The Struggle for the Middle East
From the January 3 / January 10, 2005 issue: Iraq, Iran, and democracy.
Jan 3, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 16 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
But we have reached a point in Iraq where our first priority must be to guarantee Iraqis--not Americans--a minimum of security on the major highways. A greater American presence and firepower on the roads could kill more innocent Iraqis. The American death toll could climb. Yet it is an excellent bet that most Iraqis would be willing to absorb the losses provided they can see improvement in their daily security. If we do not do this, and do it fairly quickly, we are likely to damage irreparably moderate political forces in the country, especially within the Sunni heartlands, as we and our allies occupy ever smaller, disconnected, fortified oases surrounded by insurgents, their sympathizers, and a fearful population who know better than to cast their lot with men who only fly above them.
At this late date before the January 30 elections, there is probably no more effective and essential campaign for the U.S. military than securing the roads. Start with the highway to the airport, and then go after the roads from the capital south to the Shiite heartlands. The Shiites need to see that we are serious about maintaining their security and the flow of pilgrims from the capital to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Everybody else--but most importantly neighboring Sunni Arab countries that may be ever more inclined to aid militarily their brethren who are fighting "American occupation" and Shiite (read "Iranian") domination--needs to see that the United States can protect one short airport highway that connects Iraq to the outside world.
Second obvious fact: The government of Ayad Allawi has failed. It is possible that Allawi and his list of candidates will do well enough in the January 30 elections to remain a force in Iraqi politics. The power of incumbency--the qa'id factor of Arab politics--is real, even in Iraq where the status quo isn't an electoral strength. The United States will, however, be enormously fortunate--even though many within the American government, particularly within the State Department and the Clandestine Service of the CIA, strenuously argue the opposite--if Allawi flames out in the elections, and the "Shiite list" backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's preeminent divine, the rabble-rouser Moktada al-Sadr, and Ahmad Chalabi proves overwhelmingly triumphant.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH to the Sunni insurgency needs to be tried, and only an official realignment of Iraq's politics, where the majority actually has some official presence and power, is likely to encourage the Bush administration and the Allawi government. Interim Prime Minister Allawi came into office promising "outreach" to the Arab Sunnis who'd backed the Baath party and Saddam Hussein. He put forth an enormous gamble: You join me in building a new Iraq, and I will promise you a serious place within the new bureaucracy, especially within the army and the security services, the traditional levers of Sunni Arab power. Allawi did not betray the democratic objectives of a new Iraq, but he certainly intimated to the "exiled" Arab Sunnis that through him they would get a position in government that would be difficult for a democratically elected government to reverse.
Unfortunately for Allawi, and Iraq, the Sunni Arabs have not played according to this plan. What Allawi has in fact done is introduce into the fledgling Iraqi government Baathist and Sunni fundamentalist moles.
We regularly hear the U.S military say that their sources of information on the insurgents are getting better. This may well be true. It certainly appears, however, that the insurgents' information, organization, and effectiveness are improving faster than our ability to neutralize them. One fears that the new Iraqi security and intelligence services are so thoroughly penetrated that it is questionable whether American cooperation with these organizations can ever be operationally secure. Allawi's bureaucratic gambit has had adverse repercussions beyond the tactics of counterinsurgency. Odds are it has emboldened the Sunni insurgents in the field. It has certainly emboldened the Sunni Arab elite one finds in Jordan (the case is no doubt similar in Syria), who have probably played an important, perhaps essential, role in developing the cohesion and effectiveness of the insurgency. One shudders contemplating the disaster we would have faced had the Coalition Provisional Authority actually maintained and incorporated more of the Sunni Arab military elite from Saddam's armed forces into the "new" Iraqi armed forces.
