Across the Bay

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Dream On (Part I)

Much has occurred in these last few days, and I'm going to try to filter through some of the pieces that I deem significant. These pieces, as I read them, signal a marked shift in US policy back to Realism and soft-power. However, despite the many jeers, I still believe that ironically, the brief shift of policy exemplified by the Iraq war will prove to be a lasting positive even if never again repeated. It is this short-lived policy that will prove to be the only reason why the soft-power approach might work in the future, and why the ME peoples might be able to see some changes in the long and difficult path towards democratic governance.

The articles I will be discussing include a wide variety of views, all centered on how to change the ME. I will classify them as follows:

1- Pro regime-change (Ajami and Drezner), who hold that the best way forward is with a clean break with the existing regimes. It can be maintained that this view mirrors Wolfowitz's.
2- Against regime-change (Landis and Salame), who argue that on the contrary, the best way forward on reform and change in the ME is for the US to work with existing regimes pushing them in the right direction. This position is similar to Powell's.
3- Those who want it both ways (Friedman), in flippy-floppy punditry. And the classic Arab pathological counterparts (Khoury) who have absolutely no idea what they're talking about, but think they're uttering wisdom sayings from the Orient.

I will address these three points in three different posts for the sake of time and space. Today's post will deal with the first category.

1- In a very somber op-ed in the NYT, Ajami laid down his arms and gave up on the entire US-ME relationship, declaring a moratorium on "the dream" of a free and democratic ME, thus signaling his dive into depression and pessimistic determinism. The fact that the piece appeared in the Times should alone be an indication! They must have been giggling silly! However, there are a few things to be said about it.

First, despite its focus on the ME, the piece speaks more of the internal debate in the US regarding what policy to pursue in the ME. Its defeatist tone is not reflective of a US defeat in the ME (as the piece seems to suggest), rather it tells of the abandonment of a particular foreign policy, and thus the defeat of its proponents, including Ajami himself. A similar reaction (also featured gloatingly in the NYT) is this piece reporting an outcry by Richard Perle and James Woolsey on the "abuse of power" by the CIA and the DoS in the Chalabi affair. The point is, as I have suggested on this blog, the DoS and the CIA have made their move against the DoD in their bid to oversee things in Iraq. Perhaps the appointment of the CIA-favorite (former Baathist) Iyad Allawi as Iraq's transitional prime minister is an indication, after the Chalabi affair, that they have succeeded. (A defense of Chalabi by Christopher Hitchens can be seen here in Slate.)

That aspect of "defeat" aside, Ajami exhibited a remarkably problematic view of Iraq. Michael Young spotted the determinism of Ajami's piece, as well as what Young labeled "American attitudes" (which I think means something along the lines I mentioned above). But there is a lot more in there that requires commentary.

For one, the "dream" is not dead, because the dream is the Iraqi people, and they're just beginning to come alive. Ironically, it was people like Ajami who maintained that this is a long term project, so it is hardly time to say that the project has failed. Secondly, Ajami always quotes Fernand Braudel, the historian who understood time in terms of three maritime analogies (inspired by the Mediterranean, his life subject): long term like the undercurrents, middle term like the waves, and short term like the crest of broken waves. The Iraq project is long term. This is a fight for a different socio-political culture, and a different ideology or mentalité.

Braudel's philosophy of history was based on a conscious attack on previous European historiography which focused on "great men" and "great events." Braudel said that these belong to the crest, not the undercurrents, even when they might act as agents of change. Bush and the war are merely the necessary seeds, the first spin of the wheel. Necessary because the staying of Saddam Hussein in power was a hurdle for change not because of his person, but because his presence paralyzed all the other factors necessary for change (all the mid and long term elements). That move has been done. Now let the wheels turn slowly, they're rusted and they're cracked, but they will turn. Just don't abandon them, stay on the side and be willing to help. The worst thing you can do now is abandon it to be sucked back into the Arab nationalist quick sand. So Ajami's alarm is understandable only if it refers to the danger of reverting to the old policies of appeasement and the backing of dictators (i.e. the notion of setting up a "military strongman" in Iraq, as in King Abdullah of Jordan's recent stupid statement).

A second problem in Ajami's piece is his view of the nature of society in Iraq. Ajami expressed his surprise that Iraq didn't turn out to be as secular as we had thought! (Ajami's views on this can be seen in an old Foreign Affairs article.) This is astonishing in two ways: If indeed people didn't think that the clerics would immediately fill in the void left by Saddam's removal, then they were deluding themselves. At the same time however, the overthrow of Saddam has not only brought forth a flurry of political parties (including of course the Communist Party), but has also shown the tremendous diversity within the religious circles, which display a range of attitudes from distance from micro-involvement in state affairs (Sistani) to moderate Islamism, to full-blown Khomeinism. In other words, the scene in Iraq is not only normal, but healthy, and by no means is cause for alarm or depression! This is proof of life, not death! This piece in The Daily Star argues for the nascent dynamism of Iraqi civic society due to the removal of Saddam Hussein.

But Ajami is not alone in his seemingly misconceived view of Iraqi society. On the other end of the intellectual spectrum, this featured opinion on Juan Cole's site shows a perverted view of Iraq and the US, similar to Rami Khoury's which we will discuss in a future post.

The opinion is by a U. Chicago archaeologist, McGuire Gibson, who claims, in classic post-colonial rhetoric, that it is the US that is fomenting sectarian politics that "didn't exist" before!

