Thursday, July 05, 2007

Look on the Sunni side

And a belated happy Fourth!
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Outside the narrow orbit of neoconservatism, the conservative debate over Iraq continues. The June issue of the American Spectator presents a perfect - if perfectly depressing - article by William Tucker, with the perfect image for Bush's current situation:
Right now President Bush is lurching around like a drunk in a barroom, ready to fight anyone who comes along but with no clear recollection of how he got here or how he intends to get home.
Perfect - except for one thing. Tucker recommends the Baker-Hamilton idiocy as a Nixon-Kissinger-type "realist" move, like opening up to China.* What feel-good diplomacy with Iran and its sidekick Syria is supposed to do remains a mystery. Even from a crude power-play point of view, it makes no sense.

1. Iran and Syria have nothing to offer in Iraq.

The current mayhem in Iraq is largely a Sunni problem, not a Shi'ite one. The insurgency is mainly local Sunnis (Iraqi Arabs), but with a significant minority of Sunni al-Qa'eda-style jihadists - suicide bombers and the like. To the extent that foreigners are driving the insurgency, it is driven by money and ideology exported from the conservative Persian Gulf states and Pakistan, not Iran or Syria. To the extent that it's local, it's simply due to the Iraqi Sunnis' rejection of their now-marginal position in the post-Saddam Iraq. After all, they're 16-17% of the population and dropping.

2. Iran is the looming big problem in the larger Middle East, not Iraq.

One of the main reasons for reducing our overstretch in Iraq is precisely the better to be able to do something about Iran. More generally the point is to sideline the democracy obsession and move to the top the issue of stopping jihadism, which is in full control of a Middle Eastern state only in Iran. Ilan Berman's article on Iran in the same issue of the American Spectator does get it right - it gives a typical Israeli and very sound view of the issue.

Readers should also be reminded of past disasters directly traceable to the Baker-Scowcroft axis. The first was the Lebanon debacle of 1982-84. At the behest of Baker and the Saudis, Reagan sent Marines to Lebanon to interpose between the Israeli army and the PLO. The Marines should have been pulled out as soon as the PLO left. Instead they remained as sitting ducks and were attacked by an Iranian-backed truck bomber, killing over 240 of them. Shortly thereafter the US and French embassies in Beirut were blown up and a large number of American, French, and other Western personnel were taken hostage by Iranian- and Syrian-backed groups - leading in turn to the Iran-Contra scandal. As Secretary of State, Baker gave the green light to Syria in 1990 to complete its takeover of Lebanon, in exchange for Syria's completely useless support during the Persian Gulf war. Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait happened in part because the same "realist" clowns (Baker, Hagel et al.) were telling us what a wonderful guy Saddam was to work with. Only an ignorant, amnesiac, and braindead press corps - mindless flunkies really - could treat the Baker-Hamilton diplomatic advice seriously.

Throwing in the towel on Iran would destroy America's fragile credibility as an opponent of Islamic radicalism - this after much effort has gone into getting the Europeans to see the threat - and it's more of a direct threat to them than it is to us. We have a disturbing long-term track record of treating allies and friends worse than we do enemies. And people rightly criticize America's incoherent reaction to the support for Sunni jihadism coming from its Persian Gulf "allies"; can you imagine what the reaction would be if we embraced the present regime in Tehran? It would be less Nixon-Kissinger and more Chamberlin-Daladier giving Hitler a warm bear hug. It's completely daft.

The correct analogy is right under Tucker's nose. A diplomatic "opening" should be extended to the Sunni governments currently alienated from America. Saudi Arabia aside - it has to be treated as sui generis - the Sunni Gulf States support through private money much of the violence now transpiring in Iraq. Only they are in a serious position to stop it. Meanwhile, Egypt and Algeria, corrupt and repressive as they are, have done an excellent job of suppressing jihadi groups in their countries. After all, it is the Sunni countries which have already gone through the disillusioning wringer of pan-Arabism and Islamic radicalism. They are like China after the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao. The problem is that these Sunni governments, once they've quashed the jihadists at home, are happy to let them operate elsewhere.

