Published in Providence Journal, Monday,8-27-08
U.S. must restore Iraqi nationalism
01:00 AM EDT on Monday, August 27, 2007
FORRMER NEW YORK Times Middle East Bureau Chief Chris Hedges wrote on Aug. 12 that “the war in Iraq is about to get worse . . . much worse,” especially after the Democrats washed their hands of responsibility to end this war. As Mr. Hedges put it, this war “will sputter and stagger forward until the mission collapses.”
One of the most conspicuous things about this war is that it has brought the words of Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis into full realization when he said in a 1991 essay entitled “Mideast states, pawns no longer in imperial games” that:
“It may turn out that the civil war that destroyed Lebanon was a pilot project for the whole region, and that with very few exceptions states will disintegrate into chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes and regions.”
Mr. Lewis was referring to the civil war that ravaged Lebanon in 1975-1991. Iraq today is a failed chaotic state of feuding sects and tribes and precisely what Mr. Lewis had in mind of what could happen widely in the Middle East.
Those who planned for this war in Iraq, long before Sept. 11, 2001, appear to have worked to fulfill Mr. Lewis’s prophecy. The results have been disastrous both for the region, for the U.S., and for international peace and security. The threat of terrorism against the United States, as well as other countries has increased, and Iraqis are doing far worse today than they ever did under Saddam Hussein.
The problem that bedevils Iraq today, and is seldom mentioned in the press, is that it is no longer an Arab country, in terms of its national identity, despite being a majority ethnic-Arab country of Muslims and Christians with a significant Kurdish minority population.
The war has let a segment of Iraqi Shias realize their long-held dream to convert Iraq from an Arab country into a Shia country — that is, a country with a narrow Shia identity that will essentially serve as an extension of Iran. It also let the Kurds slice off a piece of the country for themselves, thus converting the modern state of Iraq into a dysfunctional failed state that belongs more to the Middle Ages than to the 21st Century, exactly what Mr. Lewis foresaw in 1991.
Mr. Hedges was right when he labeled the notorious Iraqi politician and former CIA operative Ahmad Chalabi an “Iranian spy.” Similarly, no significant Iraqi Shia politician can make any major decision whether to run for office or join the government without consulting Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iranian ayatollah whose words are taken by Iraqi Shias to be almost as holy as God’s and whose priorities and agendas are more important to them than the state of Iraq itself.
Most Shias, Arabs or not, have greater loyalty to Iran and its ayatollahs than their own countries. We see evidence of this phenomenon in the writings of such Shia nationalists as Fuad Ajami and Vali Nasr. Both teach at respected American universities and are proponents of a separate Shia identity as the basis for Shia nationalism under global Iranian leadership. It is worth noting, however, that Shiaism is basically no more than a political party that acquired religious thought and an intellectual argument over the centuries.
The United States is in a lose-lose situation. If it withdraws now, Iraq will plunge into total inferno. If it remains, American soldiers will continue to die for ever-changing objectives. A beacon of hope could emerge, however, if the United States encourages Iraqi nationalism to be once more the identity of Iraq for Shia, Kurds, Sunnis and other Muslims, and Christians. Only then Iraqis will look beyond their narrow religious and ethnic identities, stop slaughtering each other and embrace each other as equal citizens of a modern state.