Juan Cole: Iraqi Shiites ... America's Would-Be Allies

Roundup: Historians' Take

Juan Cole, writing in the Boston Review (Oct./Nov. 2003):

The ambitious aim of the American war in Iraq—articulated by Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and other neoconservative defense intellectuals—was to effect a fundamental transformation in Middle East politics. The war was not—or not principally—about finding weapons of mass destruction, or preventing alliances with al Qaeda, or protecting the Iraqi population from Saddam’s terror. For U.S. policy makers the importance of such a transformation was brought home by the events of September 11, which challenged U.S. strategy in the region by compromising the longstanding U.S. alliance with Saudi Wahhabis. In response to this challenge, the Bush administration saw the possibility of creating a new pillar for U.S. policy in the region: a post-Baathist Iraq, dominated by Iraqi Shiites, which would spark a wave of democratization across the Middle East.

But the Bush administration badly neglected the history of the group they wanted to claim as their new ally. Who are the Iraqi Shiites? And how likely are they to support democracy or U.S. goals in the region?...

From 1970 until the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy in the Middle East was based on three principles and two key alliances. The principles included fighting against Communist and other radical anti-American influences; supporting conservative religious and authoritarian political elites; and ensuring access to Middle Eastern petroleum supplies. The two principal allies were Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The centrality of the anti-Soviet pillar to regional policy is often ignored, but it helps explain the others. Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, was a crucial pivot of U.S. policy from the 1970s forward. U.S. officials viewed its deeply conservative Wahhabi form of Islam as a barricade against Communism and—after the 1979 Iranian Revolution—against Iran’s Shiite Khomeinism. Israel, too, battled leftist and pro-Soviet forces, though its determination to annex much or all of the territories it captured in 1967 made it a problematic partner for a United States seeking Arab friends. The United States could maintain an alliance with both the Zionist state and the Wahhabi kingdom, even though the two did not care very much for one another, because both disliked the Soviets and leftist Palestinians.

Because the Cold War was a contest of economic systems, winning it depended crucially on the prosperity of Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea. Inexpensive energy was essential to their prosperity. And the Saudi alliance was one key to inexpensive energy. Because of its small population and unusually large capacity, Saudi Arabia had enormous influence on the price of petroleum. By pumping extra oil, the Saudis kept the price lower than other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), such as Algeria and Iran, would have liked. Moreover, Riyadh supported Western European prosperity by investing (“recycling”) its petrodollars back into the West.

The Saudis also bolstered regional conservatism, in particular by aiding the anti-Communist Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt from the 1950s forward. In this period the Brotherhood—formed in 1928 and precursor to contemporary fundamentalism—was increasingly persecuted by Abdel Nasser’s secular Arab socialist state. With Egypt tilting toward the Soviet Union in the 1960s, Saudi support for the Brotherhood was implicated in the U.S.–Soviet struggle. In the 1970s dictator Anwar El Sadat shifted Egypt from the political left to the right and allied with the United States. With U.S. advice he sought a new, positive relationship with Saudi Arabia and with the Muslim Brotherhood. When Sadat made peace with Israel, key pieces of U.S. policy fell into place. (That Sadat was assassinated for taking this direction, by the very Sunni radicals he had unleashed, was irrelevant to the outcome, since his new foreign policy remained in effect).

Saudi Arabia remained central to U.S. policy in the 1980s. It took the lead in the Gulf in opposing Iran’s Khomeinist revolution and backed Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran, with Washington’s blessing. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan the United States pressured Saudi Arabia to support the efforts of the Muslim fundamentalist mujahidin (holy warriors) who volunteered to fight Moscow’s troops. In a breathtaking lapse of judgment, the Reagan administration gave billions of dollars to these groups. The administration misunderstood the difference between Muslim traditionalism and conservatism, and the virulent new strands of Sunni radicalism that were proliferating in the 1980s.

While the United States was consolidating an alliance with Saudi Arabia, policy toward Iraq fluctuated wildly—though here, too, anti-Communism was always the fundamental principle operating in the background. In the mid-1950s the United States and the British pushed the Baghdad Pact (signed in 1955), which grouped Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan in an anti-Soviet alliance. This strategy collapsed in 1958 when Colonel Abdel Karim Qasim staged a bloody coup in Iraq against the government of Nurias-Said. Washington saw Qasim, who had Communist allies, as a dangerous radical. It has been alleged that the United States supported the 1963 failed coup attempt by the Arab nationalist Baath Party against the officers, receiving guarantees in return that the Iraqi Communist Party would be disbanded.

