The Magazine

A New Middle East, After All

What George W. Bush hath wrought.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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This violence has so far been contained, primarily for two reasons: U.S. forces are still all over the central Shiite provinces and can decisively take sides in Shiite battles if they choose to, and the clerical establishment led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has used its influence to discourage violent factionalism. Lasting stability will likely come through big Shiite political parties that pay due respect to the clerical establishment. Although decentralization and federalism make sense for the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs, it's difficult to see how intra-Shiite federalism could play out happily. Basra's violence hasn't infected the Shiite north in part because the sentiments and allegiances of the city and the surrounding countryside really are distinctive. Trying to separate Baghdad, however, from the central Shiite regions, as some Shiite leaders recommend, seems a recipe for more violence, not less. Already, petty warlordism has emerged among the Shia, and it could spread if the Shiite leadership renounced a compelling national idea. In an oil-rentier state where oil wealth, at least outside Kurdistan, will first go to the central government, any attempt to formally subdivide the Shiites could turn into a nightmare.

Despite their often fiery national and Arab consciousness, the Iraqi Shia have no national institutions aside from their clerical establishment, which has always been weak in the south. And the south illustrates what can happen among them when national and foreign forces are insufficient to counter entropy. For the Shia, then, depending on the location, provincial elections may weaken national consciousness and fortify those elements--especially Iranian influence--that we want diminished.

Nevertheless, provincial elections also hold out considerable promise for Iraq's largest community. The big Shiite parties desperately need to be more attentive to local concerns; they need to think more about potholes, schools, and electricity and less about the elite, highly personal, "Green Zone" politics of Baghdad. In the all-important central regions of Iraq, which will determine the fate of the country, the clerics of Najaf appear to be still strong on the ground. Local elections may enhance the power of the peace-promoting traditional scholars of Islamic law.

Most important, a lot of Iraqis, especially Arabs, are mad about the unresponsiveness of the national government. They want to see more representative government. Many Shiites, especially among the southern tribes, want to see local government develop that isn't held hostage to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Sadrists, or the Iranians. Without American forces in the south, it will be difficult to stop these three from intimidating voters. Yet at the very least, provincial elections will force competition among all the parties. They will advance the democratic dynamic and prepare the ground for the all-important national elections.

Provincial elections, even if deeply flawed, should help develop local urban elites, who, before the coming of the modern dictatorships, were the key to stability and basic decency in the Middle East. With American help, these elites might be willing and able to change Iraq's electoral system from one based on party lists to one based on districts in time for the national elections of 2009. Although party list systems have certain advantages in violent societies, district systems are conducive to stronger local leadership and more attentive national parties. This change would greatly benefit Iraq--another reason the Bush administration should push hard for provincial elections this year. That second turn at the urns at the national level is critical for cementing the democratic ethic in any country. The Bush administration needs to do everything in its power to help the Iraqis have robust, competitive national elections in 2009.

Despite the horrendous violence of 2006 and 2007, the Shiite commitment to the political system remains intact. The Shiite-on-Shiite killing since 2007 may have actually helped: The forces allied to Moktada al-Sadr have fared poorly in direct collisions with the Shiite-led Iraqi army and the Badr Corps, the military wing of SIIC, the best-organized Shiite religious party. Sadr plays more politics now than he did two years ago, when the destruction of the Shiite shrine at Samarra plunged Iraq into a bloodbath. Like his much beloved, murdered father, Sadr is throwing his movement into social work. There is still a big military potential to this--young men organized into self-help societies can be turned into paramilitary forces. But Sadr, at least in Baghdad and the central Euphrates valley, is recasting himself as a peaceful, die-hard anti-American patriot. He is reportedly trying to become a more accomplished student of Iranian religious jurisprudence, a sure sign that Sadr is politically stuck. He cannot humble himself to go to school in Iraq--his scholastic credentials are too weak, and he is too disliked by the traditional clergy to attend his country's great religious schools. So he reaches out to Iran, hardly a winning political strategy for one whose appeal lies partly in his fiery Arab-Iraqi nationalism.

