections here in the U.S. and the elections scheduled in Iraq for January 30, 2005. After securing a second mandate the Bush administration predictably launched offensive operations in the Sunni triangle that, though they cost lives of American soldiers, dislodged insurgents from their bases in and around Falluja. The strategic impact of these operations needed a space of time to assess. Tuesday's tragic attack in Mosul would seem to suggest that, howevermuch U.S. offensives have operationally retarded the Iraqi insurgency it remains very much a going concern.

At this juncture it seems appropriate to take stock of the situation in Iraq and reflect on where it might be heading. History is not a predictive science, and it is always presumptious of historians to claim possession of a crystal ball. But from a historian's perspective certain outcomes can be judged as more or less likely.

In this sense, two modular outcomes seem symetrically improbable. One is the future widely broadcast by the Bush administration and its surrogates, in which a robust and independent Iraqi state takes charge of the counterinsurgency with the use of its own armed forces. In this vision U.S. efforts at nation-building would meet the same kind of success achieved in 20th century Japan, South Korea, or West Germany. Even if such success were provisional as in the case of Korea, requiring a continued U.S. military presence of 30,000 or so soldiers, such an outcome would wildly outstrip the rather pessimistic expectations prevalent at this current moment.

Though this rosy future is not likely to mature, its converse- a "Saigon 1975" type cataclysm- must be judged equally improbable. Events in Iraq may well reach some new homeostasis in the next two years, but when that sea-shift does come it is most likely to be with a whimper rather than a bang. No images as dramatic as the refugee-laden choppers lifting off from the U.S. embassy in Saigon are likely to punctuate this current crisis.

The reason why both these outcomes may be discounted is the same. A robust and independent Iraqi state is unlikely because Iraqi society has little or no history of robust state institutions. Since its inception in 1920 Iraq has never achieved anything approaching true "nationhood." Its most successful experience of state unity was achieved through adherence to an absurdist ideology, reliance on atavistic forces of kinship and tribalism, and the grotesque application of brutality and terror. Coalition officials are betting that the legitimating power of democratic elections can fight the entropic tide of Iraqi history. The sad fact is that even a completely successfully and unimpeachably elected government would face almost insurmountable challenges in the regional, ethnic, sectarian, and economic divisions that tear at Iraqi society. In the current conditions the government which emerges from the January 30 election is likely to have only a provisional mandate, making the task of nation-building that much less likely to succeed.

Until a robust and legitimate Iraqi government is constituted there is no hope of creating an Iraqi army competent to manage the counterinsurgency, and since such a government will not likely emerge the counterinsurgency will remain dependent upon the U.S. military indefinitely. While this is true, it must also be noted that the insurgency itself is not likely to cohere into a force capable of producing a "Saigon 1975" type outcome, for reasons that are historically transparent. The same forces which hinder the formation of a state also hinder the creation of a "counter-state." The insurgency (or rather, any group among the diverse insurgencies) is not likely to produce a vision of a new Iraq coherent or compelling enough to serve as the matrix of a sophisticated and effective opposition. While the insurgency feeds on powerfully entropic forces capable of producing unlimited mayhem, it will probably never be able to force a scene quite as definitive as that signal moment in 1975.

Where then goes Iraq? If my assessment is correct, the current situation is not likely to change over the course of the next year. The presence of 150,000 U.S. troops will remain capable of staving off total anarchy, but will fail to end (or significantly slow) the insurgency. If I am reading the signals coming out of the Bush adminstration and the international diplomatic community correctly, a staged withdrawal of U.S. forces is likely to begin some time in late 2006. As U.S. forces are removed the state of insurgency will transition naturally to a state of civil war. Who might win such a civil conflict (if indeed there could be a long-term victor) I would not venture to predict. Conditions on the ground at the time will determine the long-term outcome of that new dynamic.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Victor Davis Hanson and the Polemics of "Will"

A dear friend sent around an essay by Victor Davis Hanson, a Stanford historian, as a general manifesto in support of the Bush regime. It begins:

The terrorists cannot win either a conventional or an asymmetrical war against the United States, should it bring its full array of assets to the struggle. Indeed, the Middle East, for all its revenue from inflated oil prices, has a smaller economy than Spain's. It has never won a war against a Western power. Arab nations lost in 1967, 1973, 1991, and 2004. Hence the fatwas must go back to millennia-old glories about Saladin, the siege of Cyprus, the Moors, and the Caliphate — about the last examples of Islamic victories over the West. The Middle East's only successes in 1956, or during the 1980s in Afghanistan, were due to either a United States' veto of British operations or the importation of American stinger missiles. The Iranian hostage crisis, Lebanon, and Mogadishu were Western retreats, not battlefield defeats — grievous, yes, but hardly arbiters of relative military advantage. The present terrorists are a nasty sort, but they are still not the SS or millions of Tojo's crack Japanese troops; nor do they have the organization or the skill of the Vietcong or NVA. These are losing hundreds of jihadists every week in Iraq and have failed to retake Afghanistan.

So why do the now-surrounded and desperate insurgents in Fallujah think they can prevail, especially after the rout of the Taliban in six weeks and the implementation of a consensual government in less than three years in Afghanistan?

~Victor Davis Hanson
"The Power of Will: Winning Still Matters"
National Review Online, October 29, 2004

One hopes for Hanson's sake that this diatribe was generated by politics, because as history it is made of pretty flimsy stuff. By moving seamlessly from "the terrorists" to "the Middle East" Hanson casts the current crisis as a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West, one in which the struggle with Al Qaeda and Operation Iraqi Freedom were a priori parts of an organic whole. Even if we grant Hanson his first principles his historical analysis makes no sense. If we further probe the logical basis of his arguments the absurdity of his claims becomes even more starkly apparent.

Allowing for the moment that the situation in the Middle East today may be viewed, a la Hanson, as a clash of civilizations, his rock-solid assessments of sure victory are built on a gossamer net of distortions and ellisions. Glaringly absent from the roll call of historical precedents deployed by Hanson is the Algerian War of Independence, fought from 1954-1962. Perhaps France does not pass muster for Hanson as a "Western power." Nonetheless this case not only completely subverts Hanson's totalizing historical thesis it is also (as has been pointed out to me by my colleague, Stuart Schaar) indisputably the closest analogue to the current U.S. dilemma.

The French were operating at a much shorter logistical distance from their home country, could count on the support of thousands of French settlers and Arab collaborators, could draw upon the experience of more than one-hundred years of colonial engagement, and were willing to fight for eight years and lose 18,000 men. Despite all this they suffered a complete strategic defeat in Algeria. The assymetry between French and Algerian forces was no different than that between those of the coalition and the Iraqi insurgency today, and the tactics employed on both sides in either conflict are identical. From the beginning of the industrial age until 1962 no Arab army could boast a victory like Port Arthur or Dienbienphu or Dunkirk. In the end, however, not only did Algeria win independence but even second-order French strategic goals such as control of Algerian oil production or legal guarantees of the rights of French settlers and pieds-noirs were abandoned.

The experience of Algeria makes the "lessons" Hanson would draw from history all the more strange. Later in the same piece he writes:

"In short, the more sophisticated, the more technological, the more hyped and televised war becomes, the more pundits and strategists warn us about "fourth-generational," "asymmetrical," "irregular," and "new dimensional" conflict, the more we simply forget the unchanging requisite of the will to win that trumps all other considerations. John Kerry has no more secret a plan than George Bush — because there is no secret way to pacify Iraq other than to kill the killers, humiliate their cause through defeat, and give the credit of the victory, along with material aid and the promise of autonomous freedom, to moderate Iraqis. Victory on the battlefield — not the mysterious diplomacy of "wise men," or German and French sanction, or Arab League support — alone will allow Iraq an opportunity for humane government."