The Baath Party finally came to power in 1968, and though it did ban the Communists it went on to have indifferent relations with the United States until the Iranian Revolution and the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980. During the 1980s the United States threw its support behind Saddam Hussein and the Baath to combat Khomeinist radicalism, whose rabid anti-Americanism it saw as aiding the Soviet Union. The U.S.–Saddam alliance, of course, ended with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Paul Wolfowitz and other national security hawks later grouped in the Project for a New American Century saw two principal security challenges to the United States: the remaining Communist powers in Asia, especially North Korea but also China, which they wished to see contained or, if possible, broken up; and the anti-American Middle Eastern states, including Iraq, Syria, and Iran. The two problems were linked because the East Asian Communists and the Middle Eastern radical states were suspected of proliferating missile and nuclear technologies to one another. Pakistan, for instance, is suspected of helping North Korea’s nuclear program. Wolfowitz likened Chinese sales of intermediate missiles to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s to the Cuban missile crisis. Many of them also saw threats to Israel’s power as necessarily menacing to U.S. security.

The attacks on September 11 should have made it clear that the hawks had been looking for threats in all the wrong places. Iran and Iraq had been effectively contained, and China was too busy making money off the West to think about harming its economies. At the same time—and in significant part as a result of U.S. support for Muslim fundamentalism as an anti-Communist bulwark—Sunni radicalism had emerged as a much more powerful threat than either East Asian Communism or Baathism and Khomeinism. Mujahidin who had trained in Afghanistan fanned back out to their home countries in 1989, victorious, and determined to establish Islamic states in places like Algeria and Yemen. Sunni radicals fought a virtual civil war in Algeria with the secular military government in the 1990s, waged a less bloody but still highly disruptive campaign against the Mubarak government in Egypt, and pioneered new militant political movements such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the neo-Deobandis in Pakistan. Once the Soviets had fallen the Sunni radicals abandoned their alliance of convenience with Washington and turned against the United States, which they now saw as a bulwark of the secular governments that they were trying to overthrow, in addition to resenting its role in supporting Israeli expansionism. The more radical of these groups coalesced into al Qaeda and decided to hit the “far” enemy rather than only the “near” one.

After September 11 the national security hawks, many of whom who had actively fostered the jihadis in the 1980s, attempted to link new the forms of Muslim terrorism to their longstanding preoccupations with Iraq and Iran. The anti-American Middle Eastern states were now even more dangerous, they alleged, because they either had joined up with the terrorists already or might in the future share weapons of mass destruction with the jihadis for use against the United States. But the Iraqi Baathists were devoted to secular Arab nationalism, and the Shiite ayatollahs in Iran despised al Qaeda and the Taliban. It was implausible that Khomeinist Shiites, Baathist Arab nationalists, and Sunni al Qaeda would collaborate closely with one another and share deadly technology. Nor was there any good evidence for it, though plenty was manufactured by innuendo.

The pillars of policy were now trembling. Some within the Bush circles, especially Secretary of State Colin Powell, sought a reduced American tolerance for Israel’s expansionist policies in the Occupied Territories, among the main sources of Muslim anger at the United States. Fearful of this outcome, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused George Bush in October 2001 of trying to appease Arab countries by forsaking Israel in the way that Europe had tried to appease Hitler in 1938 by abandoning the Czech Sudetenland. Sharply rebuked, Sharon backed off quickly, and by late fall of 2001 the Bush administration had been convinced, by a combination of domestic political calculations and geopolitical judgments, to remain committed to acquiescing in substantial expropriations of Palestinian land by Israel.

But the other central pillar remained in doubt. Some analysts associated with the administration criticized the Saudi alliance of monarchy and Wahhabi Islam as dangerously unstable and destabilizing. At the very least, some wealthy Saudis had given monetary support to al Qaeda or al Qaeda–linked charities. Wahhabi missionizing in the Muslim world had spread the distinctively Wahhabi ideas that Muslims who are not strict in their observance are actually infidels and that non-Muslims are threats to Islam.

