Archive for November, 2003

Iraq Realities vs. Neocon Dreams

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

Judging from the recent pronouncements of the Bush administration, our major goals in Iraq are to hold free elections, set up a government and establish a representative democracy. The ultimate aim is to create such an exemplary model of democracy that it will threaten and ultimately undo the repressive, undemocratic regimes in the Middle East. However worthy those goals may be, it’s important to judge our prospects for accomplishing them.

The opening reality in the Middle East is Islam. Islam, as embodied in the Koran and its amplifying writings, the Hadith and the Shariya, provides not only a belief structure, but a blueprint for all facets of life. Islam is more than a formal belief system; it is an all-encompassing guide for thought and action that has no parallel in the Western world. The system itself is theocentric, moralistic, simple, lucid and positive and is as much concerned with man’s behavior on Earth as it is with his fate in the afterlife. As in any of the great religions, practices and even beliefs vary from sect to sect and individual-to-individual, nevertheless, the blueprint for all those sects in Islam is the Koran.

The three major Islamic writings provide the Muslim ethical code, which covers virtually every form of human behavior from the appropriate conduct of business affairs to nursing and weaning babies. Islam leaves little to the discretion of the believer, for whom religion and life, faith and politics are inseparable. Political beliefs stem from the theocratic imperative of Islam as embodied in the Koran and the Shariya (Islamic law), which is considered to be the embodiment of the will of God. There is no section in the Koran or the Shariya that supports or even covers representative democracy. It is rather an alien philosophy to the any Muslims, particularly the Iraqis. who have never had any experience with it and most of whom, outside their intelligentsia, are only vaguely aware of its workings.

Iraq has three main ethnic and religious groups; the Kurds (15 percent of the population) in the north, the Sunnis (20 percent) in the middle and the Shias (60 percent) in the south. Of these three groups, the Shias are religiously allied with one important Shia-governed country, the fundamentalist regime in Iran. There have always been established religious ties between the Iraqi and Iranian Shia clerics. Little information is available about the inclination of Iraqi Shias to replicate the theocracy of their coreligionists in Iran, but the tendency is there and will grow as our occupation continues and security disintegrates. Note that they would have an absolute majority in any truly democratic election in Iraq.

Given the democratic pressures building in their own country, Iranian clerics would regard it as unfortunate and even threatening to have a successful, democratic Iraq on their western border. The same can be said of virtually any of the repressive, undemocratic Muslim regimes in the region. It would be unsettling, for example, for the Saudi Royal House to have a functioning representative democracy to the north.

In short, there is little appetite in that region for democratic change and a lot of power and resources to throw against it. For these undemocratic regimes, their own national interests do not lie in the spread of democracy in the area and it is simply not in their own narrow interests to support our efforts.

The dilemma here is that the only viable alternative to our current unilateral occupation is the internationalization of the effort through the United Nations. If we leave Iraq to a U.N.- sponsored administration, we will create a situation in which there will be almost immediate elections that will have roughly zero hope of establishing any sort of representative government.

On the other hand, if we continue our unilateral occupation, what will really matter is whether we can improve security enough to hold elections that will promote the political transformation of Iraq. Because of the continuing deterioration of the security situation in Iraq, it is more likely that we will be faced with the choice of either running democratic elections that will have no hope of installing democracy or of putting those elections off in the hope that the situation will become more favorable to achieving our goal. The latter choice will provide yet another pressure on an already deteriorating situation, one that likely will lead to more discontent, more violence and less hope for a favorable political transformation. That is likely to leave us with no viable alternatives for democracy and no exit strategy.

The most critical factor is the good will of the Iraqi people. Once they turn against us psychologically and emotionally, it will be too late. If we have not done so already, we will soon pass that critical point of no return. In short, the current American occupation of Iraq (and it is the fact that it is American that the Iraqis so resent) represents a gigantic gamble by the neoconservatives who designed this policy.

The neoconservatives’ dream of creating a model democracy in Iraq is just that – a dream. Political and religious realities in Iraq are disrupting that plan. It seems unlikely that any democratically elected government in Iraq will be secular or even pro-American. Would the Bush administration accept free elections in Iraq if the result were a theocratic, non-secular state?

There is still time. It is the American occupation of their country that the Iraqis resent. The United Nations remains ready to take on this task, if terms can be arranged to its liking. All of the realities in the area argue against the success of our current policy. The best we can hope for in these circumstances is a Muslim Iraq favorably disposed to the West.  The alternative may be another Iran or Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.

Our continued insistence on unilateral, American control of Iraq is very likely to end in disaster.  This will complicate our real problem – the war on terrorism, which seems to have gotten lost in the ideological adventurism of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in Beirut and Tehran and was Chief of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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