The Magazine

Getting It Right, Despite Ourselves?

From the June 7, 2004 issue: The democratic ethos is still moving forward in Iraq.

Jun 7, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 37 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

GIVEN ALL THE CONFUSION and frenetic American behavior surrounding the June 30 transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, it is hard not to believe that the Bush administration is winging it day by day. At one moment, the U.N. envoy to Iraq, former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, is following Senator John Kerry's advice and assuming responsibility and authority for America's fate in Mesopotamia. The next, Ambassador Robert Blackwill, the National Security Council's man on Iraq, is flying off to Baghdad to supervise Brahimi, a Sunni pan-Arab bureaucrat turned U.N. democrat. It's all right for American officials desperate to propitiate Sunni-led violence in Iraq to talk about overzealous de-Baathification under the American proconsul L. Paul Bremer. It's much scarier to hear Brahimi, who apparently shed not a tear and said not a word about Saddam Hussein's post-Gulf War slaughter of the Shiites and Kurds, criticize "excessive" de-Baathification.

Brahimi's haughty and prevaricating disposition was on display on ABC's This Week in late April when he reacted to George Stephanopoulos's query about his appropriateness for dealing with Iraq's Shiites. "You know, I don't know how to answer . . . because, you know, [it] doesn't come into my thinking that I am, I am Sunni," responded Brahimi. "I am a U.N. man. I am definitely a Muslim, and I come from a country where, you know, there are no, there are no problems of Sunni and Shia, so I really don't know. I don't think the Iranians had any problems with me in Afghanistan. Nor did the Shia. . . . They didn't have any problem with me, so I think, frankly, I think it's silly to suggest that I may have a problem because I am Sunni, that I would favor the Sunnis against the Shiites. Why should I do that?"

Brahimi is right: In Algeria there is no Shiite problem since you can count the country's Shiites on your hands and toes. Algeria is a thoroughly Sunni country. Brahimi knew this; Stephanopoulos did not. The Sunni consciousness is actually one of the things that rarely evaporates even among the most Westernized Sunni Arabs. Often the pan-Arabist I-don't-go-to-the-mosque-but-I'm-a-Muslim crowd, from which Brahimi springs, are the most disdainful, since Shiites have often been more reluctant to abandon their atavistic and parochial affections and faith.

Antipathy for Shiites, be they Persian or Arab, comes with mother's milk in the Sunni Arab world. In all probability, Brahimi is being disingenuous when he depicts himself as just a Muslim, free of the society that produced him. He should certainly be applauded for his arduous work in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan in the Arab Middle East doesn't count. Compare the very timid Arab outrage over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan--the Algerian elite were noteworthy in praising the Soviets' mission civilisatrice--with Arab anger over the Anglo-American invasion of Saddam's Iraq. Advancing a Shiite-led democracy in Mesopotamia has serious repercussions for Brahimi's friends and kith and kin; any actions on behalf of Afghanistan's Shiite Hazara are esoteric and irrelevant west of Iran.

One could feel a lot less uneasy about Brahimi's commitment to democracy in the Arab world--and the Bush administration's decision to "internationalize" Iraq through him and the United Nations--if one could find anywhere his public reflection on the Algerian military regime's brutality in crushing the Islamist rebellion after Algeria's generals cancelled elections in 1991. The savagery of the regime probably equaled the viciousness of the most extreme Islamists. Yet neither in defense nor in reproach can you find Brahimi ruminating on democracy in his homeland--a country that, for better and worse, has been an Arab laboratory for representative and repressive government.

The haphazardness and oddness of the trio Brahimi, Blackwill, and Bremer together planning the fate of the Bush administration and the United States in Iraq is less unsettling, however, than listening to Secretary of State Colin Powell ruminate on what "full sovereignty" for Iraqis means after June 30.