And Sadr's principal antagonist--Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SIIC--seems even more committed to the political process than Sadr. Hakim's uncle is one of the four grand ayatollahs of Najaf and probably the most influential after Sistani, the Iranian émigré who has become since 2003 the most beloved and respected ayatollah in the Shiite world. And Hakim himself has grown increasingly attentive to the concerns of Najaf since he returned from Iranian exile nearly five years ago.

With the possible exception of the prime minister, no Shiite politician is viewed as more accountable than Hakim for the successes and failures of the current government. If the Shia are unhappy with the government, the backlash could hit Hakim and his party fairly hard. The Najaf connection is his lifeline since Sistani, who has pushed and defined the democratic process more than anyone else, can guarantee that Hakim stays politically relevant even if popular dissatisfaction with the government grows. Given his personal limitations--he is neither an accomplished cleric nor a charismatic personality--Hakim is unlikely to derail the Bush administration or its successor with his personal ambition.

This said, one can wonder whether General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker's decision to side so clearly with Hakim's Badr Corps over the disparate parts of Sadr's Mahdi army is astute. The SIIC's grassroots support may not be deep (provincial elections will help us know). Many faithful Iraqi Shiites have concerns about the SIIC's Iranian connections. Although its men serve in the Iraqi army, the Badr and the army are not the same. Iranian connections to the Badr are still strong--the ruling Iranian clergy has always put high value on nurturing foreign clienteles. General Petraeus is doing the best he can with too few troops, and picking proxies is an inevitable part of this surge.

Yet when Iraqis think about Hakim, they think first and foremost of his family's corruption and behind-the-scenes power. The Arabic word Ittilaat, "intelligence service," is often used to describe Hakim's SIIC. That's not a good sign. Militarily strong on the ground in the holy city of Najaf, Hakim and SIIC could envelop Grand Ayatollah Sistani, using both subtle physical intimidation and praise to ensure his support. Sistani is a cautious man; all lose in Iraq if he is de facto held hostage. It would be best not to tempt fate by fortifying too much the Badr Corps, an institution that could conceivably mutate into an Iraqi version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, of which it once was part.

The immediate priority for the Bush administration should be to encourage the passage of a provincial-election law, then to speed the administrative preparations for a vote, which will take several months. These elections should breathe fresh air into Iraq's national politics and put purple index fingers again all over Middle Eastern television screens. Since the invasion, America's prestige has never been higher. The renewed mystique may not last. Many in Washington, especially inside the Pentagon and the leadership of the Democratic party, may resist holding provincial elections because they are likely to prevent big reductions in U.S. forces before 2010. But the president must realize this is probably a make-or-break issue for Iraqi democracy.

By the hair of his chinny-chin-chin, President Bush will probably leave office with a sputtering but functioning democratic system in Mesopotamia. Accepted wisdom now holds that the ripple effect from Iraq, if there is one, is all bad. In Europe this is mostly true. The loss of Tony Blair's Britain as a reliable and gutsy ally is perhaps the most regrettable by-product of Iraq in Europe. A second-rate military power, the United Kingdom was never going to be able to cope with a stressful, violent occupation. Our "special relationship" will continue, especially in the area of counterterrorism, where the United States has grown closer to every European security service since 2003. But Iraq has accelerated a distancing of American and British political elites.

In the Middle East, however, it is not clear that America's position has suffered that much from the invasion. Perhaps with Iran: More Americans might be willing to entertain the idea of preventive military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities if the Bush administration had not done so poorly in Mesopotamia. But that issue aside, ripples from Iraq could still turn out to be more positive than negative, perhaps decisively so.


Contrary to the views of most counterterrorism experts and most Democrats, the war against Islamic extremism has probably seen a pivotal victory in Iraq. Unlike 9/11 or the bombings in Madrid and London, the Second Iraq War, with its ferocious Muslim-on-Muslim violence, has actually provoked some deep reflection about holy war among the faithful in the Middle East. Although the situation could still unravel and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia could get a new lease on life, the fight against that organization, and the Sunnis' second thoughts about their zeal against the Shia, have shaken Arabs' easy characterization of this war as a war against American occupation.