Hanson's basic strategic principle, that "the will to win...trumps all other considerations," is so obvious as to be a perfect tautology. A truism that can be applied equally well to either the First Punic or Vietnam War is about as informative as the advice that "hunger is best fought with food" or "nothing cures poverty like money." If we take Hanson seriously for the moment, and apply his analysis to the comparison between Iraq and Algeria, his posture of supreme confidence becomes quite phantasmagoric.

Hanson's "will" in fact has two aspects. In the above quote only one is highlighted: the will to kill ("kill the killers"). Examining Algeria, it is difficult to fault the French on this score. The French commander in the final phases of the conflict, Jacques Massu, was mandated to use "any means necessary" to secure victory. Among the tactics he applied were the deployment of paramilitary terror squads and the internment of 2 million Algerians in concentration camps. The French government's own (conservative) estimates place the number of Algerian dead at 350,000.

Comparing coalition efforts in Iraq with the French campaign in Algeria one can not find them wanting on this score. A recent survey by Johns Hopkins University scholars places the Iraqi dead at 100,000- an impressive sum when one considers that Iraq has only about 2/3 the population of Algeria and the Iraq conflict has lasted just over one year thus far. Even if the previous estimate of 12,000 Iraqi dead is more accurate, the coalition is well on pace to kill the same number of Iraqis per capita as the French achieved over the span of an eight year conflict.

Hanson would no doubt decry this type of accounting as a manifestation of "postmodern Western guilt." How else, however, is one to empirically gauge this facet of Hanson's strategic "will?" Suspending all normative considerations of these figures their message is yet clear- despite the fact that the coalition in Iraq is already ahead of the pace of French lethality in Algeria Hanson would admit that there is yet much more killing to do. Hanson is undoubtedly correct that the coalition will eventually attack cities such as Falluja, and that when they do (as he writes elsewhere in the essay), "Fallujah [will] not stand as a mecca for the jihadists, but an Armageddon better to watch on television than die in." But Hanson is deluding both himself and his readers if the lesson he would draw from history is that easy victory only awaits our resolution to take this one last, small step. He might argue (though it must be stressed that he has not) that the lesson to draw from Algeria (and apply to Falluja) is that the French were not lethal enough, but he is demonstrably wrong that our difficulties in Iraq thus far can be put down to a failure to show a kind of resolve that Westerners have shown in the past.

The other aspect of Hanson's "will" which he would exhort Americans to embrace is the will to die. He laments that "those who endured Omaha and Utah or scaled Suribachi are long sleeping in their graves, and that a few thousand creeps in Fallujah scare us more than a quarter million in the Bulge did our parents." Hanson would have us believe that the moral courage of the current generation is not even a fraction of that of the "greatest generation" who defeated Hitler and Tojo. But a look at actual numbers tells a different story. Of the 16,111,566 servicemen and women who served in all theaters over four years of WWII 405,399 were killed. Of the 350,000 or so U.S. forces who have served in Iraq, in just over a year already 1100+ have died. Doing the math, one sees that the per capita casualty rate in Iraq is already about half that of WWII. So the question posed by Hanson, "why is U.S. resolve so weak," might well be supplemented by the question "are the objectives in Iraq worth half the rate of sacrifice in WWII?" It would be wrong to claim that the answers to either of these questions is clear or easy, but it would be equally wrong to leap to Hanson's conclusion that our generation lacks the moral courage to pay a cost to which our parents blithely acquiesced.

The tautological nature of Hanson's reasoning becomes especially clear when we pause to reflect upon his "will to die" principle. During the course of the Algerian war the French suffered no battlefield defeats, no Arab army was able to strategically invest any Algerian city or significant swath of Algerian territory. Had the French been willing to lose 28,000 rather than 18,000 men Algeria would undoubtedly have remained a French colony beyond 1962. If the French could have tolerated a yearly loss of 2,250 soldiers a year (assuming casualty rates did not rise after 1962) Algeria would remain a French colony today.

The point is that no honest exhortation to the American people to embrace sacrifice can be divorced from at least the attempt to assess what those sacrifices might be. Hanson may or may not be right when he states, "Al Qaeda and their appendages in Iraq do not know the requisite numbers of dead or wounded Americans necessary to break the resolve of the United States, but brag that with 1,000 fatalities they are nearing their goal." I do not think that Hanson is correct in his scorn for the American public, but even if he were America might perhaps be forgiven for cherishing its 1,100 sons and daughters and wives and husbands more than either Al Qaeda or Victor Davis Hanson. That aside, what is beyond doubt is that the coalition can NOT brag, with 100,000 fatalities, to be nearing the goal of breaking the resolve of the Iraqi insurgency. Hanson can rightly predict that U.S. forces will kill scores or hundreds of insurgents in Falluja (along with hundreds or thousands of Fallujan noncombatants), but he can not confidently augur that this will bring an end to the insurgency.

As Hanson himself admits, the insurgency does not depend on control of a city or the integrity of an army- it persists wherever anyone is willing to risk deploying a roadside bomb: "The improvised explosive device is a metaphor for our time. The killers cannot even make the artillery shells or the timers that detonate the bombs, but like parasites they use Western or Western-designed weaponry to harvest Westerners. They cannot blow up enough Abrams tanks or even Humvees to alter the battlefield landscape. But what they can accomplish is to maim or kill a few hundred Westerners in hopes that our own media will magnify the trauma and savagery of their attack — and do so often enough to make 300 million of us become exhausted with the entire 'mess.'" Hanson writes as if the fact that the insurgents may depend upon low-tech tactics somehow counts AGAINST them. This is of course absurd. The fact that the insurgents can not blow up Abrams tanks or Humvees might matter if these assets were of any aid in achieving the strategic goals of the coalition. Humvees and Abrams tanks and Blackhawk helicopters are useful in destroying buildings and other high-tech weapons. If only the insurgency depended upon such things these assets might make a difference in this conflict. As the situation stands a roadside bomb will serve just as well as an Abrams tank in the "kill or be killed" contest Hanson himself describes.

Here is where Hanson's blind reasoning brings him careening into a logical brick wall. Once you have reduced a conflict to a contest of will you must acknowledge that the same calcus applies on BOTH SIDES. Victory will not be decided only by the coalition's "will to kill/will to die," but also by that of the insurgency. The insurgency's will to kill can not be held in serious doubt- not only have they demonstated their ruthlessness with barbaric scenes of kidnapping and beheading but they may be credited with a significant portion of the 100,000 Iraqi fatalities suffered thus far. What then of their will to die? Hanson asks why the surrounded insurgents of Falluja feel they can prevail, but given his hard-bitten "will to kill/will to die" polemics it is either naive or disingenuous of him to discount the possibility that they do not. It might be as perfectly clear to the insurgents as it is to me and Victor Davis Hanson that they are doomed, and if that is the case then what inevitably follows is that THEY DO NOT CARE.

What might motivate them in this folly? Perhaps a belief that once they have died a fiery death the insurgency will not end. This is the unerring logic of the type of "will to kill/will to die" contest Hanson describes: kill the killers and they may be replaced by other killers. Hanson would no doubt argue that the Fallujan insurgents desire to be replaced by future combatants is a gamble. He would be right, but it is likewise undeniable that the coalition's hope that the fallen Fallujans will not be replaced is no less of a gamble. What can be said as a certainty is that none of the precedents to which Hanson refers are at all useful in predicting the trajectory of the Iraqi conflict beyond an assault on Falluja. "1967, 1973, 1991, and 2004"- none of these dates have any bearing on the Iraqi conflict moving forward. A much more significant date is January 28, 1957, the day from which General Jacques Massu began his systematically lethal counterinsurgency in the Battle of Algiers. The final outcome of those events do not bode well for coalition success in Falluja.