Though it is impossible to dissect precisely the Sunni Arab mentality that has fueled the insurgency, it's not too hard to see the two most influential mind-sets. One is that of the antidemocratic sectarian, who has used violence as a means of "negotiating" a future political position that a one man, one vote democracy would deny. These Sunni Arabs essentially want to create a pre-1970s Lebanon model in Iraq, where the Sunni community enjoys power, prestige, and wealth beyond what its numbers, accomplishments, and economic capacity warrant. These folks are the "pragmatists" among the Sunni Arab insurgents, since it is just possible to imagine them working out some deal with the Shiites and Kurds. Any workable deal would leave them vastly weaker than they were under Saddam, but this group just might compromise since their attachment to Iraq is sufficiently mundane--family, friends, property--that they would not want to risk losing it completely. Prime Minister Allawi gambled that these "pragmatists" were a decisive majority among the Arab Sunni elite and among the insurgents actually fighting.
The second mind-set is that of the Arab Sunni supremacist. These folks can be either Baathists or religious fundamentalists. They would rather be dead, or live permanently in exile, than accept an Iraqi state where Arab Shiites and Kurds rule. Rhetorically, if not financially, this group receives more support from the Sunni Arab world, which likes to depict these diehards as Iraq's finest patriots. Allawi gambled that the "pragmatists" would sell out the "supremacists."
None of the prime minister's bets has paid off because the lines between the "pragmatists" and the "supremacists" are often blurred, ideologically and familially. Also the itch to try violence as a means to win, not just draw or place, has been greater than what Allawi apparently expected. And once the violence starts, it's hard to stop. An emotional chain reaction sets in that further clouds the difference between "pragmatists" and "supremacists."
Where do we go from here? In all probability, we're stuck with Allawi's "deal" unless the January 30 elections can somehow change the dynamic and tactics. This could happen. A substantial Sunni vote in the January 30 elections would gut the legitimacy the insurgents are vying for inside Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. The Sunni Arab elite who have either sided with the insurgents or are sitting "neutral" on the sidelines would get a loud wake-up call that they have misjudged the flock. If the Sunni Arabs vote in the elections, or, more important, if they abstain en masse, Allawi may see the light (he no doubt will see it before the CIA does), and start intimidating, not negotiating with, the "pragmatists."
Allawi and the Americans ought to make it perfectly clear that the Shia are coming (after the elections, even the diehard Sunnis may begin to appreciate the writing on the wall) and the Arab Sunni elite has at most a year to join the new Iraq. In the meantime, he and the Americans (and if not he, then the Americans) should talk openly and regularly about how the new Iraqi army will be overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurdish since the Sunni Arabs have given them no choice. We have to ratchet up the pressure on the Arab Sunni community, especially on its elite, while prominent Iraqi Shiites--real ones, not the Allawi, ex-Baathist look-alikes--appeal to the Sunnis behind the scenes to join the new nation. The Sunni Arabs have to know--they have to feel it in their bones--that they are on the verge of losing everything in Iraq. Allawi's grand gambit has done the opposite: It has produced self-confident, smiling faces among men who are actually enjoying the war (often safely ensconced in fine hotels in neighboring Arab states).
In the end, the Sunnis will not win a civil war. Inevitably the Iraqi Shia, diehard nationalists who will not long tolerate Sunni terrorist bombing campaigns in the South, will militarily organize themselves to defeat the Sunnis on their own turf. But their victory would likely be ferocious. Latent Shiite anger over decades of brutal Sunni oppression would probably come to the fore, empowering the most radical and cold-hearted among the Shiites. The democratic experiment and its most influential proponent, the moderate Shiite religious establishment, would both likely collapse amid the violence. The creation of an Iranian-aided Iraqi Hezbollah would become a distinct possibility. If the most radical and dictatorial came to the fore among both Sunni and Shiite Arabs, the Kurds would sensibly conclude that any association with Arab Iraqis was unhealthy. The de facto separation of Kurdistan could become de jure. Jordan and Saudi Arabia, two staunchly Sunni anti-Shiite states, could start throwing weaponry and money at any Sunni group that can shoot. A very ugly outcome.
