The Blog

Fearing the Shia

Why the world of pseudo-realpolitik wants to postpone the Iraqi elections.

11:00 PM, Jan 12, 2005 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE ESTABLISHMENTARIAN CRITIQUE of President Bush's policy in Iraq--and the scheming neocons for whom the president is supposed to be the Manchurian Candidate--is that they are blinded by ideology. There is, almost certainly, a grain of truth in this, but it comes from a profound belief in the American creed; it is the establishment that has the greatest difficulty in seeing reality in Iraq clearly.

It is, in fact, a near-ideological belief in conventional-wisdom circles that Iraq is poised on the edge of a civil war and that a truly representative government in Baghdad, reflecting the political will of Iraq's Shia majority, is a danger to the United States. One can almost hear the heavy sighs of regret at having deposed Saddam. Foggy Bottom in winter is a somber place.

The imminent Iraqi elections have brought these twinned canards to the fore once again. The fear of civil war in Iraq was and remains a matter of faith rather than reason. For a decade it was the basis of containing Saddam rather than canning him. Spooked that Iraq's repressed Shia and Kurds would take his hint at revolt seriously, George Bush I and his band of balance-of-power realpolitkers balked at marching on Baghdad. Brent Scowcroft, then national security adviser, still thinks that way. The other day he predicted "an incipient civil war." Worried, as ever, about the consequences of human liberty, Scowcroft suggests that "the Iraqi elections, rather than being a promising turning point, have the potential for deepening the conflict."

Reflecting the realist-leftist alliance that most opposes the Bush "forward strategy of freedom," the editorialists of the New York Times were bound to agree with Scowcroft. On Wednesday, in "Facing Facts About Iraq's Election," they allowed as how much of the foreign-policy elite believes "that civil war is probably inevitable one way or another." The Times itself recommends postponing the January 30 elections to keep them "from being something more than just the starting gun for"--wait for it--"a civil war."

The editorial also faced the "fact" that Iraq's Sunnis are "estranged" from the emerging democratic process in Iraq. Somehow, the Iraqi Sunnis have made a miraculous leap from perpetrators to victims; postponing the election would "go a long way toward reassuring [Sunnis] that the Shiite majority was not planning to trample on their rights."

At least the Times stops short of arguing that majority rule is ipso facto a bad idea, or that letting Saddam loose would also soothe Sunni sensibilities. I guess we have to wait for his trial for that transformation.

There's more than simple fear of freedom at work here. For a long time conventional wisdom about Iraq has insisted upon conflating the differences among Iraqi and Iranian Shia. This Shia-fear stems not only from the American experience of the Iranian Revolution but from many decades of propagandizing by the region's Sunni autocrats and monarchs. But a clear reading of Iraq today reveals not a lumpen Shiatariat but a pluralistic political community ranging from Abdel Aziz al-Hakim to Ahmed Chalabi. What brings them together, after generations of "estrangement" from Iraqi politics, is the chance at a decent life, a taste of liberty, and the pursuit of some happiness.



Ordinary Americans might be forgiven for wondering why it is that toppling a dangerous dictator, liberating a violently suppressed majority, and electing a representative government was a strategic mistake whose consequences should be postponed as long as possible. You have to be a member of the foreign-policy elite to understand these things.



Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.