Among the ironies of Hanson's reasoning is that his own emphasis on will helps explain why his fallacious arguments hamper the coalition cause in Iraq. Nurturing national will is as much a function of managing expectations as anything else. The American people's current distress over the situation in Iraq arises principally from the fact that the Bush administration told them the sacrifices would be limited. Hanson now, on the basis of flimsy precedent, has the audacity to claim that a further measured commitment will secure victory. Will he blame the American people for their anger if the coming assault does not, discounting the soldiers who will fall in the assault, reduce the rate of coalition casualties in Iraq?

There is furthermore a less obvious but potentially more damaging consequence of fallacious reasoning like that of Hanson's. The reduction of the conflict in Iraq to a "clash of civilizations" may aid in lumping it together with the struggle against Al Qaeda, but it contributes nothing in the way of strategic clarity to either contest. Hanson writes as if the Islamist control of Falluja was foreordained, but this is of course absurd. People like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would love to have operated in Falluja prior to 2003, but if they had attempted to do so they would have been brutally surpressed by Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime- much more brutally, in fact, than anything they may expect from the U.S.-led coalition. The swift defeat of the Ba'athist regime in 2003 created a power vacuum, it is true, but it is false to assert that the filling of this vacuum by Al Qaeda's confederates was in any way an inevitability.

The initial coalition victory set a clock ticking, counting down the preciously short time in which the moderate Iraqi authority Hanson describes could be formed at least in embryo, giving the people of the Sunni triangle at least the incipient germs of a national project in which to invest their loyalties in the wake of Saddam's collapse. The cultural, economic, and institutional synthesis of this new Iraqi nationhood was admittedly a Herculean task from the outset, but it is the catastrophic failure of that project and NOT the intrinsic appeal of Islamist ideology that has created the conditions in Falluja and Ramadi. Politics, like nature, hates a vacuum. The humiliation of the Ba'athist regime understandably discredited its adherents among the residents of the Sunni triangle (though even this movement is evidently far from a dead letter). 9/11 gave Islamists like al-Zarqawi a basic grounding of credibility among people casting about for leadership, and the deteriorating conditions in the Sunni triangle have provided a golden opportunity for Al Qaeda to build upon that foundation.

Though Hanson writes very bombastically about the imperative to "kill the killers" and "humiliate their cause through defeat," he overlooks the fact that in the current conflict these two phenomena are almost wholly unrelated. Hanson treats the Iraqi insurgency as if it had only a military and not a political dimension, but this of course flies in the face of the strategic experience of the past century. Beyond the credibility it garners from 9/11, the Islamist movement in Iraq draws strategic strength from its admittedly extreme ideology. Mao demonstrated that victory is at least in part a product of the conditions one imposes upon the conflict- one prevails through fighting only the fight one can win. In this regard there is a kind of strategic genius in the ideological framework of the Islamist cause. In Al Qaeda's doctrine martyrdom is an end in itself, thus it is unclear how Hanson can claim that "killing the killers" will result in their being humiliated or defeated. No one can doubt what the immediate tactical outcome of the assault on Falluja will be, but neither can it be denied that the fiery death of all those RPG wielding terrorists ("martyrs") will be hailed by Islamist leaders as a great victory. Hanson may insist that young Arabs' natural aversion of death will overcome the appeal of martyrdom in the anti-coalition cause, but this is at best a gamble, and a very tenuous one. The coming assault on Falluja may slow or stop the Iraqi insurgency, but I would not gamble money on it. Even less would I gamble the will of the American people by feeding them expectations of an event the ultimate outcome of which is shrouded in doubt.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

American Perceptions of Zionism

Israel is one of the United States' closest allies in any part of the world, and is thus one of the foreign nations about which Americans are most familiar. It is ironic, in this regard, that Zionism, the movement and ideal that gave birth to Israel and continues to undergird its existence, is so little understood in the United States. Like any movement of historic importance, there is not one but many "Zionisms," as it has fragmented and metamorphed in moving between cultural, social, and geographic contexts. Even so, it is remarkable how little American images of Zionism (likewise diverse) resemble any of its real-world avatars.

In historical terms, Zionism was originally the product of a group of secular European intellectuals. The revival of a Jewish state could not perforce be a religious ideal in the rabbinic age, as no biblical models of Jewish statehood were truly amenable to modern politics- a Jewish state without a king, a temple or a priesthood was inconceivable to religiuos believers. Indeed, many orthodox Jews initially opposed any Zionist project in the pre-messianic age on principle as a form of heresy or apostasy.

Thus Zionism was originally a secular movement born among secular Jews, a fact that naturally raises the question "why a Jewish state disaggregated from Jewish religion?" The answer is that Zionism was one of a series of options developed by post-Enlightenment Jewish intellectuals in response to changes in European state and society. The opening of the ghetto and the admittance of Jews to the social and economic life of Europe created new problems and opportunities for European Jewry. One enticing possibility was assimilation- Jews could now opt to put aside religious garb, abjure adherence to restrictive dietary laws, and assume full citizenship in the new nation-states of Europe. Enlightenment ideals of humanism and tolerance promised a new era of full integration in a community structured according to "natural" rather than religious law. Zionism was born out of disenchantment with this promise, once it became evident that European society was pervaded by a new and pernicious form of secular anti-Semitism, a perception that was embodied for the foundational author of Zionist theory, Theodor Herzl, by the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894.

The fact that even a Jew who had divested himself of his "Jewish identity" sufficiently to serve in the French armed forces (an impossibility for anyone determined to live according to Jewish law) could be persecuted for his "Jewishness" persuaded Herzl and many others that assimilation was an impossibility. Jews would never be safe or able to live with true dignity in a nation in which they were not the majority. Herzl was thus moved to write his seminal work, The Jewish Nation (Der Judenstaat). It is crucial to underscore, however, that Herzl's ideal was not predicated on a reversal of cultural assimilation. The purpose of the "Jewish Nation" was not to allow "Jews to be Jews," but to give secular Jews like Herzl and Dreyfus a realm within which they could freely embody and act upon the modern ideals they had come to embrace without fear of anti-Semitic persecution.

This Zion did not bear any relationship with any image taken from the Torah or the Prophets, but was a new type of state conceptualized by thinkers whose principles owed more to Montesquieu, Hegel, Fichte, and Marx than to Moses, Isaiah, and Hillel. Though many voices have contributed to the concept of Zion over the course of the last 100+ years, the historical "mainstream" of Zionist thought has always been principally a strain of nationalist socialism. Herzl and his successors articulated the concept of the Jewish Nation in the same terms as non-Jewish intellectuals had constructed the emergent nation-states of 19th century Europe and America, as a transcendant ideal laying claim to the ultimate loyalties of the community that nevertheless was only tangentially related to purely "religious" values such as God or the Church. At the same time, socialism was perceived as a particularly progressive and amenable organizing principle of this new community, especially since most of its transplanted members would necessarily arrive in their new home effectively dispossessed. A common stake in the new land was the minimum inducement necessary to make the Zionist project at all practicable.

The fundamental principles of the new Zion were thus modernist, rationalist, and even atheistic in their initial conception. The progressive and antisectarian outlook of the early Zionist founders was reflected in their flexibility over the location of Zion. Any space on earth would be suitable to the national enterprise, demography, not geography was the definitive criterion of the Jewish Nation. Uganda and South America were two locations seriously pursued as possible alternatives.

In the end the situation of Zion in Palestine (and thus the metamorphosis of "Zion" into "Israel") was driven neither by the fundamental Enlightenment rationalism of the early Zionist founders or the intrinsically "Jewish" nature of Zionist ideology. Rather, Zionism itself fell into the orbit of the same antirationalist, Romantic forces that controlled the evolution of nationalisms throughout Europe and the Americas and that ironically had given rise to the same anti-Semitism the Zionist founders hoped to flee. Palestine inexorably became the pole star of the Zionist project because it was the one place to which the regionally and culturally diverse population of world Jewry had a common emotional affinity. While the ultimate realization of the Zionist dream would not have been possible without this shift, it has paved the way for the emergence of a religious Zionism that is wholly divorced from the secularist, socialist roots of the original movement. Because the modern Zion, despite its lack of resemblance to the "Israel" of Torah, is actually situated on biblical terrain (a condition deepened by the occupation of "Judea and Samaria," or the West Bank, in 1967), it has been embraced by some modern orthodox as the stage for a religious prophetic drama.