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AND THEN THERE IS IRAN--as if Iraq weren't enough. The Islamic Republic's pursuit of atomic weapons--and only the deaf, dumb, blind, and the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency officials (when speaking publicly) don't know that the clerical regime is energetically pursuing a nuclear-weapons program--is getting ever closer to the finish line. Whether you believe the prognostications of the Israelis or of the French foreign intelligence service, both of which think that a nuke is near, or those of the Americans, who generally guestimate a bomb in three to five years, a nuclear weapon under the control of Ali Khamenei, Iran's clerical head, and Hashemi Rafsanjani, the regime's number two and probably the cleric most intimately associated with Tehran's two-decade-old drive to produce fission weapons, is just over the horizon unless somebody in the West can delay it.
President Bush personally has described Iran's nuclear-weapons aspirations as "unacceptable" to the United States. He has thrown his administration behind the French-British-German effort to use diplomacy to convince Tehran to forsake its uranium enrichment efforts, even though the conduct of the Europeans has convinced an increasing number of American officials that this soft-power approach has no chance of succeeding with a regime that has been lying about its intentions for nearly 20 years. The Europeans have so far adamantly refused to consider serious economic sanctions against the mullahs. In particular, France, which has probably had the best intelligence collection against the Iranian nuclear target among the Europeans, has clearly signaled that it wants to expand, not curtail, trade. France's largest automotive company, Renault, in which the French government is an influential minority shareholder, has signed an agreement with Tehran to build factories in Iran for export to the entire Middle East and Central Asia.
And it is an open question, of course, whether any combination of sanctions, short of a blockade of Iranian oil, could convince the ruling mullahs to cease and desist since the nuclear program is one of the few things that the quarrelsome political clergy can agree on. It is also undoubtedly popular with many ordinary Iranians, who see the nuke as an expression of Iranian nationalism, not as an instrument of mass destruction in the hands of virulently anti-American clerics. The mullahs, who have alienated just about everyone in the country with their incompetence, corruption, and antidemocratic behavior, have accidentally discovered something that gives them prestige and nationalist credentials. (Secretive and mendacious, the ruling divines owe a thank you to the virulently anti-regime group the Mujahedeen Khalq for originally exposing the nuclear program's dimensions and progress to the Iranian public.)
Which brings us to the crucial question: What can the administration do?
There are four options:
One. Admit defeat, play along with the Europeans, and learn to love the clerical nuclear weapon. Of course, President Bush and Vice President Cheney would have to eat their words about an Iranian nuclear menace, abandon preemption, the Axis of Evil doctrine, and the entire counterterrorist approach since 9/11. They would also have to cross their fingers that a regime addicted to both terrorism as statecraft and anti-Americanism wouldn't ever use its nuclear-weapons technology against the United States or an ally, directly or indirectly via surrogate Islamic radicals. In particular, the Bush administration would need to forget the disconcerting contacts--see the 9/11 Commission report--between members of al Qaeda and the clerical regime. Democratic senator Joseph Biden could be helpful as a model in this regard, as he always tries to refer to the members of al Qaeda in Iran as "in custody," which is exactly how the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs describes them.
Two. Try to force a vote on the U.N. Security Council finding Iran not in full compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and thereby subject to sanctions. This tactic won't work since neither the Europeans, nor the Russians, nor the Chinese would likely go along. This maneuver might make sense as a preliminary to a preemptive military strike, allowing Washington to say that it tried. However, since the Europeans are never going to state publicly what they regularly say privately--that the Iranians are determined to acquire, at minimum, the means of quickly producing a nuclear weapon--the rhetorical and moral advantage of going to the U.N. seems nil.
Three. Tell the Europeans in crystal-clear language that the United States intends to strike preemptively clerical Iran's nuclear-related facilities unless they insist to the Iranians that Western inspectors must be allowed immediate free access to any challenged site in Iran. Tell the Europeans to tell the Iranians what Washington said to them. (U.S. surveillance satellites should be trained on Iran to watch for telltale movement and communications.) This approach might possibly work, but it's doubtful. Either the Europeans or the Iranians will probably refuse (the Iranians are vastly better than the French, Germans, and Brits at brinkmanship).