To begin with, Al Qaeda central--Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri--know they are in trouble. The war has produced a small epistolary avalanche of tactical recalculations and spiritual appeals to brother Muslims to focus the fight on American infidels. Iraq was supposed to break the United States. This was, in bin Laden's words, "a war over the destiny of the entire umma [the worldwide Muslim community]." Instead, Iraq is becoming a serious setback, if not a spiritual Waterloo, for the Muslim world's most feared and most respected jihadists. As bin Laden conceded about the Iraqi jihad, "Allah only knows what sort of ramifications it holds for Islam and its people."

In his December 29 declaration on Iraq, bin Laden savagely attacked Sunnis who are working with the Americans, calling them guilty of "clear infidelity and an open apostasy." Abu Ahmad al-Baghdadi, a spokesman for one of the Sunni insurgent groups, didn't buy this. He told Al Jazeera, the pro-Sunni, pro-insurgent Arabic satellite TV channel, that "Al Qaeda in Iraq has become a hand that destroys the Sunnis. Many Sunnis have been killed by them. Al Qaeda in Iraq is a source of corruption. . . . They always direct their weapons at innocent civilians." Al-Baghdadi had no difficulty throwing the Prophet Muhammad back at bin Laden: Why shouldn't Sunnis make a truce with the Americans when "the Prophet made a truce" with nonbelievers?

Commentary like this influences Muslim attitudes far more than all of America's public-diplomacy outreach; it is worth far more, too, than the soft-power appeal of any Barack Obama signaling his empathy with the downtrodden of the Third World.

Although Senators Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joseph Biden would rather burn in oil than give George Bush credit for his insistence on linking the war in Iraq to the battle against Islamic extremism, the president has damaged al Qaeda--and al Qaeda has damaged itself--more in Mesopotamia than on any other battlefield. Al Qaeda will live on in the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and from there it may do horrendous harm to the United States and its European allies. But if al Qaeda is ever to evanesce, it will be because its jihadism lost its ethical appeal in the Arab heartland where it was born. American and Pakistani paramilitary successes against al Qaeda will never be sufficient to demonstrate the organization's evil to Muslims worldwide. Indeed, Pakistan's ineffectual attempts to assert control over tribal border areas have been counterproductive, giving bin Laden a fillip of hope at a time when his jihad is facing decided difficulty in Iraq.

By contrast, it is democracy in Iraq, as bin Laden correctly foresaw, that would be toxic to his cause: Few ideas elicit from him more venom. It is one of the great ironies of the war that President Bush, a man not known for perusing much primary material, actually did read bin Laden's declarations about Iraq and did consider his ideas. It is by no means clear Bush's antiwar critics ever have. We have not been able to counter the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian intellectual engines of jihadism against the United States; this would be difficult even if Bush's State Department actually tried it. But what we have done is help Iraqis grope their way toward democracy, even as al Qaeda's cruelty has rallied Iraqis to fight at our side.


A year ago George W. Bush was the first American president to be on the way to losing two wars simultaneously. Now, he may be losing only one. The good news is that the administration knows it's in trouble in Afghanistan.

Even with the strain of Iraq, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will likely increase troop levels sufficiently to parry the resurgent Taliban where it matters most. Afghanistan was always going to be an extraordinary test of American will. If the United States remains in Iraq for at least a decade (a pretty safe bet), it's likely to be in Afghanistan much longer.

Afghanistan is already proving too much for most of our NATO allies, who are hunkering down--and, in the case of the Spanish and Italians, "secretly" dealing with the Taliban in an effort to deflect violence from their troops. (One former senior Spanish official calls this "preemptive surrender.") With the mountainous tribal lands of Pakistan as a safe haven, Afghanistan's Pashtun Taliban--many of its members actually born in Pakistan's refugee camps and educated in its religious schools--was always going to recover. It is probably too late for President Bush to develop a new policy toward Pakistan. To do so, he would have to ignore the counsel of the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, and Washington's unofficial foreign-policy establishment, which remain more or less wedded to a pre-9/11 alignment of the United States with the Pakistani military--our "essential" but fragile ally against al Qaeda. We will soon see the denouement of our post-9/11 counterterrorist training of the Pakistani Army: Openly or discreetly, we must pray that it can wear down the Islamic extremists who control the tribal lands and are challenging Islamabad in the neighboring North-West Frontier Province.