Americans looking at Israel are rarely able to distinguish between secular and religious Zionism. Because "Israel" is intrinsic to the sacred geography of most Americans they tend to assume that the Israeli nation is religiously constituted and that it embodies a sectarian mission. Even American Jews often fall into this misperception, believing that all Israelis naturally desire that the territorial boundaries of their nation conform to those of Solomon's domain. The foundational Zionist mission, to serve as a bulwark against modern secular anti-Semitism, does not require Israel to have specific or non-negotiable boundaries (indeed, it would have accomodated the placement of Zion in Uganda). Despite this fact most Americans assume that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is motivated by concerns of religion rather than those of strategic security.

The most intense adherents to this form of misperception in the United States are evangelical Christians. Indeed, their engagement with Zionism has been so intense in recent decades that they can be perceived as a new and influential species of Zionist who have transformed the ecumenical culture of Zionism itself. Their Zionism shares certain salient aspects with that of modern religious Israeli Zionists. For these groups the identity of Zion does not rest in such seminal institutions as the kibbutz or the Knesset, but in the restoration of Israel to its biblical borders and the reconstruction of the Solomonic Temple. These goals naturally preclude any end to bloodshed in the Middle East, and are thus profoundly distressing to most modern agents and observers of Mid East affairs.

It is unsurprising that, as is so often the case in all societies, Americans' perceptions of Israel and Zionism are conditioned more by their perceptions of themselves and their own values than by the objective conditions of the Middle East. For many if not most Americans "Zion" is the stage of a soteriological drama that expresses a fundamental yearning of the American psyche. Though there are many reasons why America's call to serve as a "fair broker" in the Israel/Palestine peace process have fallen short, the chronic American misperception of Zionism is certainly one, if not the most important cause. In order to broker wisely and effectively Americans must clearly understand the original rationale and historic mission of the Zionist project and must distinguish clearly between those Zionisms that are conducive to peace and those that make peace impossible.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Tariq Ramadan and Owen Lattimore: Deja Vu All Over Again

Arthur Balfour famously quipped that "history does not repeat itself, historians repeat each other," but the repetitiveness of historians' encounters with the state can descend to the depths of the surreal. At the outset of the Cold War the resounding cry of "who lost China?" convulsed U.S. politics. The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and the flight of Chiang Kai-shek's government to Taiwan was not deemed an internal Chinese affair, but a failure of U.S. policy. The search for the source of this failure quickly became intense, and suspicion fell squarely upon one of a tiny handful of accomplished scholars of Chinese history then working in the United States, Professor Owen Lattimore of Johns Hopkins University.

Lattimore had spent his early life in China and was the author of the definitive history of China's relations with Inner Asia (Inner Asian Frontiers of China, 1940). In 1941, at the request of the Roosevelt administration he took up a post as advisor to Chiang Kai-shek at his wartime capital in Chungking. Lattimore was initially a great admirer of Chiang Kai-shek and was instrumental in negotiating China's parity as one of the "Big Four" in the Allied war effort.

Despite his distinguished record of scholarship and service, in 1950 Lattimore was accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of being the Soviet Union's "top spy" in the United States. Lattimore's crime? By 1950 he had become deeply disenchanted with Chiang's Nationalist regime, which he judged to be irredeemably autocratic and corrupt. He became an advocate of official recognition of the People's Republic of China, a step he viewed as indispensible to the rational conduct of the United States' foreign affairs in Asia. These ideas brought him to the attention of the FBI, who received anonymous reports that he was spreading "sedition" among his students at Johns Hopkins.

Even at the height of the McCarthy era no U.S. court ever convicted Lattimore of espionage. All evidence of his being a "spy" was purely circumstantial. Despite these facts and the publication of a comprehensive study exhonerating him (Owen Lattimore and the "Loss" of China by Robert P. Newman), Lattimore's "treason" remains a fetishistic myth among the pundits of the far right even today.

Lattimore's experience is not most affecting because of the injustice done to one man. Rather, its deepest sorrow lies in the crippling distortion it produced in the American discourse on Asia at a critical moment in the nation's history. Agree or disagree with his perspective, Lattimore was one of a very few knowledgeable American voices equipped to intelligently comment on the rapidly evolving situation in mainland Asia. His persecution guaranteed that U.S. policymakers would receive a one-dimensional perspective of Asian history and politics, a situation that contributed to tragic errors in policy theaters throughout East, Southeast, and Central Asia.

If there is a lesson to be derived from Owen Lattimore's experience, the United States have evidently not learned it. Today America is confronted with a new enemy in the form of radical Islamist terror. The roots of this phenomenon are excruciatingly complex, far more so than those of the multifarious forces of Communism that drove U.S. policy during the Cold War. During that era nuanced critics like Lattimore were sacrificed to the destructive fantasy that Communism was a global monolith and that local cultural and historical conditions could be ignored in the formulation of U.S. strategy. Despite the suffering this obstinate misguidedeness produced, today America seems hell-bent on repeating the mistakes of the past.

Today the New York Times reports that Tariq Ramadan, an internationally admired and intensely prolific scholar of Islamic Studies, has been refused entrance to the United States, where he has been offered a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame. Though Ramadan is widely regarded as one of the most thoughtful and incisive commentators on Islam and its relations with Europe and America, the U.S. government evidently suspects him of some links to terrorism. Why? Just as in the case of Owen Lattimore, much of the "case against" Tariq Ramadan is circumstantial. Ramadan's grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, was one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group established in Egypt in 1928. What is not circumstantial in the "evidence" concerning Ramadan is grounded in his scholarship. He does not hide his reverence for Islam as a living religion, nor does he refrain from criticiizing capitalism and globalization from an Islamic perspective. In the judgment of one European official who has (fruitlessly) investigated allegations against Ramadan, he has "dangerous ideas."

Like the persecution of Owen Lattimore, the rejection of Tariq Ramadan augurs an ill future for the United States. The polarization of the world into "us" and "them" camps on the basis of sympathies with or against Islam is even more destructively absurd than the Cold War red herring of "monolithic global Communism." An acknowledgment that the perpetrators of 9/11 were irredeemably malevolent does not necessitate the conclusion that their appeals to Islam may be safely discounted or ignored. President Bush is right that leaders like Osama bin Laden have "hijacked a great religion," but his bland assertion that those who find the teachings of Al Qaeda appealing "hate us for our freedom" is so simplistic as to be practically meaningless. The U.S. can not hope to effectively countervail the malice of Islamist extremists if we refuse to understand how their ideas might possibly resonate with the attitudes and experiences of at least some of the world's one billion+ Muslims. Now more than ever America desperately needs teachers and critics who can educate both policymakers and the public about the nature of Islam, its history, its diversity, and the values and aspirations of its adherents.

The fate of Owen Lattimore was a harbinger of destructive mistakes the U.S. would commit throughout East Asia. A half century later a similar tragedy of errors is being played out on the streets of Baghdad and Falluja. Is there hope that America will choose a different course today? The treatment of Tariq Ramadan will serve as a gauge of what we may expect moving forward into a dangerous century.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Case in Counterpoint: Thomas Friedman on Iraq

Today's New York Times contains a new editorial by columnist Thomas Friedman, returning from a long leave of absence devoted to a new book project. In his first post-leave column Friedman returns to a theme on which he has expounded for much of the past two years: Iraq. On this score he cuts to the chase quickly, declaring dramatically that "we're in trouble in Iraq," that the Bush administration has "hugely mismanaged" the conflict, and that "as a result the range of decent outcomes in Iraq has been narrowed and the tools we have to bring even those about are more limited than ever." I can find very little in this assessment with which to take issue. However, as a long time reader of Mr. Friedman's column I can only wonder whether or why this state of affairs would come as a surprise to him.

