Fouad Ajami: Iraq Has a Chance Now to Prove Itself

Roundup: Historians' Take

Fouad Ajami, in the WSJ (June 29, 2004):

...In their fashion, Iraqis have come to see their recent history as a passage from the rule of the tyrant to the rule of the foreigner. This has given them an absolution from political responsibility and toil. Dependence was easy, and easy, too, was holding America responsible for everything under the sun. A measure of this abdication on the part of Iraq's people will have to yield in recognition of this (circumscribed) sovereignty that has come their way.

Iraq's Shiite majority now faces a great historical test. The Shiites can make Iraq or they can break it. Their history has been a sorrowful alternation between fear and quietism, and doomed rebellions. They have now been delivered from this cycle of history: One of their own, Prime Minister Allawi -- by the appearance of things a skilled political operative -- is now at the commanding heights of political power. And a revered figure from their ranks, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, exercises a subtle influence over the course of the country's political life.

This new Shiite liberty has been an American gift. The Shiites needn't be -- and aren't -- America's proxies in Iraq. But a measure of America's success in Iraq -- a measure of this war's vindication in the scales of history -- will rest on the ability of the Shiite center to hold, and on the willingness of Shiite secularists who honor the separation of religion and politics to look across the border, to that Shiite republic in Iran, and recognize the failure of religious zeal -- and of religious pretension -- to create a tolerable society that works. In the preceding quarter-century, the authoritarian orders in the Arab world held up the Shiite bogeyman as a specter of the darkness that would descend on the Persian Gulf if their writ was questioned, and if the Pax Americana did not come to their rescue. In Iraq, Shiism will be given the chance at a new history.

"Under Saddam, we lived in a big prison. Now we're in a kind of a wilderness. I prefer the wilderness," an educated Iraqi woman, Dr. Lina Ziyad, said some months back. There were car bombs and terror squads in her country; the Iraqi pendulum had swung from tyranny to anarchy. There were enforcers of virtue keen to impose on this historically secular realm new standards of"Islamic" practice and dress and ritual. Still, there were, and remain, multitudes of Iraqis glad for this new chance at normalcy.

If Mr. Bush and Tony Blair had dispatched a big military force in search of weapons of mass destruction only to end up with a humanitarian war that delivered Iraq from a long nightmare of despotism, the Iraqis will have turned out to be the prime beneficiaries of this campaign. They should not quarrel with their good fortune. In the course of a more normal history, Iraqis would have sacked their own despotism, overturned, on their own, the dictator's monuments and statues, written their own story of rebellion against tyranny. They didn't, and no doubt a measure of their rage, over the last year or so, was the proud attempt of a prickly people to escape that unflattering fact of their history.

America is not to stay long in Iraq. No scheme is being hatched for the subjugation of Iraq's people. No giant American air bases on their soil are in the offing. In their modern history, Iraqis witnessed direct British control over their country (from 1921 to 1932), followed by a quarter-century of a subtle British role in their politics, hidden behind a façade of national independence. Ours is a different world, and this new"imperium" is the imperium of a truly reluctant Western power.

What shall stick of America's truth on the soil of Iraq is an open, unknowable question. But the leaders who waged this war -- those"architects" of it who have been thrown on the defensive by its difficulties and surprises -- should be forgiven the sense that things broke their way during that five-minute surprise ceremony yesterday morning. They haven't created a"new" Iraq, and sure enough, they have not tackled the malignancies of the Arab world which lay at the roots, and the very origins, of this war. America isn't acquitted yet of its burdens in Mesopotamia. Our heartbreaking losses are a daily affair, and our soldiers there remain in harm's way.

But we now stay under new terms -- a power that vacated sovereignty 48 hours ahead of schedule, and an Iraqi population that can glimpse, just a horizon away, the possibility of a society free from both native tyranny and foreign control. There is nervousness in Iraq: the nervousness of a people soon to be put to the test by the promise -- and the hazards -- of freedom.


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