Across the Bay

Friday, May 14, 2004

Ajami on Iraq Policy

In a tone similar to Michael Young's op-ed on the fate of the Iraq project, Fouad Ajami reflected on the recent shift in the US policy in Iraq:

"We pledged to give Iraqis a chance at a new political life. We now appear to be consigning them yet again to the same Arab malignancies that drove us to Iraq in the first place."

It is hard to plough through that piece, just as it was heartbreaking reading Michael Young's or David Brooks'. One feels that things are slipping away into the hands of "the party of stalemate," sucked in by the overwhelming blackhole of pathology and atavism known as the Arab world.

"What we should not be doing is to seek absolution in other Arab lands" Ajami explains. Yet, that's precisely what everyone else is doing or pushing the US to do (viz. Colin Powell). Even good old Tom Friedman seems to be taken by this. Ajami wants to keep Iraq singular and the rest want to suck it right back into the Arab swamp. You can get a sense of this being the lone, losing, voice from this talk on the Newshour. The voice of reason is now Rashid Khalidi! What a fine future we're looking at!

Says Ajami:

"We are still held captive by Pan-Arab politics. We struck into Iraq to free that country from the curse of the Arabism that played havoc with its politics from its very inception as a nation-state. We had thought, or implied, or let Iraqis think, that a new political order would emerge, that the Pan-Arab vocation that had been Iraq's poison would be no more."

At the same time, Juan Cole and the troubadours of Arabism are fantasizing about a historic re-emergence of Arab Nationalism in Iraq, one that "transcends sectarian divisions" (the catchphrase of Arab nationalists). Once again, to the Kurds' , Turkmens', Chaldeans' and Assyrians' horror, they are brushed aside by Arabo-centrism. In fact, Ajami argues that the Shiites ought to worry as well:

"... nothing in Mr. Brahimi's curriculum vitae gives him the tools, or the sympathy, to understand the life of Iraq's Shiite seminaries; nothing he did in his years of service in the Arab league exhibited concern for the cruelties visited on the Kurds in the 1980s. Mr. Brahimi hails from the very same political class that has wrecked the Arab world. He has partaken of the ways of that class: populism, anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and a preference for the centralized state. ... No messenger more inappropriate could have been found if the aim was to introduce Iraqis to the ways of pluralism. ... The Algerian seeks to return Iraq to the Pan-Arab councils of power. His entire policy seeks nothing less than a rout of the gains which the Kurds and the Shiites have secured after the fall of the Tikriti-Baathist edifice."

If indeed the grim assessments, or anticipations, of Ajami and Young are true, then we can kiss the reform of the ME good-bye, at least for another century! It took that long to get to this point!

But I hate to leave on this dark note. I have expressed to friends in private communications that I believe that even should Kerry get elected or should Powell take charge in a new Bush administration, that just maybe the wheels in Iraq have been set in motion, and it would be very hard to stop them cold.

Ajami echoes that sentiment:

"The genie is out of the bottle and the Shiites will fight back."

My point is not confined to the Shiites of course. It is very hard to give people who have been downtrodden for so long a whiff of freedom, an alternative, only to take it back. I don't believe they would stand for it. Like Ajami notes, the Shiites have asked Sadr to leave. They want no part of his doomed bravado. They want a shot at a decent life. The Kurds are making the best of their new life in the north. But that's Iraq. Will it spill over? Perhaps. Look for instance at this story about the Syrian Kurds. But more interesting is this analysis by Volker Perthes in The Daily Star:

"In the international debate over post- war policy in Iraq, there has been much talk about "remaking," "remodeling" or "reordering" the Middle East. This is taking place, astonishingly perhaps, despite the difficulties encountered by the US and its allies on the ground."

Perthes mentions the issue of Syria's domination of Lebanon:

"the days of Syria's dominance over Lebanon may be numbered, partly as a result of US and even French pressures; partly also because the perceived legitimacy of the Syrian presence in Lebanon is on the decline both there and internationally."

We will have to see whether the Europeans (namely the French) opt to stick it to the Americans and give an outlet for Syria (indeed the Lebanese and Syrian papers are already flaunting the US with the certainty that the French will pick Syria up), or whether they will use the American pressure and play "good cop/bad cop" by using the leverage that the recent US sanctions have offered them to put more pressure on Syria in exchange for European cooperation.

Interestingly, Perthes also picks up a point that Michael Young has noticed, but that Arabs have failed to see, namely that this war is not necessarily to the benefit of Israel:

"With respect to the structural division of power in the Middle Eastern system, for the foreseeable future no regional or sub-regional hegemon will emerge, let alone remain. All potential regional hegemons - such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and probably Israel - will have to find ways of dealing with the US presence, rather than vying for status as Washington's regional policemen. Smaller and weaker states will be able to interact with the US directly - probably on terms equal to those of more powerful regional actors."

Every Arab official, intellectual, and media outlet (indeed every anti-war westerner) has claimed that this war was for the benefit and security of Israel. No one realized how narrow and petty that view really is. But the "big dog" regimes (mainly Syria and Egypt) knew that their dreams of regional supremacy, let alone internal survival, would be threatened, and that's why they opposed the war and they're hoping, indeed working, for it to fail, or at least to suck the emerging Iraq back into the Arab blackhole. How else could they maintain themselves as the alternative to Islamist chaos, when the war rationale was that the two (the regimes and the Islamists) were two sides of the same coin? How else could they bargain with the US and get their "rewards" (billions of dollars and a ruling dynasty for Mubarak, and Lebanon and the preservation of the Assad dynasty in Syria)?

The question is, will the recently-released genie be forced back into his dark bottle, or will he refuse to be denied? It all depends on whether the US stays in Iraq to keep the heat on those regimes, or whether, as the foolish talking heads are advising, it will "dump its stock" and pull out.