In today's same column Friedman declares, "Being away has not changed my belief one iota in the importance of producing a decent outcome in Iraq, to help move the Arab-Muslim world off its steady slide toward increased authoritarianism, unemployment, overpopulation, suicidal terrorism and religious obscurantism." Again few could critique Friedman's professed goals. But one could well ask why anyone, especially someone as knowledgeable as Thomas Friedman, would ever believe that the achievement of these goals could be aided through the application of U.S. military power.

Later in the same paragraph Friedman sounds another note that will have become familiar to his readers, " time off has clarified for me, even more, that this Bush team can't get us there." This seems to be the consistent crux of Friedman's perspective- invading Iraq was the right thing to do, but it was unfortunately done in the wrong way by the wrong people. Reading his column one senses an implicit argument being made: in a Friedman Presidency the U.S. would have invaded Iraq, but it would have been done "correctly," so that all the bright promise tragically discarded by the Bush regime would have been redeemed.

I must confess my shock to find such a perspective coming from someone so knowledgeable about the history and culture of the Middle East. It would seem self-evident to any educated observer that Iraq is a society deeply divided along ethnic, regional, social, ideological, and sectarian lines. No one could reasonably excuse the mad excesses of Saddam Hussein's regime, but it would be equally unreasonable to deny that some part of its violence and brutality reflected the powerful centripetal forces always militating to tear Iraq apart. The notion that the U.S. could keep those forces in check after forcibly removing the lynchpin that had held Iraq together should have been a very tenuous and controversial one for any knowledgeable policy critic. Anyone who has studied the recent history of Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, the Balkans, and any number of other cases should have been intensely skeptical of the United States' ability to even hold a post-Saddam Iraqi nation together, much less to bring about significant gains in human rights, political liberalization, and other "progressive" agendas. Given what appears to me as the clarity of the message to be read in the historical record, I am deeply surprised and disturbed to see how much legitimacy Thomas Friedman has given to recent U.S. policy through his constant advocacy of even the theoretical wisdom of invading Iraq.

The case of Thomas Friedman is, I must admit, an object lesson that stands counter to my own personal philosophy and the central perspective of this weblog. My guiding principal in this forum is (and shall remain): "politics can not be conducted in the ignorance of the history and culture of foreign nations." Thomas Friedman can not, by any fair relative measure, be called ignorant of the history and culture of foreign nations. Even so, I would judge his political perspective and advice, at least with respect to Iraq, deeply flawed. The lesson? Knowledge of the history and culture of foreign nations is no guarantee of wise policy. Conceeding this fact, I would still defend the central proposition of this blog. While knowledge may not guarantee wise policy, ignorance does guarantee foolish and even destructive policy. The case of Thomas Friedman notwithstanding, I would contend that our current situation in Iraq is far more the product of ignorance of history and culture than the opposite.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Many Faces of Iyad Allawi

Few historical actors acquire a social persona as intensely ambivalent as that of Iyad Allawi so immediately upon mounting the political stage. Richard III had to wait more than a century before Shakespeare fixed his villainy in iambic pentameter. The historical judgment on Chairman Mao has slid gradually along a numerical scale: he went from being the people's infallible savior to being "7 parts right, 3 parts wrong," to being "6 parts right, 4 parts wrong." If this trend continues we will eventally reach the point where the post-Long March CCP would have done just as well by flipping a coin. Even so, this erosion has taken time, and as Mao's stock falls among China's political cogniscenti his currency rises as an object of devotion in the popular religion.

By contrast, the newly minted Prime Minister of Iraq's interim government has almost as many faces as he has biographers. He is, by various accounts, an accomplished surgeon and ardent patriot, a quack fraud and craven puppet of the CIA, a near-martyr for the cause of Iraqi liberation, an inscrupulous opportunist to whose hands clings the blood of past Iraqi dissidents. Such a panoply may not aid clarity, but it does inspire a kind of respect. Hero or villain, we are left with little doubt that Iyad Allawi has done something to someone.

The cloud of ambiguity surrounding Allawi trailed after him when he, like many other Iraqis, crossed an ideological boundary in 1975. It was in this year that, for reasons which (like so much else about Allawi's personal chronology) remain murky, Iyad Allawi resigned from the Ba'ath Party of Iraq. This step set him on the road of anti-Hussein activist, and almost certainly resulted in a failed assassination attempt that hospitalized him for one year in 1978. Prior to his personal "de-Ba'athification," so say Allawi's detractors, he was a close associate of Saddam Hussein's and a willing collaborator in the crimes that brought the latter to power.

The truth or falsity of these allegations is far less interesting than what they themselves can tell us about the recent history of Iraq. The polarity between inscrupulous scoundrel and patriotric doctor may surprise, but this disjunction is no less ambivalent than the political and moral legacy of Ba'athism itself. Michel Aflaq, one of the Ba'ath Party's founders and its ideological pole star, wrote movingly on human rights, the dignity of the worker, and the need to overcome sectarian strife. Himself raised a Syrian Chistian, he propounded a vision of pan-Arab brotherhood and prosperity. At the same time that Aflaq served these high ideals, his thought pulsated with a none-too-latent undercurrent of Nazism. Pan-Arab unity was to be rooted in a radically racist and xenophobic doctrine of "Arab supremacism," the application of which had gruesome consequences for groups such as the Jews, Turkomans, and Kurds.

One can see where motives both pure and ill could naturally be attributed to those who would join such a movement. With 20/20 hindsight we may judge that anyone who colluded in any way with Saddam Hussein must have been either degenerately amoral or insanely misguided. Yet there may have been a time when the ascendancy of a movement that could accomodate both Hussein and Allawi, the scions of a Sunni shepherd and a Shi'ite merchant, seemed a ray of hope on Iraq's bleak political horizon.

The shaping of Iyad Allawi's life into a kind of personal morality tale will never be of any more than prurient interest. As the recent play Copenhagen suggests, it is entirely possible that the famous 1941 conversation between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg was understood, even as it transpired, by the former as an invitation to join the Nazi war effort, by the latter as an offer of aid to the resistance. If a single experience can be clouded in such ambiguity, it is folly to suppose that the entire course of a man's life can be compelled to yield an unequivocal moral a la Aesop.

More intriguing is the larger systemic tale to be read in the shifting tea-leaves of Iyad Allawi's social image. The raw fact that Allawi and Hussein could move from being fellow travellers to mortal enemies tells the story of a movement that fell catastrophically short of its highest ideals and a society in the throes of a profound developmental crisis. The degeneration of Iraqi Ba'athism from a pluralistic coalition accomodating Iyad Allawi into a narrow oligarchy centered on Saddam Hussein's Tikriti kin is not, in the final and ultimate analysis, most usefully plumbed for information about the character of these two men. Rather, it speaks of a nation in which atavistic patterns of tribalism, regionalism, and sectarian chauvinism can so violently subvert efforts at unity and modernization as to leave the moral status of all but the most egregiously evil actors permanently shrouded.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Japan Through Vietnam: Exploring the Limits of American Power in Asia

Even before the extension of the United States' frontiers to the Pacific its political life was linked to conditions in Asia. Indeed, the tax that inspired the Boston Tea Party was conceived to help offset the massive imbalance of payments created by voracious English consumption of Chinese tea. The completion of America's Manifest Destiny, however, accelerated the exchange of goods, people, and ideas between the U.S. and Asia. The impact of this new state of affairs was felt almost immediately on both sides of the Pacific, as in 1852 President Millard Fillmore dispatched Commodore Perry to forcibly "open" Tokugawa Japan to U.S. commerce. Since that historical moment the mutual influence of the U.S. and Asia has deepened, broadened, and intensified, so that it seems clear that in this new century Asia will be the urgent focal point of U.S. foreign affairs. Since the time of Perry it has been a common (though perhaps not universal) assumption among U.S. policymakers that conditions in Asia may be reshaped through the determined application of U.S. power. Since America's future is so inextricably bound to that of Asia, it is important to test this working principal about U.S. power against the record of the past.