A more effective, though nerve-racking, strategy would have had the United States use ground and air strikes inside Pakistan since 2002 to punish those aiding the rebirth of the Taliban. We should have been more focused on actually killing al Qaeda, the Taliban, and those in Pakistan who support them. Soon we could be in a worse position than we were before 9/11, with Afghan and Pakistani militants plotting and training without real fear of American harassment. Given the growing extremist presence there, the North-West Frontier Province may be destined to experience years of suicide bombings and insurgent attacks. This probably can't destabilize the entire country, but it can seriously stress the military and the intelligence services, where Pashtuns from the North-West Frontier Province disproportionately serve. No matter what we do, and no matter whether its government now becomes more democratic or more authoritarian, Pakistan is likely to experience increasing violence.

If undertaken at this late date, American strikes inside Pakistan would roil our relations with the Pakistani military and make life more dangerous for Americans living in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Our intelligence cooperation with Islamabad would probably suffer severely. Even secular Pakistanis might rise in indignation. On the other hand, what we have now is definitely not working. We will surely rue the day the United States allowed al Qaeda and its sympathizers a place to grow unmolested.

As Britain's internal-security service, MI5, is well aware, the Pakistani connection is now the most worrisome nexus for al Qaeda to exploit, what with the enormous number of Pakistanis traveling between the two countries. According to British internal-security officials, every year upwards of 80,000 Pakistanis resident in the United Kingdom, many of them British citizens, visit areas of Pakistan that are "rich with jihadists." Other European countries also have Pakistani communities. The discovery of jihadist cells within them is becoming a regular occurrence.

So far, the Pakistani military has proven itself unwilling or unable to fight it out with Pashtun fundamentalists who live near the Afghan-Pakistani border. With America's strong encouragement, President Musharraf attempted to extend his writ into the tribal regions. He failed abysmally, watching Pashtun forces in the army and the frontier constabulary grumble and often desert.

Unless we deploy a lot more troops to Afghanistan to implement an "ink-spot" counterinsurgency akin to the one led by General Petraeus in Iraq, it's doubtful the United States and NATO can reverse the ascendancy of the Taliban among the Pashtuns. Since we don't want to invade another country, we will give the Pakistani army another chance to destroy al Qaeda and neutralize the Taliban. But if the Pakistanis don't do what is necessary in the next 12 months, they probably never will. And note: If Washington is reluctant to launch paramilitary strikes into northwestern Pakistan to kill members of al Qaeda and disrupt new terrorist training camps, it definitely isn't going to launch covert operations to neutralize Pakistan's nuclear weapons in the event the Pakistani army becomes too Islamic. The level of intestinal fortitude and the quality of intelligence required for the former is vastly less than would be required for the latter.

Still, there are grounds for expecting that Pakistan will hang together. Its history since 1947 has given the nation an identity that sticks. The lingering legacy of the British--an aversion to extremes--among both the civilian elite and the tightknit officer corps has usually kept Pakistanis from acting like the more brutal elites of the Arab Middle East. As long as the unique ability of the Pakistani army to absorb both secularists and Islamists within its ranks continues--a modus vivendi that has held since at least the 1970s--the country won't fall apart and its nukes are unlikely either to disappear into the hands of extremists or to get fired. It's impossible to overstate the extent to which Pakistan's fundamentalists loathe the polytheist Hindus of India. Yet the Pakistani military, a tough and fraternal organization, has kept the country from indulging its worst instincts and doing anything stupid with its nukes. Even occasional military strikes by American forces against Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds in the remote tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan would not crack this institution or its control of nuclear weapons.

