Mission Accomplished?

The Sunni Awakening, combined with the surge, has genuinely changed the situation in Iraq and so profoundly that it is difficult to get a good overview free from the emotions and more or less fixed views that have characterized the debate on the war. Bartie Bull, writing in Commentary provides a very useful one in this provocatively titled essay Mission Accomplished. It is different enough and bold enough to be well worth reading it its entirety.

Iraq’s Sunnis would not be needing the help of the US today had the Sunni leadership not made a historic miscalculation back in 2004. Saddam, a rational man, made an understandable but fatal misjudgment about the people he was up against, and paid for it with his throne and his neck. His Sunni supporters did not learn from this. Thinking they were dealing with the post-Vietnam America of Carter, Reagan and Clinton, they took up arms to prevent the Americans from delivering on their promise of an Iraq that could freely choose its leaders. The habit of centuries of overlordship also fed the Sunni miscalculation: to them, Shia control was unthinkable and so the insurgency was sure to succeed.

By the second half of 2004, the insurgency had had six months to show what it was capable of, and it became clear that its goal could not be the military defeat of the Americans. The Sunnis were now fighting not for a military victory but a political one, to win in the US congress and the newsrooms of CNN and the New York Times the war they could not win in the alleys and date palm groves of Mesopotamia.

With regard to violence against their fellow Iraqis, the Sunni strategy revealed itself quickly to be an effort to provoke the Shias into full-fledged communal violence and civil war. Such a conflagration would be so hot that even Bush’s Americans would run for home. The key moment in this strategy was the bombing of the Shia mosque in Samarra. Until then, the Shias had shown great restraint at the stream of Sunni provocations. Shia cells targeted Wahhabis and Baathists, but mostly left the Sunni populace alone. Under the steadying influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, their religious leader, the Shias endured mass slaughters in markets, buses and schools throughout 2004, 2005 and early 2006 without large-scale retaliation. As the main beneficiaries from the new Iraq, the Shias could only lose from a prolonged civil war.

I would even go so far as to agree that ‘the mess’ in Iraq ascribed by so many purely to the miscalculations of George Bush was much more the mistake outlined above made by Saddam and the Sunnis. But while the importance of the Sunni change of heart can not be overemphasized I think the mission of establishing a stable Iraq is far from accomplished. The Shiite majority is, and has always been, the critical factor and it is just not clear how things will work out on the Shiite side of the ledger. Where I differ from Mr. Bull is that he sees the political violence as essentially over while I think the political issues among the Shia are not settled. While he states explicitly that the only irrational actors left as the Sunni Wahabbis (ie al Qaeda in Iraq) I think that there are irrational actors among the Shia – specifically the Hezbolla like Iranian special groups and the JAM (Jaish al Mahdi ) whether under Sadr’s control or not. Bull’s view of Muktada al Sadr and the JAM is that they are essentially democratic.

Prospect readers will not be surprised to read that al-Sadr is on the right side of the key issues, and that this is helping Iraq get over its transition from 35 years of Baathism’s murderous apartheid (see “Iraq’s rebel democrats,” Prospect June 2005 [subscription required ed.]) Since 2004 I have pointed out that al-Sadr, as leader of the country’s largest popular movement, has more to win from a functioning electoral politics than from fighting the Americans who guaranteed the polls that liberated his people, or from fighting the Iraqi government of which he is himself the joint largest part.

By contrast I have always seen Sadr and the JAM as essentially irrational actors allied to Iran with the goal of establishing a Shia religious tyranny – most probably under Muktada al Sadr himself. I hope I am wrong. Likewise I do not think the Sunni change of position does away with their tribal ambitions to once again dominate Iraq. My more modest hope is that the tribal urge to dominance through violence on both sides will be balanced by the pragmatic considerations that there is enough oil wealth in the country to make compromise more attractive. I think Bull makes the same mistake many of us in the West make including the Bush Administration and myself. He overestimates the degree to which the Iraqis are rational actors. The converse, and all too common, error is to believe that the Iraqis are incapable of rational action – a curious kind of condescending orientalism that leads to the belief that Iraq is hopelessly tribal and backward and can only be ruled by a strongman like Saddam. The Kurds, who had a head start on self governance, have been demonstrating all along that it was possible for Iraqis to get on with the business of peaceful self development.

I think one of the hard lessons for modern Westerners in the Iraq war is that Iraqis are both tribal and rational and will follow one tendency or the other in ways that are quite opaque and often surprising to us. In that sense Hillary and many of the Democrats during the recent hearings failed to grasp the reality of the Sunni Awakening when they repeatedly implied that General Petraeus was cooking the books in favor of the administration. Now we have to see what the Shiites are going to do. How likely are they to choose to settle their very real internal differences violently and can Iran take advantage of that? Is Sadr an Iranian agent, an Iraqi patriot, or neither? Personally, I believe that Sistani’s moderate Najaf school of Shia Islam, which teaches that clergy should not be involved in politics, holds out the best hope of achieving modernity for the Shiites in Iraq. If that form of self government – neither Western democracy nor mullocracy or other form of tyranny – proves possible in Iraq it might be the basis for reform in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world.


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