Monday, August 28, 2006
Fouad Ajami's book on Iraq, The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq, is a long historical essay on the subtle interplay between the huge number of factions that have been struggling for ascendency in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad. Ajami has been to Iraq six times in the last three years, and fills his book with vivid, almost lyrical descriptions of events that are shaping the new Iraq, including many that have not been reported by wire services, or at least cannot be understood through wire service stories. This short passage out of many pages devoted to Moqtada al-Sadr's movement (of which there will be more in my "official" review of Ajami's book) struck me as particularly revealing of the brutality of his brand of radicalism, and its strange similarity to bin Ladenism, at least as practiced in the Iraq war:
The Mahdi Army was a movement of the dispossessed; order and hierarchy and property, and the rule of the elders and the tribal notables arrayed around the senior jurists, now sought to contest the ways of the street. Sadr and his lieutenants has grown increasingly radical and unsettled. In the city of Basra, on the very same day that Sheikh Qabanji had taken on the Sadrists, a representative of Moqtada al-Sadr, Sheikh Abdul Sattar Bahadali, speaking to three thousand worshippers, with his assault rifle next to him, offered a reward of a hundred thousand Iraqi dinars (seventy dollars) to any believer who would capture a British female soldier; he said that soldier could then be kept as a concubine of her captor. There was no need for the clerical hierarchy to speak of the dangers posed by the Sadrists. The latter were doing a fair job of it themselves. Anti-Americanism, an animus toward the Anglo-American coalitoin, was one thing, but the keeping of "concubines" and slave women was a wholly different matter, a clear pathology on display.
There was no subtlety here: this was a direct appeal by Sadr and his inner circle to the yearnings of the young and to their notinos of hegemony and war booty. This primitivism, it so happened, came on the very day that an audiotape of Osama bin Laden turned up offering "ten thousand grams of gold" to anyone who would kill Paul Bremer or the Algerian-born United Nations envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, and "one thousand grams of gold" to anyone who would kill a civilian or a soldier from Japan or Italy. The air was filled with talk of "infidels" and "apostasy" and "Crusaders" and "slave women" and "grams of gold." Sistani's gift remained the assurance given a people caught in the throes of great upheaval that their tradition was there for them as a safe harbor, that amid the troubles there remained political limits and reason. Men can't live on their nerves, and Sadr had nothing to offer save ceaseless agitation. Tyranny had wrecked the country; now anarchy offered ruin in its own way.
When the settled histories of the Iraq war are finally written a generation from now, it will be interesting to see whether future historians regard the decision not to arrest al-Sadr early in the game as one of the great errors of the American regency.
I am one who thinks it was a grave error not to arrest al-Sadr early on when he was still relatively easily 'gettable' and had only a fraction of the support he apparently enjoys now. But that's crying over spilt milk.
In direct opposition to Malaki's stated aim of disarming all independent militias, Sadr insists that "the Mehdi Army has the right to deploy its soldiers wherever it wants." That's bad news for peace and stability in the short term and pretty much guarantees further confrontation. The good news is that confronting al-Sadr is exactly what needs to happen in order for the government not to be rendered impotent and useless.
If there is a silver lining in all this it might be that the Iraqi government and its forces, assuming they are successful, will earn a degree of respect and allegiance they could not have acquired had this problem been resolved for them.
Shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany, the British gave serious consideration to assassinating him. It was decided that since he was a democratically elected leader, it would not be fair play to kill him.
Thanks for the excerpt from Ajami's new book. I am looking forward to reading this one.
At first I doubted whether the additional American soldiers in Baghdad would make a difference in that troubled city. But it seems to be doing some good. The real test comes when the Iraqi security forces confront Sadr's forces. It's going to happen at some point.
I've no doubt that when Sadr dies, an angel will get his wings. But we have no idea how things would have been had he died years agi. Leadership would have churned to the top anyway and it might have been better or worse--anyone's guess. He is not the problem: the problem is how to cope with a whole society (that happens to be sitting on a big pot of oil). Recall the Chinese problem: you can win a war on horseback, but you can't govern a country that way.
As for the "Why didn't we take out Sadr when he was less popular?" question, the only answer I can think of is the argument that might have persuaded people back then:
Lose the Shia, lose Iraq.
The argument back then was that the Americans had their hands full with the Sunni-Baathist insurgency. They didn't want to do anything that would force them to take on the Shia radicals at the same time. Now that the Sunni-Baathist insurgency has been weakened and the elected Iraqi government and Iraqi seucrity forces strenthened, maybe now we are in a better position to confront Sadr's forces.
I don't necessarily buy into this explanation. I just offer it as an explanation that might have persuaded policy makers at the time to keep the gloves on regarding Sadr. But most of the time, kicking the can down the road just means you have a larger can to confront later.
The phenomenon of beating up on Sweden as a device for showing the superiority of our "system" to some other "system" is one that goes back at least to the Cold War and I suspect further--perhaps to the first publication of Marquis Childs' "Sweden: The Middle Way" in 1936. The style is pretty much the same: they may look sleek and contented but they are in fact swamp where fish die and toads live long. Here's a better-than-average exemplar from 1991: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=1020. Sweden, somehow, survives the press attention and stubbornly continues to put on its visage of contentment.
Mark, that is a good point, and I could accept your explanation if not for the fact that by tolerating Sadr we as much as condoned his rise as a so-called religious leader and political foe, in direct opposition not only to the coalition and the Iraq we envisioned but to al-Sistani as well.
We did not need al-Sadr to pacify a restless Shiite mob, but by allowing him to continue his agitations we (or, more likely, the Iraqi government) now certainly must confront one.
Better to bite the bullet, even now, than kick the can down the road.
Let’s also remember that prior to the 2004 election, Bush was holding back in general. Decisive action against Fallujah was pushed off until after the election so as not to give Kerry’s anti-war movement reasons to yell “atrocity” like they continually do whenever Israel takes forceful measures. As Bush was responding to al-Sadr, Shiites became suspicious of being singled out. Yes, it was a mistake to allow al-Sadr to live but it was a greater mistake to hold back in the Sunni Triangle.