The early record of U.S.-Asia relations may be read as testimony to the outstanding success of U.S. power. The Perry mission of 1852 set off a chain of events that led to the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and set Japan on the path to modernization. Sun Yat-sen, the "father of the Chinese Republic" was American-educated (a Christian convert), as was his wife and that of his successor, Chiang Kai-shek. After WWII Douglas MacArthur led a team of U.S. occupiers that overhauled the Japanese government in the image of American democracy while U.S. officials began the task of developing political institutions in newly independent South Korea. In 1946 one could look toward Asia and see a continent bearing the deep impression of U.S. power.

But then it somehow all went wrong. In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party under Chairman Mao Zedong overthrew the pro-U.S. Nationalist government of President Chiang Kai-shek. In 1950 Communist North Korea invaded the South, and despite a heroic defense and an initially successful counteroffensive U.S. forces were fought to a stalemate on the Korean peninsula. Finally, beginning in 1954 the U.S. became enmeshed in a steadily escalating effort to defend non-Communist South Vietnam that ended in withdrawal and the ingnominious collapse of the South Vietnamese state in 1975.

At first glance, the tale of the tape would seem easy to read. The story of U.S. power in Asia is one of initial and significant success followed by sudden and precipitate decline. A graphic representation would show a line beginning in 1852 and rising steadily until 1949, where it would take a sharp turn and move steadily downward. What could have caused such a profound reversal? The influence of communism? The deflation of America's political will? Strategic errors on the part of American leadership?

As simplistic as such analyses may seem, they are (with some nuance and shading) all too often the basis of much American scholarship and policy strategy with regard to Asia on all parts of the political spectrum. Amercian interpreters, both "left" and "right," approach the study of Asia with a latent faith in the efficacy of U.S. power. Under "normal conditions" they would expect Asian affairs to be responsive to American influence, thus the cause of any "intransigence" must be sought either in the changing nature of U.S. power or the variable wisdom of U.S. leadership. If Asian peoples effectively resist American efforts at change, it must be because U.S. power had been depleted or incorrectly applied.

The inherent weakness of these types of analyses is, of course, that they deny Asian peoples themselves any form or degree of agency. This is not a question of ethics but of analytical clarity. Any narrative of Asian history that is not constructed around Asians as its central actors is fundamentally distorted. In order to truly understand the fate of U.S. actors on the Asian stage one must look to the inherent dynamic of Asian cultures and societies. The stark fact is that the current state of Asian affairs has been determined by Asians- the Americans who participated in developments along the way were never (well, very rarely) more than interested bystanders.

This may be illustrated if we adopt, for a moment, the perspective of U.S. strategists in Vietnam. Here the American strategic goal was the preservation of a (preferably) democratic, (unequivocally) anti-Communist state in South Vietnam. A survey of what U.S. power had "achieved" in Asia up to that point gave every cause for optimism. Two particular cases informed American assessments of the achievability of their goals: Japan and Korea. The U.S. had defeated and occupied Japan from 1945-1952, during which time Japan was transformed from an autocratic, radically militaristic absolute monarchy to a totally demilitarized liberal democracy. In Korea, despite a concerted assault by the joint forces of China and North Korea (with the full support of the Soviet Union) the U.S. had managed to effect a (until the present day) permanent partition of the Korean peninsula and the stabilization of a pro-U.S. government in the South. The American task in South Vietnam should have been much easier than either of these cases.

Japan and Vietnam, in particular, presented a stark contrast. Vietnam had less than half the population of Japan (South Vietnam even less) and possessed a much more modern, industrialized economy and educated populace. The success of the U.S. in transforming Japanese state and society should have been matched or exceeded in Vietnam.

The intrinsic weakness of this analysis is that it gives far too much credit to the U.S. for the shaping of Japan's post-war state. U.S. observers of Japan, noting the dramatic difference between the goverment and political culture of Imperial Japan and that of Japan today, conclude that this disparity must be attributable to U.S. influence. This perspective assumes that the virulent militancy of the Empire and the atrocities committed by its officials and soldiers were all "organic" products of traditional Japanese culture, a congenital weakness in Japanese civilization that had to be purged by its American occupiers. Any close analysis belies this view, however. The extremism and brutality of the Empire were exceptional to the historical experience of the Japanese people and were as odious to many (if not most) of them as it was to foreign observers. These trends were not organic expressions of Japanese "values," but gradually escalating responses to the (not wholly unrealistically) perceived threats of European imperialism and mainland Asian socialism (both the Soviet Union and Nationalist China were, in Japan's eyes, adherents of socialist ideology). The slide of Japan's political culture toward self-destructive extremism was neither inevitable nor smooth, but was only achieved through the brutal suppression of robust voices of cosmopolitanism and liberalism that had largely shaped Japanese political life during the 1920's. The U.S. thus did not impose a wholly alien ethos upon the Japanese people during the post-war occupation, but merely aided them in the dismantling of a dysfunctional regime they found intolerably oppressive and the revival of traditions they had only reluctantly been forced to abandon.

Even if one accepts that the U.S. was far less instrumental to the democratization of Japan than conventional "wisdom" would suggest, the case of Korea would seem to argue that the U.S. mission in Vietnam should have been achievable. The key cause for the failure of U.S. policy in Vietnam was Vietnamese nationionalism. Many Vietnamese were suspicious of Communism. As a whole, though, they remained persistently and violently hostile to U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese state because they viewed them as obstacles to the unification of Vietnam, an ideal that most Vietnamese placed ahead of their allegiance or aversion to a particular political system. If we look at the Korean people, however, we find that they are no less nationalistic than the Vietnamese. The unification of the Korean nation is a dream deferred, one that causes deep anguish on both sides of the DMZ.

Why, then, would the U.S. succeed in maintaining the partition of Korea where it failed in the partition of Vietnam? The answer, of course, is that the partition of Korea would not be possible unless it conformed in some sense to the will of the Korean people. The Koreans are more amenable to the partition of their country than the Vietnamese, and here again the answer lies not in the actions of the U.S. but in the historical experience of the Korean people themselves.

The parallels between the experience of the Koreans and the Vietnamese are extraordinary. Both peoples share the legacy of venerable state traditions that developed under the profound influence of Chinese civilization. The contemporary Choson Dynasty of Korea and the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam were both structured in accordance to the ideology of Confucianism and in immitation of the institutional organization of China's imperial government. Both peoples came to question their traditional political values and institutions under the assault of foreign colonialism. This is where the histories of both nations diverge sharply. Vietnam's traditional government was brought to an end by French colonialism, the Choson dynasty was displaced by Meiji Japan. In both communities nationalism was born and grew within the forces of resistance to foreign colonialism, but significant differences in the experience of colonialism created profound differences between the forces of Vietnamese and Korean nationalism.

Because the French in Vietnam were operating in a land far distant from and culturally vastly different than their own they were never able to exert more than a very limited degree of political control over their Indochinese territories. As the forces of Vietnamese resistance grew the French were incapable of preventing them from operating within Vietnam itself. Even before WWII Vietnamese resistance fighters of all ideological persuasions were able to operate on Vietnamese territory, during and after the war a broad coalition of Communist and non-Communist forces developed that was united in resistance to the French.