Four. Realize that the only option that passes the pinch test--that realistically offers a good chance of delaying Iran's nuclear-weapons production by years--is a preemptive military strike against all of the facilities that American, European, Israeli, and (in private) IAEA intelligence suspect are associated with weapons production. There are certainly many arguments to be made against a preemptive attack, though only one is really free from a pre-9/11 mindset that advances defense over offense in counterterrorism. The weak arguments--the Iranian nation will rise against us, the democratic movement in Iran will die, the Iranian clergy will retaliate in Iraq and globally--are not historically or psychologically particularly compelling. Iranians as a people may well rally around the flag, but so what? The Iranians rallied around the flag when Saddam Hussein invaded in 1980. The invasion didn't prevent the spiritual collapse of the Islamic revolution and the growing popular animus towards the ruling clergy, which were both well underway by the mid-1980s.
Iranians are not nationalist automatons--they are among the most profound, cynical patriots imaginable. They have learned to hate the clerical regime for the most intimate, in-your-face reasons. This disgust will not be long buried by a rush of patriotic passion provoked by an American bombing run on nuclear facilities. Given the Iranian character, it's likely to dissipate at an astonishing speed.
And even if the Iranians were to prove themselves nationalist zealots--there is a first time for everything--history is littered with determined nationalists who lose in battles against stronger powers. And the current Iranian government has already stifled the democratic movement in the country. The democratic culture in Iran is certainly alive and growing. But it's absurdly American-centric to believe that Iranians are embracing democratic ideas because of a love of the United States. Iranians are increasingly democratic in spirit because of their own collision with various types of dictatorship over the last hundred years. Some of Iran's most determined and popular democratic dissidents already have a very jaundiced view of the United States. After a U.S. strike, they would just like us even less.
What a preemptive attack would certainly do is provoke another debate about the competence of a ruling clergy who led the nation into a head-on collision with the United States. Khamenei and Rafsanjani, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps behind them, would not look so clever or so unchallengeably strong the day after U.S. missiles and planes destroyed the nuclear facilities. The clerical regime might well try to retaliate against the United States clandestinely. It rose to power in large measure on deceit and a willingness to use intimidation, ruthless violence, and terrorism against its opponents (which is, of course, why you don't want them to have a nuke).
But the fear-of-terrorism argument takes us back to the pre-9/11 world, where we preempted ourselves because of our fear of our enemies' potential nastiness. This argument is similar in sentiment and ethics to those used by European states that gave laissez-passers to Palestinian terrorists so long as the Palestinians agreed not to kill Israelis and Jews on their soil. The logic of this argument will always cede the high ground to an enemy willing to use terrorism against us (and the mullahs have certainly proven over two decades that they are willing to use terrorism against us and others). The only responsible rejoinder here is to threaten your enemy with massive retaliation, aimed directly at the world he cherishes, and especially at the military and security-and-intelligence structures that guarantee his survival. If we want to stop Iran's terrorist-supporting clerics from getting nukes, we have to be prepared to stare them down.
And, yes, the Iranians could try also to strike us in Iraq, but they are on operationally weak ground in Mesopotamia. Iraqi Shiite interests differ starkly from clerical Iran's. The Iraqi Shia as a people and the major Shiite groups through which Iran has tried to work its influence have pledged themselves to creating a democracy. It is enormously unlikely that the Iraqi Shia will abandon a peaceful path to democracy and engage in terrorism against the United States for the sake of a Persian clerical regime that most Iraqi Arabs dislike and don't trust. And Iranians must have secure Iraqi operational partners: If they operate alone, they stand out and run the serious risk that their hand will be discovered. If discovered, the clerics' fear of massive American retaliation against the regime comes into play.
