The Magazine

Birth of a Democracy

From the February 14 / February 21, 2005 issue: Soon the whole Middle East will see Iraq's national assembly at work.

Feb 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 21 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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There are many reasons why the World War II generation of Western diplomatic and journalistic Arabists hated Zionism and the creation of Israel with a passion that occasionally rivaled the Austrian anti-Semitism of the 1920s and 1930s. But among the most important reasons is that they could see the old Middle East, with all its complexities and warmth, coming apart. Zionism and Israel became the cutting edge of the Western whirlwind that was robbing them of their beloved world. By the late 1960s, ugliness was on the march, in architecture, language, culture, politics, and manners, and the old-school Arabists locked onto Israel, and later the United States, as the culprit. This was an odd inversion of history--making Arab Muslim pride and curiosity about the secrets of the West derivative of Zionism--but the sadness that often drove this anger is understandable. The January 30 elections in Iraq are probably the first truly happy, powerful echo of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. In this at least, the French today can take pride.

The democratic ethic is trying now to put down deep roots in Iraq; the democratic spirit, however, has been present in the Middle East for a lot longer. The understanding of it has grown as tyrannies have failed (but continue to rule on), elite corruption has skyrocketed, and the number of those who have known the penalties for political deviation has risen to produce a counterculture of resistance, pride, and small-scale heroism. Not that long ago, Muslim Arabs could look at Asia and feel no shame. Not now. The civilizational gap has become too wide. And unlike 50 years ago, when Arab dictators and their peoples could believe that state power could raise nations up, now they know--and they really do know it--that their societies cannot produce capitalist dictatorships that work. Hosni Mubarak probably doesn't really care about this. That he rules is enough. But the apparatus below him does. What the Bush administration wants to do is target its message at that apparatus, particularly at the security service that must evolve or crack for there to be political change in Cairo. Rapid change in Egypt is certainly possible. Go into the streets of Cairo and ask the poor urbanized fellah whether he understands one man, one vote, and you will discover that he has an understanding that vastly exceeds his experience of democratic politics (zero). He has learned by seeing the opposite. So let us bring on C-SPAN Iraq, and let his education grow the only way it now can.

In Iraq, where Middle Eastern tyranny reached its zenith, the appreciation of democracy's possibilities is surely the most acute. America's presence in the country--its political guidance, however errant--has been essential in setting the stage for the great debates that will shortly be upon the Iraqis, the Arab world, and us. As those debates unfold, we would be wise to remember a few simple truths about Iraq, and particularly about the Iraqi Shia.

* First, contrary to the rising chorus of Democratic commentary on the Iraqi elections, Iran was the biggest loser last Sunday. The United Iraqi Alliance, which seems certain to capture the lion's share of the vote, is not at all "pro-Iranian." Neither is it any less "pro-American" than Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's al-Iraqiyya list, unless you mean that the various members of the Alliance have been and will continue to be less inclined to chat amicably with the Central Intelligence Agency, which has been a longtime backer of Allawi and his Iraqi National Accord. (This is not to suggest at all that Allawi is a CIA poodle.) A better way to describe the United Iraqi Alliance, if it lasts, is as Iran's worst nightmare. It surely will cause the clerical regime enormous pain as the Iraqis within it, especially those who were once dependent on Iranian aid, continue to distance themselves ever further from Tehran. Primary point to remember: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is now certainly the most senior Shiite cleric in both Iraq and Iran, who is of Iranian birth and early education, has embraced a democratic political creed that is anathema to the ruling mullahs of Tehran. Ali Khamenei, Iran's senior political cleric, is in a real pickle since he cannot openly challenge Sistani and his embrace of democracy. Iran's relations with the new Iraq would cease to exist. Also, the repercussions inside the Iranian clerical system would not be healthy. Sistani is the last of the truly great transnational Shiite clerics, and his following inside Iran, particularly since he has so publicly backed a democratic franchise, which if it were applied in Iran would shatter clerical power, should not be underestimated. Sistani and his men know very well that the political game they play in Iraq will have repercussions throughout the Arab world and Iran. He and his men are not rash, but there will be no tears shed on their side if Iraq's political advancement convulses those clerics in Iran who believe in theocracy.

* Second. We are lucky that Iyad Allawi's moment has passed. Spiritually and physically, Allawi would have kept the new government in the Green Zone, the surreal, guarded compound in central Baghdad where the American embassy is located. The United Iraqi Alliance will ensure that it is in all aspects pulled out. No real political progress among Iraqis can be made unless the Green Zone becomes a memory of occupation.

* Third. The United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish slate will probably start to review closely America's and Allawi's army, police, and intelligence training programs. This is all to the good. We have had enormous problems with these programs, in part because we have tried to incorporate Sunni Arabs who were not loyal to the new Iraq. The Alliance and the Kurds will be much more demanding than was Allawi, who built his outreach program to Sunnis in large part on bribery. By offering them jobs in the new army, police force, and intelligence service, Allawi led Sunnis to believe their positions in these organizations would not be subject to democratic politics. Allawi actually created the opposite dynamic among the Sunnis from what he intended. The Sunni insurgency was emboldened. Those elite Sunnis who should have felt the need to compromise and come on board did not do so. With the January 30 elections, the Sunni Arabs now know the old order is dead. The Shia and the Kurds will certainly reach out to them--Sistani has been doing so since Saddam fell--but they are unlikely to continue any form of bribery that touches upon Iraq's military services. Washington should welcome any change of tactics in this direction. Allawi's way was not working.

* Fourth. If Ahmad Chalabi gains a position of influence inside the new national assembly, it would be wise for State and the CIA to ensure that any and all officials who were involved in his regular trashings--particularly the trashing of his home--do not serve in Iraq. The Bush administration is going to have a hard time working with and figuring out the Iraqi Shia (it is striking how thin U.S. embassy coverage of the Shia still seems), and it does not need to further antagonize one of the few Iraqis capable of appreciating both the religious and secular sides of the Iraqi Shiite family and who can present his understanding to the Americans in a way they can understand. Ahmad Chalabi may be wrong in his assessments--he has certainly made mistakes in the past--but the Bush administration is doing itself an enormous disservice if it allows the old State-CIA animus against Chalabi to continue any further. Irony is always both bitter and sweet. Tell Langley to live with it before Chalabi has the will and allies to get even.

* And fifth. Continue to pray every night for the health, well-being, and influence of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Not surprisingly, there seems to be an increasing body of American liberals out there who foretell the end of a "liberal Iraq" because religious Shia now have a political voice. It is a blessed thing that Sistani and his followers have a far better understanding of modern Middle Eastern history than the American and European liberals who travel to Iraq and find only fear. There are vastly worse things in this world than seeing grown Iraqi men and women arguing about the propriety and place of Islamic family law and traditional female attire in Iraqi society. Understood correctly, it will be an ennobling sight--and a cornerstone of a more liberal Iraq and the Muslim world beyond.

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