By contrast to the French in Vietnam, the Japanese faced far less intense logistical (at their closest points Japan and Korea are less than 100 kilometers apart) and cultural (the Japanese and Korean peoples practice common religions, share a common script, and speak closely related languages) challenges to their colonial project in Korea. They were thus able to much more effectively and exhaustively suppress anticolonial resistance within the Korean peninsula itself, and as a result the resistance evolved almost exclusively in foreign exile. The emergent tradition of Korean nationalism thus grew within movements that were not only ideologically fragmented but also geographically segregated from one-another. Communist resistance to Japanese colonialism was centered almost exclusively in Manchuria, where Kim Il Sung led a Korean Communist brigade as an auxiliary of the Chinese Communist guerilla movement in that region. Non-Communist resistance was headquartered completely in Shanghai, where Syngman Rhee led the Korean Provisional Government under the patronage of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Government. The Japanese were never able to completely eliminate Korean resistance within the Korean peninsula, but they were able to effectively (and brutally) preempt the formation of a broad coalition movement on Korean soil such as that which emerged in Vietnam.

Korean resistance thus evolved in an atmosphere of mutual isolation, suspicion and hostility. Hostility was deepened by the animosity between the respective patrons of the the two resistances, Mao's Chinese Communist Party and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party (the deadly feud between these forces was particularly vitriolic, fueled by a surprise coup that Chiang launched in 1927 against the Communists, with whom he was then allied). It was further exacerbated by the fact that pre-colonial society in Korea had been much more polarized than that of Vietnam. Choson Korea was led by a hereditary class of yangban aristocracy that enjoyed social privileges far and away removed from the social condition of Korea's lower classes. These contradictions had never been internally resolved within pre-colonial Korean society, thus the ideological divide between Communists and non-Communists was deepened by lingering suspicions of caste bigotry.

The final outcome of the Vietnam War can leave little doubt that there were deep divisions between the various Vietnamese nationalists. At the same time, however, it can not be denied that the period of operational unity under French colonialism laid the foundations for mutual trust and cooperation between Communists and non-Communists that drove events in Vietnam until 1975. Enough Vietnamese on both sides of the ideological divide trusted one-another sufficiently to make common cause in the service of Vietnamese unification. By contrast, the forces of Korean nationalism were incubated in conditions that only reinforced and intensified their mutual suspicions and hostility.

It would be extreme to argue that the Korean peninsula would definitely have remained partitioned in the absence of U.S. power (though this or something like it might still have occurred). It is certain, however, that the necessary conditions of both Korean partition and Vietnamese unity developed prior to American involvement in these nations' affairs. This and virtually all other cases of U.S. policy in Asia present concrete lessons in the limits of U.S. power. Viewed objectively, U.S. power has never been more than a slight catalyst or mild hindrance to developments that Asian people themselves have brought to fruition. The U.S. is not without influence in the region, but it is incapable of dictating the ultimate parameters of what is possible or achievable in Asian politics. This is the principal to which American policy makers should adhere in moving forward: facing Asia one should not ask first and foremost about the state of U.S. power or American political will. Rather, one should inquire first into the natural limits of change determined by the historical conditions of Asian communities themselves.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Why Iraq Will Not Become a Theocracy

It has become almost cliche for political oracles to predict that Iraq will inevitably become a Shi'ite theocracy. While I would not number myself among those who are optimistic about the short-term future of Iraq, I would have to take issue with this blithe assessment. Civil war may well lurk somewhere in Iraq's future, but should that sad day arrive the outcome of such a conflict will almost certainly not be a Shi'ite theocracy.

Why can I state this so confidently? Because the Iraqi people are caught in the jaws of a historical vice, sandwiched between the pressing forces of Shi'a Islam and Arab nationalism. These two forces are little understood in the U.S., but if we are to navigate the turbulent waters of Iraqi politics in the days ahead U.S. leaders had better get a grasp of what they entail.

Sh'ia Islam is most often written off in textbook accounts and encyclopedia entries as the "minority tendency" within Islam, accounting for less than 15% of the world's Muslims. Such a demographic perspective vastly underestimates the importance of Shi'a in the cultural life of Islam, however. Sh'ia and Sunni Islam are not radically schismatic in the manner of Catholicism and Protestantism within Christendom. They are not divided over fundamental questions of doctrine or liturgy, nor is a special ritual required to "convert" from on "sect" to the other.

Two major concerns distinguish the Shi'a community: 1)the belief that the caliphate, or sovereign authority of the Islamic community, should have been retained within the family of the Prophet Muhamed, through the bloodline of his son-in-law Ali; 2)a profound reverence for a regular community of ulama, "doctors of Islamic science" who exercise traditional authority to adjudicate questions of Islamic law. By contrast, Sunni Muslims place much less emphasis upon the bloodline of Muhamed (the last widely acknowledged claimant to the caliphate was the Turkish Ottoman Sultan) and do not rely significantly upon the authority of regular ulama.

This latter distinction is especially important (disputes over the caliphate are for now moot, as the last acknowledged caliph was deposed in 1924). While Sunni Muslims do consult learned scholars of Islamic law, they make no attempt to set fixed or universal standards for their training and acreditation, nor do they establish regular channels for the exercise of their legal authority within the community at large. Where the Sunni ulama are a very loosely delineated and informal community of learned teachers, the Shi'ite ulama are constituted and operate in much the same fashion as the orthodox Jewish rabbinate. The tension between Sunni and Shi'a Islam does thus not reside in a truly theological dispute. Instead, the disagreement between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims is a fundamentally political one. Shi'a is not a breakaway "sect" or "heresy" within Islam, but is a movement to organize the ummah (the community of the Muslim faithful) in such a way as to create the closest possible correspondence between divine revelation (the Qur'an) and secular authority. This synergy is achieved through investing sovereign authority in the family of the Prophet (to whom the Qur'an was revealed) and the establishment of a science and community of Qur'anic jurisprudence, so that the filaments of divine revelation may have the maximum structuring impact on daily life.

An understanding of the profoundly political impulses that engender and shape Shi'a Islam help explain the unique cultural-historical conditions of Iraqi history. Iraq is unique in the Islamic world in that it is the only nation (other than Bahrain) that is both majority Arab and majority Shi'ite. This fact is less surprising when we consider that Baghdad was for centuries the seat of the global Islamic caliphate. Though the caliphs that ruled from Baghdad were almost exclusively patrons of Sunni Islam, it is easy to understand why a movement to deepen the political impact of Islamic revelation would acquire great urgency and popularity in and around the seat of universal Islamic government. What we perceive as the territory of Iraq can thus be viewed, from a different perspective, as the staging area for a centuries-long crusade to realize an Islamic utopia.

Reading thus far one might be puzzled. If Shi'a Islam is so intrinsically political, how could anyone predict that Iraq will not become a Shi'ite theocracy? The chief historical example appealed to by predictors of a future "Iraqi theocracy" is that of Iran. In Iran in 1979 the utopian impulses of Shi'a Islam burst forth into violent fruition, resulting in the founding of the world's first Islamic republic. Given that the Shi'ite clergy of Iran have so clearly blueprinted the political trajectory of a Shi'a revolution, why would anyone doubt that the same thing would happen in Iraq under the right conditions?