We will see whether the Pakistani army, always the backbone of the country, is sufficiently wise to allow the people's continuing attachment to messy democratic politics the room to grow. Pakistan's political salvation is probably a long way off no matter what Washington does, but greater distance between the United States and the Pakistani military would benefit both parties. Although it's impossible for America's allies within the military to say so publicly, they would likely be in no worse position if the United States assumed the responsibility for necessary military operations in the tribal regions. Then the Pakistanis could join our enemies in damning us for violating Pakistani sovereignty, while leaving all concerned more secure than if the Pakistani military took on the emboldened Pashtun fundamentalists and lost.


The Levant has not been kind to the Bush administration. On virtually every issue in this region, the White House has misfired, not fired at all, or been worn out by contradictory aspirations. The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is as it was in 2000: an event controlled by the continuing Islamist evolution of the Palestinian people, who do not in sufficient numbers countenance peace with a Jewish state. The only real question remaining is whether the Fatah dictatorship on the West Bank will evolve quickly or slowly into a spiritual twin of Hamas. Contrary to what has been endlessly suggested by foreign-policy "realists," democracy did not destroy Fatah or undermine the chances for peace. Fatah destroyed Fatah. Westernized secular autocracies have similarly squandered their legitimacy throughout the Middle East ever since World War II. Elections will inevitably give expression to this failure.

No elected Muslim Arab government is likely to embrace Israel for many years to come. President Bush got the order backwards in his post-Annapolis speeches, suggesting that the Palestinians need to be able to envision a complete state living side by side with Israel so that democracy can triumph. Democracy did triumph among the Palestinians--Hamas won. Arab autocrats sign peace treaties with Israel; Arab democrats won't. That explains the Israelis' preference for Muslim dictatorship over Muslim democracy. Believing Muslims first have to figure out how to reconcile parliamentary legislation and the Holy Law; how to accept a Jewish state on land that devout Muslims see as part of the historic umma is much farther down this evolutionary path. Max Boot's parallel with the English and the Scots, who made war on each other for centuries, is apt--but the religious, social, cultural, political, and economic differences between the Jewish Israelis and the Muslim Palestinians dwarf the historic divide between Britain's warring peoples.

The preeminent issue for Palestinians, as for others in the region, is responsibility: Will Muslims become responsible for themselves, ethically and politically? Will they stop blaming others and blame themselves for their problems? It's very difficult to see how the Islamic, especially Arab, world can confront its manifest problems without Muslims, individually and collectively, assuming responsibility for their actions. Democracy is a good idea for the Middle East not because it will improve Western-Muslim relations. Odds are, in the short term, it will do the opposite. Increasingly, Muslims, especially devout Muslims, are backing democratic politics because they see this as the only way to restore legitimacy to government. Democracy, not dictatorship, opens societies to debates, which fundamentalists may well win. Elections that allow fundamentalists a chance to triumph--not police-state repression or antiterrorist pronouncements by the co-opted official clergy of the challenged regimes--are the key to eventually destroying the appeal of the violent extremists. As always, bin Laden is a helpful guide: If he loathes democracy among Muslims, it's a good reason to support it.

Hamas's triumph in the Palestinian elections of January 2006 probably put the last nail in the coffin of the Bush administration's efforts to encourage reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries that drove the spread of modern Islamic radicalism. From the beginning, Bush's democracy-and-reform agenda was largely rhetorical, undermined consistently by America's deference to Saudi oil and the senior cadre of the State Department's Near Eastern Bureau who saw the status quo as a safer bet than the convulsive, unsettling world of representative politics among Muslims. Like those American supporters of Israel who have grown queasy at the sight of democracy on the West Bank and in Gaza, the State Department's senior Arabists see the current regimes as bulwarks against radical Islam. They may admit that these autocracies have helped to radicalize their populations through repression. They may be uncomfortable with the aid these regimes have given to conservative religious forces to thwart more radical religious groups. They may even be distressed to see Egypt's ruler, Hosni Mubarak, harass and jail liberal democratic dissidents and critics (though if the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Francis Ricciardone, is upset by this, he's doing a good job of hiding it).