"The Occupation authority has made it almost impossible to have a political base other than religion or ethnic community, and we are thus creating splits and tension between Iraqis that have not been very noticeable in the past."

I.e., the US is nefariously involved in messing with Iraqi identities, corrupting their previous nationalism (under Saddam!!!) and introducing sub-national referents! Obviously this guy knows nothing about Iraq or the ME. In fact, even Joshua Landis (whom I shall also discuss in the second part of this essay) has remarked (with reference to Syria) that tribalism is intrinsic to the political culture in Syria (and indeed the ME in general to one extent or another) but it was downplayed and repressed by the military Arab nationalist dictatorships:

"This is truly new language for a Syrian President. For the past 40 years Syrians have categorically denied that tribalism or sectarianism is a part of their politics. This always created a surreal quality to Ba'thi explanations of their political structure, because the Syrian system is so clearly under-girded by sectarian and even tribal considerations. Now that the US is learning its own painful lessons about tribalism in Iraq and how difficult it is to build democracy in segmented societies..."

Landis is commenting on Bashar Asad's statement that these identities "don't go back just tens of years; they go back thousands of years. It's not so easy to change."

Take also this quote from the piece by Ghassan Salame which will be discussed in Part II of this essay (in a future post):

"The fifth point entails creating a new balance between the rights of individuals and those of groups and communities in the Arab world.

Western democracy was based first on liberating the individual from the control of the church, then from restrictive family bonds to fully direct one's loyalty toward the nation as a whole. Nothing comparable to that took place in the Arab world.

Individuals in our countries continue to refer to their families, tribes and sects for support and help in different aspects of life. We should thus work in our Arab world to bringing about a balance between the need for the individual's loyalty to the nation as a whole on one hand, and his right to continue to enjoy being part of a family, tribe or sect on the other.

So Gibson doesn't know the first thing about Iraq, which is even more astonishing for an archaeologist of Iraq! There is evidence for tribalism in Iraq-Syria dating back millenia (like Bashar said). For instance, the archives of the ancient city of Mari in the Middle Euphrates (ca. 19th-18th c. BCE), provide a vivid picture of tribal politics in the area. They have been studied by Daniel Fleming in his book Democracy's Ancient Ancestors. Apparently Gibson hasn't read it, even when he obviously needs to. If these identities were not "noticeable" in the past (which itself is untrue), that is because they were crushed to the ground by the brutality of Saddam's totalitarian regime which crushed everything else in the country! Furthermore, it was these same tribal and sectarian politics that brokered the recent deal with Muqtada, in tandem with US military power which pushed Muqtada to a dead end where he had to make a deal (again, not too far from the line I laid out earlier on the blog). Also, see my earlier comments on sub-national identities here and here.

As Shafeeq Ghabra recently wrote, the Arab world is indeed living a "pre-democratic" moment. There is therefore no need for Ajami's gloom and doom in that regard. What we need to be discussing is whether this policy of establishing democracies in the ME will be sustained or abandoned due to public perception of failure. (This is certainly not helped by the media coverage, despite what Matt Welch says. Cf. this piece by Andrew Sullivan fisking Susan Sontag. I'll come back to it in another post.)

This dilemma was addressed by Daniel Drezner in TNR:

"Say what you will about the neoconservatives' skills at manners or management; their big idea cannot be dismissed lightly. There is a compelling logic to the argument that the primary source of frustration among Arabs in the Middle East is a sense of powerlessness. Trapped in a region littered with authoritarian and corrupt regimes, they are encouraged by these regimes and their Islamic critics to blame their situation on Israel and the United States. This is an ideal environment for fomenting terrorism. Creating an open society in Iraq would put the lie to this kind of hate-mongering.

To be sure, democracy promotion is far from easy. Indeed, regime change in the Middle East looks like a lousy, rotten policy option for addressing the root causes of terrorism, until one considers the alternatives--appeasement or muddling through. The latter option was essentially the pre-9/11 position of the United States and its allies, and has been found wanting. Appeasement or isolation has the same benefits and costs that the strategy had in the 1930s: It buys short-term solace but raises the long-term costs of facing a stronger and potentially undeterrable adversary.

This position is in stark contrast to that espoused by Landis for instance. Although, ultimately, Landis' goal is to push the area towards parliamentary politics and free economies. In that sense, it is unfair to include Landis among people who want to leave the ME to its own malignancies. Far from it. I will discuss Landis' position in a following post when I get the time. (It will be soon, in case you're so excited you can't wait!!)

To further quote Drezner:

"The craft of foreign policy is choosing wisely from a set of imperfect options. While flawed, the neoconservative plan of democracy promotion in the Middle East remains preferable to any known alternatives. Of course, such a risky strategy places great demands on execution, and so far this administration has executed poorly. It would be a cruel irony if, in the end, the biggest proponents of ambitious reform in the Middle East are responsible for unfairly discrediting their own idea."

I will address this point in the subsequent parts of this post. To anticipate my argument, and to recapitulate what I stated at the outset, whatever imperfect policy the US will pursue here on out, its potential success will inevitably be due to this war in Iraq, and not vice versa. For whatever the future merits of soft-power pressure or active engagement, such as the ones proposed by Powell and Landis respectively, they wouldn't have had teeth without the US willingness to go to war to actively and decisively create an environment for historical change, one (in Saddam's case) that soft-power was demonstrably not able to create.