The answer is simple. Such "right conditions" will never come, because the very powerful hold of Shi'ite ideology upon Iraqis will always exist in irresoluble tension with the equally powerful hold of Arab nationalism. The nature of Shi'a jurisprudence and the Shi'a ulama preclude the Iraqi Shi'ite community from disaggregating itself from that of Iran. The Shi'a ulama are not a sacramentally sanctioned heirarchy like that of the Roman Catholic Church, they are a consensual community held together by appeal to precedent and tradition. The jurisprudential procedures adhered to by the Shi'a ulama rely upon a broad body of learning, decisions and precedents akin to the Jewish Talmud. Just as with the Jewish Talmud and rabbinate, the expansive community of Shi'a ulama that produced and continues to interpret this ever-widening body of jurisprudential lore does not recognize political boundaries, it flows freely over the national frontier seperating Iraq from Iran. The two great centers of Shi'a learning (which house the institutions that set the standards of training and accreditation for the global "Twelver" Shi'a ulama) are Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran. Virtually all Shi'a ulama of any stature have studied in both centers of learning (Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini spent most of his formative years in Najaf, while Iraq's Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani spent his in Qom). The Iraqi Shi'a ulama are thus all deeply enmeshed in networks of patronage and authority that tie them inexorably and inseperably to their counterparts in Iran (and vice-versa).

Before the 20th century this did not pose a major problem (though even then it did cause some tension), as the political communities in which Muslims then lived did not function as the nation-states of today. Prior to the 20th century most Muslims, regardless of ethnicity, lived in dynastic realms such as the Ottoman Empire or the Qajar Regime of Iran. These dynastic realms were not seperated by clear territorial boundaries, they excercised variable claims to their subjects' loyalty and service that attenuated the further those subjects lived from the seat of dynastic power. At the frontiers between dynastic realms (like Iraq) people could, without major contradiction, offer political fealty (in varying degrees) to both the Ottoman Sultan and the Qajar Shah (this was sanctioned by the sovereigns themselves, as the Turkish Qajars occasionally paid nominal deference to the suzerainity of the Sublime Porte in Istanbul). In this climate the close functional ties between the Arab and Persian ulama did not create a major political dilemma.

This situation was permanently altered by developments of the 20th century. Not only were political boundaries redrawn after WWI to clearly demarcate (majority Arab) Iraq from (majority Persian) Iran, but the new ideology of nationalism fundamentally reshaped the way people throughout the Middle East conceptualized the political communities within which they lived. Nationalism was embraced by the people of the Middle East in angry defiance of European colonialism. In the views of many Turkish, Arab, and other leaders, these groups had been left prey to foreign domination, oppression, and economic exploitation in part because, unlike their European antagonists, they were not sufficiently united. In response to what these leaders perceived to be a catastrophic crisis they embraced the ideal of nationalism as the last hope for the salvation of their people.

A nation-state differs conceptually from a dynastic realm in that it operates within clearly identifiable demographic and territorial boundaries. Membership in a nation, unlike that in a dynastic realm, is not a matter of degree (so that it was possible to be part-Ottoman subject, part Qajar subject), it is an all-or-nothing proposition (one is either Iraqi or Iranian, never both). A nation offers its citizens unequivocal protection against foreign enemies, but demands from them unequivocal loyalty.

The profundity of this mutual commitment leads naturally to the question of which criteria determines membership in a nation. If membership in a nation were wholly arbitrary one could hardly expect a robust commitment to its flourishing from its citizens. This fact has posed a real challenge to the fostering of nationalism in most majority Arab countries, as these countries did not, prior to their founding, have long histories of independent existence. The frontiers of most Arab nations were set by European diplomats in the wake of WWI, "national" identity was thus an almost wholly arbitrary product of historical circumstances. In these conditions, the fact of shared Arab ethnicity has taken on profound significance in the conceptual architecture of nationalism in many Middle Eastern countries. The saga of the Arab people and their struggle for autonomy and dignity (even before the onset of European colonialism many Arabs were forced to live under the political domination of non-Arabs such as the Ottoman Turks) provides much more compelling soil for the roots of personal commitment and loyalty than the shallow and somewhat arbitrary narrative of states like Jordan or Syria. Most Arabs are loyal to their nations, but this loyalty is founded on the assumption that the nation itself serves (at least in theory) the cause of Arab advancement.

This is especially true in Iraq, a "nation" cobbled together out of the territory of three Ottoman imperial provinces. In thinking about Iraq past and future the wonder is not that Iraq might be headed toward civil war, but that it has maintained its territorial integrity from its founding in 1920 until now. The Iraqi people are deeply divided along ethnic (75% Arab, 20% Kurd, 5% Turkoman, Assyrian et. al.) and sectarian (65% Shi'ite, 32% Sunni, 3% Christian) lines. The only force that has kept Iraq from disintegrating is Arab nationalism- the belief among Iraq's Arab majority that the nation stands for the furtherance and protection of Arab rights. Arab nationalism in Iraq is rooted in the same experience of colonialism that engendered it throughout the Arab world. It is deepened and intensified, however, by the fact that (unlike many Arab nations) Iraqis live in close proximity to (and under threat from) many non-Arab peoples along their borders. To the north are the Turks who were their former imperial masters, to the east are the Iranians with whom they fought a brutal eight-year war.

This last fact demonstrates especially well the hold of Arab nationalism among Iraq's people. Like Iraq, Iran is a majority Shi'ite nation (89% Shi'ite), and as I noted above the Shi'a communities of both nations are inextricably intertwined. Under the Ba'ath regime of Saddam Hussein (a Sunni), the practice of Shi'a Islam was brutally repressed (in large part because it's free practice requires interaction between Iraqi Shi'ites and their coreligionists in Iran). If Iraq's Shi'ite majority did not feel some loyalty to their nation there is no way to explain how Iraq could hold out for eight years against Iran, a nation with almost three times the population of Iraq. Had Iraqi Shi'ites sided with the Shi'a ulama in rising against their own government Iraq would certainly have been defeated by Iran. Iraq's strategic stalemate with Iran would not have been possible unless some significant portion of Iraqi Shi'ites had remained (at least provisionally) loyal to their nation. Since that loyalty ran completely counter to their religious sympathies, it dramatically illustrates the powerful sway that Arab nationalism holds over all Iraqi Arabs, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Against this context, one can appreciate the terribly ambiguous situation of Iraqi Shi'ite leaders such as Grand Ayotallah Ali al-Sistani. On the one hand the intrinsic political utopian impulses of Shi'a Islam make the establishment of an Iraqi theocracy strongly appealing to a man like Sistani. But given the inherent dynamic of the Shi'a ulama (its inexorable tendency to bleed across the Iraqi-Iranian frontier) the functional establishment of an Iraqi Shi'ite theocracy independent from that of Iran is a practical impossibility. As Shi'a ulama in Iraq and Iran are already functionally inseperable, a Shi'ite theocracy in Iraq would perforce become united with (and most probably dominated by) that of Iran. This is a situation which the vast majority of Iraqis (even Shi'ite Iraqis) would not tolerate, as it would violently offend their deep-seated feelings of Arab nationalism. The only other alternative would be a radical schism between the Shi'a ulama of Iraq and that of Iran, a possibility that would no doubt horrify a Shi'ite leader of Sistani's prestige and commitment (and which might, in any case, be impossible).

These considerations taken together cast much light on the very ambivalent stance of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, who though he has kept an active hand in Iraqi politics continues to avow that he would not want Iraqi ulama to hold the same type of political authority that they do in Iran. One might doubt his sincerity in this regard, but Sistani is no fool, and he is no doubt aware of the forces and contingencies outlined above. There is nothing to guarantee either that Sistani will remain consistent in his stance or that some other Shi'ite leader (such as the notorious Moqtada al-Sadr) will not attempt an Islamic revolution like that of Iran. But given the powerfully paradoxical forces that hold sway within Iraqi culture and society the viablity of such a revolution would be very, very tenuous. Were Iraq to fall into civil war a faction would almost certainly emerge geared toward creating a Shi'ite theocracy, but given the irresoluble contradictions between that goal and the imperatives of Arab nationalism such a faction would not likely succeed in gathering the numbers and support it would require to prevail. There are many contingencies about which to worry in contemplating the future of Iraq, but the creation of a Shi'ite theocracy must be ranked very low on the list of probable outcomes.