But they are unwilling to risk the unknown, which is what greater democracy would produce. For them, 9/11 did not change the world; it made one more argument for hanging on tight to the imperfect but "stable" world we had. The only thing they really want to export to the Muslim Middle East is security. Even though President Bush occasionally throws a rhetorical Molotov cocktail at this pre-9/11 "realist" understanding of the Middle East, in practice this view now defines his administration. Bush fils asking the Saudis, pretty please, to lower the price of oil could just as easily have been Bush père. Bringing democracy to Saudi Arabia understandably was never a priority for the Bush administration (there were better places to push). But the administration egregiously failed to challenge the Saudis on matters of faith.

Even the relatively moderate, state-supported version of the Saudi Wahhabi faith, derived from the severe Hanbali school of law, is inimical to what Muslims historically have considered mainstream. It is also organically anti-American. On a global level, it is more dangerous than anything that has ever come out of Iran. After 9/11, President Bush could have easily ordered the State Department and the CIA to track Saudi state-supported religious institutions and publications in the Middle East and the West. Regular public reports on Saudi Arabia--biennial unclassified National Intelligence Estimates on Saudi missionary activity around the world--would have gone a long way toward galvanizing Western and anti-Wahhabi Muslim awareness of what the Saudi royal family and the Saudi state were doing. It's not too late for the American government to do this--Congress could require any administration to undertake such reporting. Foggy Bottom and Langley would fight it strenuously since it would crimp their bilateral Saudi relationships. Today, in post-9/11 Washington, they have the upper hand.

Lebanon today, too, isn't what the Bush administration had hoped, and Syria and its principal Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, are once again gaining strength through murder and intimidation. Once Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, realized that Bush's soft-power Cedar Revolution wasn't going to bring him down (and for a moment in 2005, he wasn't sure), Washington lost its ability to coerce and intervene.

America's retreat from democratic Lebanon has been somewhat counterbalanced by Israel's bombing raid against the suspected nuclear site near Dayr az-Zawr, in Syria, which surprised and silenced both Damascus and its key backer, Tehran. But even here, the reaction in Washington is distressing. The Israelis exercised preemption, and the Bush administration--which has made preventive war an official part of America's post-9/11 doctrine--remained silent. The administration seems little inclined to dispute Israeli intelligence, but even if it thought the Israelis were wrong about North Korean involvement in this suspected nuclear site, the signal from the raid is exactly the one the president and the vice president were trying to send the Iranians about their nuclear facilities if they didn't stop uranium enrichment. It's hard to imagine a more helpful event for European and American Iran diplomacy, with its good-cop, bad-cop approach, yet Washington let it fall flat. It appears the administration went easy on Damascus partly for the illusory promise of Syrian participation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process--which shows how far it has reverted to a pre-9/11 understanding of the Middle East.

Iraq and the war on terror will likely save the president's legacy in the Middle East. Although his soaring pro-democracy rhetoric has often been nullified by the actions of his minions and the president's own misunderstanding of what democracy in action means in the Muslim Middle East, George W. Bush has probably changed forever how Washington views Muslims and their rulers. Many in Washington may still believe, as George Kennan did, that Muslims are suited to dictatorship. Publicly, however, that position is no longer acceptable. This is no small achievement.

An uneasy and healthy tension now exists between rhetoric and reality, guaranteeing that Americans will continue to debate what has gone wrong and right in the Muslim Middle East. Whether America escapes another 9/11 or not, the president deserves credit for understanding that the region's murderous anti-American extremists, both secular and religious, had to be confronted on the battlefield. Sanctions, cruise missiles shot at rock huts and empty intelligence-service buildings, and close liaison relationships with foreign internal-security services were not enough. If the United States is brutally struck again by holy warriors, President Bush will seem prescient and wise--about the need for reform in the Middle East's autocracies, about the strategic shortsightedness and immorality of pre-9/11 American foreign policy toward Muslims, and about the imperative to use ugly tactics against mass-casualty terrorists. Given the forces arrayed against him, his administration's failures, and his own limitations, these are achievements even Ronald Reagan would envy.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.