The Curse of Pan-Arabia
By FOUAD AJAMI
May 12, 2004; Page A14
Consider a tale of three cities: In Fallujah, there are the beginnings of wisdom, a recognition, after the bravado, that the insurgents cannot win in the face of a great military power. In Najaf, the clerical establishment and the shopkeepers have called on the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr to quit their city, and to "pursue another way." It is in Washington where the lines are breaking, and where the faith in the gains that coalition soldiers have secured in Iraq at such a terrible price appears to have cracked. We have been doing Iraq by improvisation, we are now "dumping stock," just as our fortunes in that hard land may be taking a turn for the better. We pledged to give Iraqis a chance at a new political life. We now appear to be consigning them yet again to the same Arab malignancies that drove us to Iraq in the first place.
We have stumbled in Abu Ghraib. But the logic of Abu Ghraib isn't the logic of the Iraq war. We should be able to know the Arab world as it is. We should see through the motives of those in Cairo and Amman and Ramallah and Jeddah, now outraged by Abu Ghraib, who looked away from the terrors of Iraq under the Baathists. Our account is with the Iraqi people: It is their country we liberated, and it is their trust that a few depraved men and women, on the margins of a noble military expedition, have violated. We ought to give the Iraqis the best thing we can do now, reeling as we are under the impact of Abu Ghraib -- give them the example of our courts and the transparency of our public life. What we should not be doing is to seek absolution in other Arab lands.
Take this scene from last week, which smacks of the confusion -- and panic -- of our policies in the aftermath of a cruel April: President Bush apologizing to King Abdullah II of Jordan for the scandal at Abu Ghraib. Peculiar, that apology -- owed to Iraq's people, yet forwarded to Jordan. We are still held captive by Pan-Arab politics. We struck into Iraq to free that country from the curse of the Arabism that played havoc with its politics from its very inception as a nation-state. We had thought, or implied, or let Iraqis think, that a new political order would emerge, that the Pan-Arab vocation that had been Iraq's poison would be no more.
The Arabs had let down Iraq, averted their gaze from the mass graves and the terrors inflicted on Kurdistan and the south, and on the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala and their seminarians and scholars. Jordan in particular had shown no great sensitivity toward Iraq's suffering. This was a dark spot in the record of a Hashemite dynasty otherwise known for its prudence and mercy. It was a concession that the Hashemite court gave to Jordan's "street," to the Palestinians in refugee camps and to the swanky districts of Amman alike. Jordan in the 1980s was the one country where Saddam Hussein was a mythic hero: the crowd identified itself with his Pan-Arab dreams, and thrilled to his cruelty and historical revisionism. This is why the late king, Hussein, broke with his American ties -- as well as with his fellow Arab monarchs -- after the invasion of Kuwait. His son did better in this war; he noted the price that Jordan paid in the intervening decade. He took America's side, and let the crowd know that a price would be paid for riding with Saddam. But no apology was owed to him for Abu Ghraib. He was no more due an apology for what took place than were the rulers in Kathmandu.
But this was of a piece with our broader retreat of late. We have dispatched the way of Iraqis an envoy of the U.N., Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian of Pan-Arab orientation, with past service in the League of Arab States. It stood to reason (American reason, uninformed as to the terrible complications of Arab life) that Mr. Brahimi, "an Arab," would better understand Iraq's ways than Paul Bremer. But nothing in Mr. Brahimi's curriculum vitae gives him the tools, or the sympathy, to understand the life of Iraq's Shiite seminaries; nothing he did in his years of service in the Arab league exhibited concern for the cruelties visited on the Kurds in the 1980s. Mr. Brahimi hails from the very same political class that has wrecked the Arab world. He has partaken of the ways of that class: populism, anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and a preference for the centralized state. He came from the apex of the Algerian system of power that turned that country into a charnel house, inflicted on it a long-running war between the secular powers-that-be and the Islamists, and a tradition of hostility by the Arab power-holders toward the country's Berbers. No messenger more inappropriate could have been found if the aim was to introduce Iraqis to the ways of pluralism.