The stronger argument against attacking Iran's nuclear-weapons facilities is that we may not technically be able to do it. This point needs to be debated by military men, intelligence officers, and senior officials. Given how diligently Iran has tried to hide certain facilities and deny access to others, the evidence certainly suggests that the clerical regime's research and production may not allow for that much duplication and concealment. The American, European, and Israeli intelligence communities have a good deal of information on a wide variety of likely and possible sites. Quite unintentionally, the IAEA has also aided in what is becoming a targeting guide. And given the awful terrorist track record of the clerical regime toward us and others, it would be wise for the administration--assuming it wants to pass the pinch test and not continually punt to the Europeans--to posit that we can severely hurt the Iranian nuclear-weapons program until proven otherwise.
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WHICH LEAVES US with al Qaeda, the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, and the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. The first two are completely intertwined. The Middle East initiative is the Bush administration's attempt to get to the root causes behind al Qaeda: the nexus between Islamic extremism and tyranny. Building on the intellectual spadework done by such influential historians as Princeton University's Bernard Lewis and Johns Hopkins University's Fouad Ajami, President Bush has underscored American-supported Middle Eastern autocracy as the jet fuel behind Islamic holy-warriorism. The Broader Middle East Initiative is supposed to encourage the political opening of Middle Eastern societies. Yet as of now, the initiative contains no coercive measures for encouraging dictators and kings to loosen their grips on their societies. In the State Department's view, this evolution is all supposed to happen voluntarily.
There is no historical reason to believe that it will. The Middle East's unelected rulers have shown no inclination whatsoever to off themselves. On the contrary, they have shown repeatedly that they are willing to intimidate, jail, or eliminate serious regime-threatening dissident movements. Still, things are changing in the Muslim Middle East, particularly in the Arab world. In great part owing to President Bush's post-9/11 actions, reformers are trying to gain some public ground and even, in some countries, toeholds inside governments. These efforts reflect a general consensus in the Middle East, among both the man in the street and the elites, that the status quo is unsustainable, that something must give in the Middle East's politically dysfunctional societies. Travel the Middle East and it's easy to find people who feel that just maybe, for a variety of interlocking reasons, despotism in the region is now on shaky ground. Which is why if the Bush administration is serious about its own analysis and intentions it will start to pressure the only two governments over which it has any real leverage--Egypt and Jordan.
Egypt is the make-or-break country in the Arab world. If Egypt were to go democratic, the political impact on the Arab world would be even greater than the likely shockwave that will come from Iraq if the democratic experiment there can hold. Along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Egypt is the birthplace of the jihadist spirit of 9/11. Highly Westernized, urban, and urbane, Egypt is rich in wannabe political parties, particularly those of a religious stripe. If the president's counterterrorist democracy project makes sense in the Middle East--and it is certain that this president believes passionately that it does (a good example of a man who knows virtually nothing about the Middle East knowing more than many "realist" foreign-service and intelligence officials who've dedicated their lives to the region)--then his administration needs to prove that the Broader Middle East Initiative is more than just ideological window dressing. It should attach pro-democracy conditionalities to American aid.
For example, give Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, or whoever succeeds him (he is old and in spotty health), a three-year deadline to implement a real democratic transition. Link the billions in U.S. aid to political achievements. Marry the aid to regular public statements about the need for the people of Egypt to determine their own destiny. (To his credit, President Bush has already rocked the Egyptian dictator once by a speech that singled out Egypt as a dictatorship that needed to evolve.)
Will Mubarak or his eldest son, who may be his successor, go for it? Probably not. But the United States needs to align itself finally on the democratic side in the Muslim Middle East. In no small part, bin Ladenism arose because the United States was constantly aligning itself with oppressive dictators, an understandable by-product of the Cold War. We should be enormously wary of any claim made by the U.S. intelligence community that support for this dictator or that king is essential to the war on terrorism. Eventually, we have to stop putting the cart before the horse. There is no historical reason to believe that bin Ladenism will end until the Middle East's autocracies evolve--until liberals, Muslim moderates, and fundamentalists have a chance to make their case democratically.
