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What Dreams Are Made Of
A Real Blueprint for Peace in Iraq?


Ali Allawi, a former minister in Iraq’s first government after the American invasion (2003-2004), wrote a long piece for the UK Independent last week that identifies how and why Iraq is in the mire it’s in, and suggests some ways out. A valid proposal? Let’s see. “What was supposed to be a straightforward process of overthrowing a dictatorship and replacing it with a liberal-leaning and secular democracy under the benign tutelage of the United States,” Allawi writes, “has instead turned into an existential battle for identity, power and legitimacy that is affecting not only Iraq, but the entire tottering state system in the Middle East.” The supposedly “straight-foward process” was an invention of neo-con idealism that would have never passed muster with anyone who even marginally understands how the Middle East works. To assume that the United States (or any western power) could dictate a replacement at the helm is to forget the very lessons of twentieth-century history in the region, which nevertheless Allawi draws on:

What we are witnessing in Iraq is the beginning of the unraveling of the unjust and unstable system that was carved out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. It had held for nearly 100 years by a mixture of foreign occupation, outside meddling, brutal dictatorships and minority rule. At the same time, it signally failed in providing a permanent sense of legitimacy to its power, engaged its citizens in their governance, or provided a modicum of well-being and a decent standard of existence for its people.

How then could things have possibly been different with a repeat performance of the same meddling under a different flag? The change was not organic. It was imposed. That founding flaw in Allawi’s argument makes it difficult to put credence in the proscriptions that follow, even if his observations are accurate. He points out some of the obvious: The invasion “tipped the scales in favour of the Shia, who are now determined to emerge as the governing majority after decades, if not centuries, of perceived disempowerment and oppression. The consequences of this historic shift inside Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are incalculable.” Second, the Kurds to the north now essentially have a country of their own, but Allawi doesn’t acknowledge the extent to which any legitimization of that state, let alone its expansion, will be viciously opposed by Turkey, Syria and Iran, all of whom have long traditions of hunting Kurds for sport. Third, he gives too much credit to the “messy introduction in Iraq of democratic norms for elections, constitution-writing and governance structures” as—despite all the fooleries that have accompanied them—reliable mechanisms for the future: How so, when the mechanism itself has been little more than a facade? Democracy isn’t in its mechanisms, but in its institutions. Iraq has none. Lastly, he writes, Iran is poised to be the regional superpower. Yes, but with what aims? Iraq’s Sunnis aren’t panic-stricken because of Iran’s Shiites, but because Iraq’s. Just as the rest of the Sunni-dominated Arab world is panic-stricken about a Shiite Iraq. But why so? A Shiite Iraq isn’t automatically a belligerent Iraq—unless this turns into what, fundamentally, the war in Iraqdoes represent: the Reformation-like clash within Islam between its two major branches. This is not a battle for statehood, democracy, freedom, but for Islam’s identity. Would Indonesia be making relatively smooth, often secular moves toward stability if it was splintered between Shiites and Sunnis, instead of being overwhelmingly Sunni? So Allawi seems on target when he suggests that “the most serious issue that is emerging is the exacerbation of sectarian differences between Shia and Sunni. That is a profoundly dangerous issue for it affects not only Iraq but also Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf countries. […] This may drag the entire area into war or even the forced movement of people as fearful countries seek to “quarantine” or expel their Shia population.” His solution? “Statesmanship” as an “alternative to the politics of fear, bigotry and hatred.” Fine words, but with little chance of success in today’s climate. Allawi does occasionally makes the kind of sense neocons didn’t want to hear:

The first step must be the recognition that the solution to the Iraq crisis must be generated first internally, and then, importantly, at the regional level. The two are linked and the successful resolution of one would lead to the other. No foreign power, no matter how benevolent, should be allowed to dictate the terms of a possible historic and stable settlement in the Middle East. No other region of the world would tolerate such a wanton interference in its affairs.

But to then revert back to saying that “a mechanism must be found to allow the Sunni Arabs to monitor and regulate and, if need be, correct, any signs of discrimination that may emerge in the new Iraqi state” is, again, to punt: what that mechanism should be is the heart of the problem: What it should be is secular democracy of the sort where religions, no matter how numerous or contradictory, can live in peace. But that supposes that Islam can accommodate such pluralism. Further contradictions: to say that Iran and Turkey should enter “into a new security structure for the Middle East that would take into account their legitimate concerns, fears and interests” means that their hatred for the Kurds should be accommodated. What then? But he’s right: “It is far better that these countries are seen to be part of a stable order for the area rather than as outsiders who need to be confronted and challenged.” In other words, someone has to be the sacrificial lamb. The Kurds will be that lamb, as they always have been. Allawi then goes on to describe, essentially, a federal Iraq on the German model and a communal Middle East on the European Union model. Great ideas, eminently endorsable, eminently unrealistic.

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