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Be Careful What You Wish For

From the September 15, 2003 issue: Depending on foreign troops in Iraq is asking for trouble.

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The Bush administration's embrace of odd, counterproductive notions is nowhere more evident than in its energetic pursuit of foreign Muslim troops for Iraq. The reasoning for these deployments--which probably won't happen unless the United States gets the consent of the French, Germans, and Russians at the U.N.--apparently is that Iraqi Muslims would respect foreign Muslim troops more than they respect American soldiers. Leaving aside why in the world the Bush administration would want to deploy Muslim soldiers from nondemocratic countries to Iraq, the Muslim-likes-Muslim sentiment behind this argument is a myth. Middle Eastern history teaches the opposite. Since the dawn of the 19th century Muslim states have shown much greater confidence in the professionalism of Western soldiers than of fellow Muslims. Rulers and intellectuals may say nasty things about Westerners publicly, but privately they have consistently shown that they feel safer with infidels than they do with their own. After the first Gulf War, the Persian Gulf states made a big show of wanting the Egyptians and the Syrians, not the Americans, to assume the responsibility for their security. No Egyptian or Syrian soldier ever landed. The sheikhs and the intellectuals may hate us in their hearts; but they absolutely don't want to entrust their property, wives, and daughters to foreign Arab Muslims.

Shiite Iraqis in particular are acutely conscious that their Arab and Muslim brethren didn't support the war against Saddam. Indeed, Iraqis watched on Arab satellite television with bitter enmity and black humor the antiwar demonstrations throughout the Middle East (and in Europe).

It beggars the imagination to suggest that an Iraqi truck driver on the Amman-Baghdad highway will feel more secure with Moroccans or Bangladeshis doing road checks. It also beggars the imagination to believe that Shiite clerics will feel better knowing that Sunni Pakistanis--who are just a bit below Saudis in the Shiite pantheon of anti-Shiite Sunni fundamentalists--are patrolling their country. And nobody in Iraq is going to feel good about the Turks arriving in force. There is an argument for having the Turks assume certain security tasks in the Arab Sunni belt--Arab Sunnis would probably fear Turkish soldiers far more than they do Americans--but the negatives with the Kurds, who aren't fond of the Turks, and the Shiite clergy, who strongly reject Turkish secularism, easily outweigh the positives with the Arab Sunnis.

None of what the Bush administration is planning to do with foreign soldiers in Iraq makes much sense. Of course, the administration may luck out. The Sunni Arab insurrection in the central lands may blow over without ever testing the mettle and wisdom of the foreign troops spread throughout the country. Maybe no poorly trained, vodka-fond Ukrainian soldier will take liberties with a Shiite lass. Perhaps the foreign soldiers will follow American orders well and interact with the natives in the exemplary way that most American soldiers have done. It's possible. However, if you don't believe in luck in the Middle East, it might be wise to back the French. France's great-gaming and obduracy may just block a U.N. mandate that would unleash more foreign soldiers on Iraqi soil. It would be a delightful irony if Jacques Chirac prevented President Bush from putting the wrong foot forward.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.