Which raises another important point. Democracy cannot be at the top of the agenda right now; the most pressing need is stopping religious fanatics. After that, encouraging the development of non-political personal liberty and civil society; only then, democracy in the sense of elections and political competition. The Middle East, above all, is the one region of the world where having democracy now probably means the triumph of jihadist parties. Not because they're all that popular, but because they're well-funded, well-organized, and well-motivated.** Certainly, the experience of Algeria and Turkey in the early 1990s and more recently of the Palestinian Territories has proven this. Iraq hasn't seen the triumph of a single Islamist party only because the country is so fractured. It's more like Lebanon, the Arab world's last attempt at multisectarian, multitribal democracy. The weak civil society of the Arab world at present cannot support electoral democracy; it will lead to either theocracy or civil war. The best bet right now for decent government in most Arab countries is semi-liberal tribal monarchy, like Morocco or Jordan.

And Baker-Scowcroft-Hagel-etc., with their excellent oil-money connections in the Sunni countries, can put their skills and experience to better use there.

Iran should be theocratic but non-nuclear, or nuclear but non-theocratic - but it shouldn't be allowed to be both. Of course, Iran in many ways is the most important country in the Middle East, and it has legitimate national interests and aspirations to be a regional power. What cannot be accommodated at present is those interests and hopes entangled with Shi'ite theocracy and fanaticism. Iran is an ancient country and civilization; it won't cease to be an important country. What can and should cease is its theocracy.

Mutatis mutandis, the same holds for Saudi Arabia, that other great font of jihadi ideology, influence, and money. It can't be treated the same way as the other Sunni countries, because it is so much part of the problem - the same with Pakistan.

POSTSCRIPT: The same issue of the American Spectator also presents an article by Michael Novak on the global ebb and flow of liberty and the fate of the Wilsonian project in the 20th century. Novak too easily confuses "liberty" with "electoral democracy" and doesn't grasp how much the Middle East violates the globalization-democratization paradigm. He needs to read Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom. It's amusing to read a Harvard-educated Indian Muslim explaining to an American audience something their great-great-grandparents (and their British cousins) would have understood without a second thought: some countries aren't ready for democracy, and some countries should never have been countries in the first place.†
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* At least Nixon's opening to China is the good historical model, and not détente with the Soviets. The latter was a questionable episode obsoleted by the rise of Thatcher and Reagan and then Gorbachev. Opening to China was a smart move, although since the end of the Cold War, it has lost its strategic rationale. Of course, today's China is utterly different from 1973.

Tucker also wastes space and attention on misplaced Vietnam analogies, which American political elites cannot seem to let go of, no matter how irrelevant or misleading. The Sunni insurgency is not winning in Iraq; in spite of all the death and destruction it has wrought, they're losing. A full-scale civil war in Iraq would lead to Shi'ite triumph (although not without a lot of bloodshed first) and Sunni refugees - in fact, the current mini-civil war has already led to almost a million Sunnis leaving Iraq. If Tucker is looking for an analogy to the Vietnamese boat people fleeing the triumphant North Vietnamese army, he's got it bassackwards.

** A good analogy is the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), which immediately followed the Bolshevik coup of November 1917. Of all the Russian parties of the time, the Bolsheviks were the smallest (contrary to their absurd name, which means "majority"). But they were the best-organized, the best-funded (by Germany, whose secret funding continued through 1920), and the most ruthless. Their much more numerous opponents, on the other hand, ranging from Anarchists to czarist generals, were badly fractured and poorly organized. The biggest battalions don't always win.

† The title of a translated Spanish interview with Zakaria gets to the point even more quickly: La Democracia No Es Sólo Elecciones, or "democracy isn't just elections." Iraq provides a textbook case: the Sunni insurgency-cum-civil war there accelerated only after the January 2005 elections made it clear how large the Iraqi Shi'ite majority is (63-65%).

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