November 27, 2003


The fight between Paul Bremer and Ayatollah Sistani for the future of Iraq bears closer watching. It is the crux of the debate over the future of the Middle East, and only one side can win.

Sistani, the Washington Post reports, has proven far more of a factor in Washington's changing Iraq plans than guerilla attacks. Profoundly influential among Iraqi Shiites, he has unilaterally trashed the last two proposed arrangements for Iraq's future and looks likely to trash the current one, too.

Sistani has two basic demands. He wants the next Iraqi government to be directly elected by the people (guaranteeing a Shia-friendly regime), and he wants a "notwithstanding clause" in the new Constitution that allows it to be overridden should it be in conflict with Islamic law... determined in large part, by imams like Sistani.

The first demand is hard for the Americans to reject, being supposedly in favour of democracy in Iraq and all. But one can only presume that, if the U.S. government is really interested in Westernizing the Middle East, then they cannot accede on the latter Sistani demand. To subordinate the new Iraq's political leaders to its religious ones, however benign, has to be against everything the Wolfowitz-Perle clique have supposedly been pushing for, and which Bush has in recent months ascribed to, as well.

Sistani is not, by any account, a fanatic, or a threat a la Bin Laden. Nor does he want control of the country for himself, in any real way. But he's the devout leader of a devout Shia population that wants a country that they can be devout in.

If Sistani loses this fight, if the U.S. tries to force a secular state on his people, there will likely be mass bloodshed, and brutal American repression of the Shiites. It will not be pretty, and there's no evidence of any real American stomach for that kind of prolonged decades-long national reconstruction that would follow. At that point, the Vietnam analogies (which I agree have been premature thus far) could really start to kick in. If Sistani wins, then the Americans will have successfully created another Iran-style Islamic republic, in which political success will be determined in large part by religious devotion, and any shorter-term Middle East reformation project will effectively have ended.

(The longer-term penetration of democratic values into the Middle East will continue, of course. The world is getting freer, incrementally, year over year, and Arabs were going to de-medievalize themselves at some point, sooner or later. But the Wolfowitz-Perle plan envisioned breaking what they saw as a log jam in this historical trend through decisive, violent action in Iraq, rather than rely on eventual erosion. To consent to an Islamic Iraq would be a bitter fruit, indeed, and one could then well argue that promoting the growth of human freedom in other, more gradualist ways would have been the better course.)

Posted by BruceR at 12:06 PM