Saturday, March 24, 2007

More about Iran versus Iraq

A friend took me to task for being too pessimistic in a recent posting about the prospects in Iraq, and for implying something not true about the neoconservatives.

My point about the neocons is not that they were clueless about radical Islam before the Iraq war. A few were even conscious of it before 9/11 (many were overly obsessed with China back in those days). My point was the misguided attempt to connect the new post-1991 trend of radicalism in the Middle East to Saddam. The fact that Saddam was making nice with some Islamic radicals only proves my point - he was cozying up to them because they (not he) were in the drivers' seat. It's like when he put Allahu `Akbar on the Iraqi flag after the Guf War. It was clear which way the wind was blowing, and he was trying to keep up with the latest. He was a trend-follower, not a trend-setter.

The major countries incubating Sunni radical Islam are clear: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and (to an extent) Egypt. A few other countries (like Algeria) playing a tag-along role under the influence of the more important ones. It's rather unfair to lump Egypt and Algeria together with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on this score, because the Egyptian and Algerian governments have been tireless in their efforts to squash the radical movements. (In Egypt, there has been some compromise between the government and the radicals.) But the Saudi and Pakistani governments have a long-standing role in promoting radical Islam - on the world stage, since the 1970s, even before the fall of the Shah. Pakistan in particular suffers from an identity and legitimacy crisis, and that makes radical Islamic movements attractive because they're politically useful. Countries such as Afghanistan and Sudan have ended up as test laboratories for the Sunni radical movements to try out theocracy and take in jihadis, all with Saudi and Pakistani sponsorship.

The other axis of jihad is Iran, with its little brother, Syria, and its Shi'ite laboratory in Lebanon. Like its Sunni sibling, the Shi'ite version of radicalism took off in the late 70s, after the decline of secular ideologies in the Arab world set in and the fall of the Shah.

Iraq is not on either list.

At a high level, the neocon goal of promoting constructive political change in the ME is a good idea - no, better than good - necessary. Carried through consistently and subtracting out their obsession with Iraq, it would involve cooling relations with Egypt somewhat, sharply cooling them with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (even to the point of issuing them ultimatums), and engaging Iran with peaceful but unceasing pressure towards serious political change. The model should be Reagan in the 1980s, with Iran taking the place of the Soviet Union, and America's erstwhile "allies" - right-wing authoritarian governments then, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt now - subject to a serious push towards reform and opening up. Even a liberal revision of American policy - thought through its logical conclusions - wouldn't look that different. The stylistics and atmospherics might feel otherwise, but not the substance or goals.

It's a mistake to think of the Bush foreign policy as being neoconservative, because much of this agenda has not been translated into policy, only the obsession with Iraq - the one neocon idea that remains the flimsiest. Much of that can be attributed to personnel and history, not ideology. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith were all central in the Persian Gulf war, and Bush Jr.'s fixation on Iraq is obviously mixed up with Oedipal father-son issues. The Iraq obsession got translated into reality by Bush because it resonated the most strongly on a personal level with key administration figures. There's been no coherent reconsideration of policy towards Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Egypt. Iran has been faced as a problem only very recently.

The course of policy in Iraq has been on the whole poor in design and execution since the summer of 2003, with some bright spots here and there, especially in the Kurdish north. It's also been politically costly. But my earlier posting is really about Iran - Iraq is a secondary point. My pessimism about the Middle East might not be justified in the long run. There are positive trends, like the bloggers. But an overall positive direction of change is a hope and an assumption, not a proven fact.

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