And intelligence services love to say their liaison work is essential to national security. Upon review, one usually discovers that it isn't quite as essential as the intel officers said, and that the regime in question isn't giving information to us because they like us. Fear of common enemies or more powerful "friends," possible punishment and reward, have much more to do with the liaison relationships. We cannot win this war through police actions. As a bureaucratically astute National Security Council official recently remarked, we should use our intelligence and security-service relationships to encourage these foreign intelligence and security services to evolve. Middle Eastern security services will have to crack--their loyalties and esprit de corps must become more popularly based--to have democratic movements triumph, at least without bloodshed. In both Egypt and especially Jordan, many within the political elites say they want change, that they have to change, sooner not later. Put them to the test. Give them an incentive to get serious.
And democratic change in Jordan, where over half the citizenry identifies itself as Palestinian (the percentage is even higher if one counts long-term Palestinian "refugees"), could have an enormous positive impact upon the Palestinian community on the West Bank of the Jordan river. No one talks about what democracy would do among East Bank Palestinians. They should. The identities of the denizens of both banks may meld. They may further separate. They will definitely provoke each other, fueling a profound debate about what it means to be Palestinian. To the Bush administration's credit, it seems to understand well that the key to any successful Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is the democratic evolution of the Palestinian people on the West Bank and in Gaza (it should add on the East Bank). The Palestinians must show that they have divorced themselves from decades of imbibing terrorism ("armed resistance") as the core of their national identity. This may be a long and painful process even in a democratic Palestinian society. Neither the Israeli Left nor Right wants to go back to the summer of 2000, when many Israelis, perhaps even a majority, had hoped that Israeli concessions were the key to producing a lasting peace. Suicide bombings have killed off that dream and transformed the Labor party into a vastly more skeptical enterprise.
Ariel Sharon is popular in Israel because the Palestinian national movement, led by the Palestine Liberation Organization, waged war on the Israeli liberal imagination. That imagination isn't dead, but it is circumscribed by the security barrier across the West Bank. The "Wall" has cut the Palestinian suicide-bombing success rate by 90 percent, and returned something close to normalcy to the Israeli psyche. A renewed "peace process" begins with that barrier: It ain't going anywhere. (Indeed, it can only grow in length and size.) And no American government post-9/11 is going to force the democratically elected government of Israel to move it, not before the Palestinian people have proven beyond doubt that they have gone cold-turkey on terrorism. It is in fact the "Wall," not Arafat's death, that is the real catalyst for change among West Bank Palestinians.
One has to assume that Tony Blair, a pretty keen observer of the American scene, knows this. Yet American coercion of the Israelis is the sine qua non, as any European will tell you, of "progress" in the Holy Land. The British prime minister apparently believes that American coercion of Israelis might again be possible through an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. It isn't. The repercussions of such a conference, where it is certain that the French and perhaps other Western Europeans would behave poorly, could not redound to the prime minister's advantage in Washington, Jerusalem, Paris, Berlin, or London. The Bush administration would do Prime Minister Blair an enormous favor by telling him so. A revolutionary among the organically conservative and timid French and Germans, Blair ought to push with President Bush for meaningful Palestinian democracy, where all Palestinians, not just the old guard of the PLO, have a real chance for power. And George Bush perhaps could remind Tony Blair, who could remind the French and Germans, that bin Ladenism went from infancy to adulthood during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who was addicted to advancing the nationalist and religious aspirations of the Palestinian people by negotiation. (Remember those halcyon years!)
Of course, no discussion about any of the Middle East's problems between the president and the prime minister, Middle Eastern Muslims' two finest Western friends, is going to mean much unless the two gentlemen get it right in Iraq. If we lose there, it's all over. In our awful fall, even the French, smilingly, might pity us.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.