Mr. Brahimi owes us no loyalty. His prescription of a "technocratic government" for Iraq -- which the Bush administration embraced only to retreat from, by latest accounts -- is a cunning assault on the independent political life of Iraq. The Algerian seeks to return Iraq to the Pan-Arab councils of power. His entire policy seeks nothing less than a rout of the gains which the Kurds and the Shiites have secured after the fall of the Tikriti-Baathist edifice. The Shiites have seen through his scheme. A history of disinheritance has given them the knowledge they need to recognize those who bear them ill will. American power may not be obligated -- and should not be -- to deliver the Shiites a new dominion in Iraq. But we can't once more consign them to the mercy of their enemies in the Arab world. At any rate, it is too late in the hour for such a policy, for the genie is out of the bottle and the Shiites will fight back. Gone is their old timidity and quietism. Their rejection of Mr. Brahimi's diplomacy is now laid out for everyone to see.
For his part, Mr. Brahimi knew that the Americans were eager to dump, and he rightly bet on the innocence (other, less charitable terms could be used) of those in the Bush administration now calling the shots on Iraq. They were unburdened by any deep knowledge of the country, and Mr. Brahimi offered the false promise of pacifying Iraq in the run-up to our presidential elections. His technocracy is, in truth, but a cover for the restoration of the old edifice of power. Fallujah gave him running room; its fight for a lost, unjust dominion, was his diplomatic tool. His prescription, he let it be known, would calm the tempest in that sullen place. The Marines were fighting to bring that town to order. The Marines were not Mr. Brahimi's people: Their fight, and their sacrifices, he dismissed as a "collective punishment" of a civilian population. Mr. Brahimi should know a thing or two about collective punishment. His native Algeria has provided enough lessons in what really constitutes the indiscriminate punishment of populations that come in the way of military power.
In the scales of military power, the Arabs have not been brilliant in modern times. But there is cunning aplenty in their world, and an unerring eye for the follies of great foreign powers. The Arabs can read through President Bush's stepping back from his support for Ariel Sharon's plan for withdrawal from Gaza. There are amends to be made for Abu Ghraib, and those are owed the people of Iraq. Yet here we are paying the Palestinians with Iraqi coin. The Palestinians will not be grateful for our concessions; and they are to be forgiven the only conclusion they will draw. Those concessions have already been taken as the compromises of an America now in the throes of self-flagellation.
We can't have this peculiar mix of imperial reach, coupled with such obtuseness. It is odd, and defective in the extreme, that President Bush chose the official daily of the Egyptian regime, Al-Ahram, for yet another interview, another expression of contrition over Abu Ghraib. In the anti-Americanism of Egypt (of Al-Ahram itself), the protestations of our virtue are of no value. In our uncertainty, we now walk into the selective rage of the Egyptians, a popular hostility tethered to the policies of a regime eager to see us fail in Iraq -- a regime afraid that the Iraqis may yet steal a march on Egypt into modernity. Cairo has no standing in Iraq. Why not take representatives of a budding Iraqi publication into the sanctuary of the Oval Office and offer a statement of contrition by our leader?
Our goals in Iraq are being diluted by the day. There has been naivete on our part, to be sure, and no small measure of hubris. We haven't always read Iraq right, but if we abdicate the burden and the responsibility -- and the possibilities -- that came with this war, our entire effort will come to grief. In Najaf on May 7, in a Friday sermon made from the shrine of Imam Ali -- Shiism's most revered pulpit -- Sheikh Sadr-al-din Qabanji, a respected cleric with ties to Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called on the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr to quit the city. "Listen to the advice of the ulema," he said, using the term for the recognized men of religion. "Come, let us together find another way, go back to your homes and provinces." The defense of Najaf, he said, belonged to its people, and the bands of young "Sadrists" were told to return to the slums of Baghdad. We haven't stilled Iraq's furies, and our gains there have been made with heartbreaking losses. But in the midst of our anguish over Abu Ghraib, and in our eagerness to placate an Arab world that has managed to convince us of its rage over the scandal, we should stay true to what took us into Iraq, and to the gains that may yet be salvaged.
Mr. Ajami, of Johns Hopkins, is the author of "The Dream Palace of the Arabs" (Vintage, 1999).