American airstrikes against ISIL intensified this week, confirming my description of Iraq’s borders 12 years ago as “a work-in-progress.”
As the shooting war in Iraq was ending in the spring of 2003, it was easy to be sympathetic to the view that the U.S.-led coalition didn’t depose Saddam Hussein only to anoint some fanatic mullah in his place. No American administration would contemplate standing by while assorted Islamo-chauvinists in the region tried using the opportunity to rip a few centuries off the calendar, resurrect the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad and substitute a hostile and hideous theocracy for Saddam’s hostile and hideous secular regime. Nor would the coalition have acquiesced in having risked countless lives, billions of dollars and considerable political capital only to throw Iraq into chaos and possible dissolution.
Yet if the coalition was serious about its war aims, one of which said that the people of Iraq must decide their own future, it didn’t really matter what future the coalition envisaged for Iraq. Should the people of Iraq have wished, then or later, to substitute some caliph for Saddam, or rupture their fragile federation of ethnic groups and religious sects, America and its allies had to remember that they fought a war, at least in part, to enable the people of Iraq to do so.
The Bush administration’s vision was no different from the Obama administration’s in this respect: both saw a free Arab society emerging in Iraq, possibly sparking democracy throughout the region. There’s an attractive school of thought that puts its trust in the power of liberty. Nathan Sharansky, once a well-known Soviet dissident, and by 2003 Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs, gave expression to the idea at the time in the Jerusalem Post.
Sharansky argued that “realists” – the same people who used to promote detente with the Soviets because they couldn’t believe that the march of freedom was inexorable and it would cause the Kremlin’s empire to implode – nowadays felt that Arabs weren’t ready for democracy. “Promoting democracy among the Arabs,” wrote Sharansky, “is again cast as naïve adventurism. The Arabs, we are told, have never lived under democracy. Their culture and religion, we are assured, are inimical to the idea of liberty. The realists dangle the ‘pragmatic’ alternatives before us: Cut a deal with ‘friendly’ dictators. They will fight terror. They will preserve order. They will make peace.”
Sharansky suggested, as did U.S. President Barack Obama eight years later, that the so-called realists are wrong because “the overwhelming power of freedom” will prove as contagious in the Middle East as it was in the Soviet Union. “Iranians, Saudis, Syrians, Egyptians, Palestinians and all who live in fear will envy those who no longer do. And they will increasingly find the courage to stand up and say so.”
The fact is, when people are free to choose, they often make wrong choices.
It certainly would have been nice if Sharansky’s prediction had come true. Unfortunately, it didn’t, not even in Russia, never mind the Middle East. From the beginning, thousand of Iraqis kept chanting, “no to America, no to Saddam, yes to Islam” during pilgrimages to the holy city of Karbala. The scholar and pundit Daniel Pipes pointed out at the time that “Yes to Islam” in effect meant “Yes to Iranian-style militant Islam.” Pipes reasoned that if democracy took six centuries to develop in England, we couldn’t expect it to develop overnight in Iraq. In the meantime, he recommended “a democratically-minded Iraqi strongman” to hold the country together and keep it from sliding into either anarchy or the lap of a theocratic tyrant.
As I wrote at the time, one could see Pipes’s point as readily as Sharansky’s. The fact is, when people are free to choose, they often make wrong choices, and some wrong choices – say, choosing ISIL – preclude people from making the right choices later without another bloody conflict.
What complicates matters further in the Middle East is that contemporary Western politicians are committed to the unity of countries whose people may not wish to stay united. It seems to have escaped the notice of both Bush conservatives and Obama liberals that it had always required a strongman to prevent Iraq from splitting into its constituent Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parts.
But what is the price of unity? What do we, or the Iraqis, benefit from maintaining a national construct, artificially created in the 1920s under a different set of geopolitical circumstances? Why must we oppose, for instance, the emergence of a friendly, democratic Kurdistan, even if it may evolve into a Greater Kurdistan carved out of current Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian and Turkish territory?
Twelve years ago an obvious reason was not to upset then-friendly Turkey – or even unfriendly Iran or Syria – which were worried about their own Kurdish minorities. But more than our concern for regional stability, then and today, we’ve become so committed to multicultural ideals that we consider all other models of nationhood suspect.
But what’s sacrosanct about existing countries if they lack natural cohesion, if they need to be held together by force? Why spill blood in the 21st century to preserve an entity, such as Iraq, carved out of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century, primarily for the former British empire’s reasons of state? There would be nothing wrong, of course, with such a country, however it came about, if it had internal coherence and viability – but if it can’t breathe on its own, why put it on a respirator?
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I think our abhorrence of the ethnically (or religiously) based nation state is a mistake. Worshipping “multiculturalism” as the only legitimate way for a modern state to be organized is as erroneous as worshipping tribalism would be. History records many organizing principles. What works, works; what doesn’t, doesn’t. What’s so great about a country that doesn’t want to be one?
Meanwhile, the Bushification of the Obama presidency is proceeding apace. America intensifies its air strikes to halt the mushrooming of Islamist toadstools in the burgeoning Arab Spring it encouraged only a few years ago. Obama keeps working on his legacy as the sorcerer’s apprentice, and the borders of Iraq continue to be a work-in-progress.