The hawks came to see an Americanized Iraq as a replacement for Saudi Arabia. The plan was risky, not least because the secular Baath government had been among the main ramparts against Sunni and Shiite religious radicalism in the Gulf. The hawks argued that a liberated Iraq would kick-start a wave of democratization in the Middle East, paralleling events in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union weakened and then fell. (They did not explain why the United States, if it wanted democratization, did not start with places like Egypt and Jordan, which were more plausible candidates, being allies, developed civil societies, and recipients of substantial aid). They believed, incorrectly, that Iraq’s petroleum-producing capacity—while not at Saudi levels—was significant enough to offset Saudi dominance of the oil markets. And unlike Saudi Arabia, Paul Wolfowitz thought, Iraq did not have holy cities such as Mecca and Medina that would make the stationing of U.S. troops there objectionable: Iraqis, he said, “don’t bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory.” (He apparently did not then know about the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala). The hawks were aware that a democratic Iraq would have a Shiite majority, but their client, Ahmad Chalabi (head of the expatriate Iraqi National Congress), convinced them that Iraqi Shiites were largely secular in mindset and uninterested in a Khomeinist theocracy. In the short term, they thought, Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress would run Iraq in at least a semi-democratic fashion.

This plan proposed an almost complete reconfiguring of the old pillars of American Cold War policy in the region. The two key alliances were now to be with Israel and a Shiite-majority “secular” Iraq. Saudi Arabia would be marginalized and the allegedly pernicious effects of its Wahhabism fought. ...

It is a plan. And like other ambitious plans it makes many assumptions. But perhaps the largest is that the Iraqi Shiites are plausible allies....

In removing the Baath regime and eliminating constraints on Iraqi Islamism, the United States has unleashed a new political force in the Gulf: not the upsurge of civic organization and democratic sentiment fantasized by American neoconservatives, but the aspirations of Iraqi Shiites to build an Islamic republic. That result was an entirely predictable consequence of the past 30 years of political conflict between the Shiites and the Baathist regime, and American policy analysts have expected a different result only by ignoring that history.

To be sure, the dreams of a Shiite Islamic republic in Baghdad may be unrealistic: a plurality of the country is Sunni, and some proportion of the 14 million Shiites is secularist. In the months after the Anglo-American invasion, however, the religious Shiite parties demonstrated the clearest organizational skills and established political momentum. The Islamists are likely to be a powerful enough group in parliament that they may block the sort of close American-Iraqi cooperation that the neoconservatives had hoped for. The spectacle of Wolfowitz’s party heading out of Najaf just before the outbreak of a major demonstration of 10,000 angry Sadrists, inadvertently provoked by the Americans, may prove an apt symbol for the American adventure in Iraq. The August 29 bombing in Najaf deeply shook the confidence of Shiites in the American ability to provide them security, and provoked anger against the United States that will take some time to heal.

In addition, the Saudis cannot be pushed out of the oil picture so easily. It will be years before Iraq can produce much more than three to five million barrels a day. A good deal of that petroleum, and much of the profit from it, will be needed for internal reconstruction and debt servicing. It would take a decade and a half to two decades for Iraqi capacity to achieve parity with that of the Saudis (11 million barrels a day), and even then they will not have the Saudis’ low overhead and smaller native population. The Saudis can choose to produce only seven million of the 76 million barrels of petroleum pumped in the world every day, or they can produce 11 million. That flexibility, along with their clout in the OPEC cartel, lets them exercise a profound influence on the price, and Iraq will not be able to counterbalance it soon. Neoconservative fears about Saudi complicity with al Qaeda are also overdrawn, since the Saudi elite feels as threatened by the Sunni radicals as the United States does. High Saudi officials have even expressed regret about their past support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which they now see as dangerous in a way that mainstream Wahhabism is not. (Would that Reaganite supporters of the mujahidin were similarly contrite!) So the U.S. alliance with the House of Saud, however badly shaken by September 11 and Wahhabi radicalism, will provide an essential foundation for world petroleum stability into the indefinite future.

For now, the United States is back to having two footstools in the Middle East: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iraq has proven too rickety, too unknown, too devastated to bear the weight of the strategic shift imagined by the hawks. And far from finally defeating Khomeinism, U.S. policy has given it millions of liberated Iraqi allies. Their new Iraqi Interim Governing Council has declined to recognize Israel, citing Iraq’s membership in the Arab League and lack of genuine progress toward a Palestinian state. Al Qaeda and allied terrorist threats were not countered by the invasion of Iraq.

Whether Iraq’s Sunnis will turn to radicalism and reinforce al Qaeda is as yet unknown. But what does seem clear is that the Iraq war has proved a detour in the War on Terror, drawing away key resources from the real threat of al Qaeda and continued instability in Afghanistan. The old pillars have proven more resilient than the hawks imagined. What really needs to be changed are U.S. support for political authoritarianism and Islamic conservatism, and acquiescence in Israeli land grabs on the West Bank. Those two, together, account for most of the trouble the United States has in the Muslim world. The Iraq war did nothing to change that.

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