Middle East Expert Says U.S. Faces ‘Tall Order’ in Forming New Iraq

April 11, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, says that the United States needs “a crash course” in Iraqi history, culture, and politics as it attempts to unify Kurds, Turks, Sunnis, Shiites, and others. He cautions that other Arabs know little more than Americans do about Iraqi affairs.

He notes that, among the Arab media, there is a slight measure of appreciation for the Iraqis’ joy at the downfall of Saddam, but that overall the “naysayers” about the U.S. intervention predominate.

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Ajami, a member of the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 11, 2003.

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The formal part of the war seems to be winding down. What is the reaction, as you see it, in various parts of the Arab world?

The most important thing about the way the Arabs have responded is the sheer and embarrassing discrepancy between the joyful response of the Iraqis themselves to their own liberation and the despondency of Arabs outside Iraq. In Egypt, for instance, there seems to be sorrow and disappointment because many Egyptians genuinely believed that Saddam was going to win or at least he would give the Arabs an epic show of resistance, that he would give them a kind of Stalingrad.

Why were Egyptian intellectuals, who have always been unhappy with this sort of despotism in Egypt, so seemingly uncritical of Saddam?

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I wish I knew. It is very interesting. There is, for example, one prominent Egyptian novelist, Yusuf al-Uaid, and he has talked about Saddam’s resistance, and Saddam’s legend, and what Iraq means to the other Arabs. He has talked about it in many ways, as a bright star in the long Arab night. I think it’s a sorrowful thing. It tells you something about the despair in Arab political life that people would rally to the Iraqi dictator. And as people rally to the Iraqi dictator, as these kinds of Egyptian intellectuals look at Iraq, they are quicker to condemn the Americans than they are to condemn [Saddam’s] statues, the palaces, the plunder, the cruelty.

It’s a decision people have to make about their own world. We face a situation here where Iraq is receiving liberty as a gift from a foreign power, since there was no way that the people of Iraq could overthrow this tyrannical regime. There was no Arab solution. Arabs should welcome the foreigner’s gift, and accept that this gift is coming from this great power that they view with suspicion.

I’ve noticed, reading some of the English-language Arab publications on the Internet, at least a slight shift in tone as they take note of the televised joy of the Iraqi people. Do you concur?

You’re exactly right. In the end, this campaign was going to be vindicated by the Iraqi people themselves. The Arabs were initially shell-shocked by the fall of the regime, because they really expected and wanted the United States to get stuck in a quagmire. They wanted the satisfaction of seeing the mighty power get its come-uppance and be humbled. Now there has been a shift— if you take a look at some Arabic media outlets— they have accepted the drama of the moment.

Look at Alsharq Al-Awsat, a very influential Arabic paper, a Saudi-owned paper published out of London. Alsharq Al-Awsat had an amazing, amazing cover [on April 10]. It had [a photo of] the fall of the statue of Saddam, the big statue, and it gave it visual prominence, it played it with almost a kind of excitement [signaling] that this is a great historical drama.

There is a debate [underway]. The naysayers [opposed] to the American campaign have the upper hand right now; they are more prominent, they bring a kind of force and conviction and suspicion of everything American. But underneath all this, you can detect some secret satisfaction, and sometimes even overt satisfaction, from people who say, “A great drama has taken place in the Arab world,” and they sort of skip over that it came as a gift from the United States.

I’ve been monitoring the Arabic papers very closely. There have been pictures of some of the torture chambers of Saddam and the prisons of Saddam, and some media are beginning to talk about this. And then there are also the responses of the official Arab spokesmen. For example, the secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, says, “We now must make sure that the ecological heritage and the monuments of Iraq are protected.” Well, what about the people of Iraq? Why don’t the spokesmen talk about the peoples’ protection?

Many Americans are clearly learning for the first time about the complexities of Iraq. What advice would you offer on how to put Iraq back together?

Clearly, we have to take a crash course in the ethnicities and the histories of Iraq. We have to learn about the Kurds and the feuds among the Kurds. We have to learn about the Turkmen in the North. We have to look at the Sunni Arabs in the heartland of the country, and the Sunni triangle— Tikrit and its surroundings. Now the Sunni Arabs compose less than 20 percent of the population. But remember, they had centuries where political power was always their inheritance, their expectation.

Did the Turks rely on the Sunnis because the Turks themselves are predominantly Sunni?

Yes, during the long Ottoman centuries, the rule of the Sunni urban notables in Iraq was quite strong. That obviously has always been a steady feature of Iraqi political life in the towns and in the cities. Now beyond the cities, it was basically tribal authority and tribal land.

And perhaps it’s a bit obscure, but I think it’s important to know how the Shiites became a majority in the country. The Shiite clerics went out into the desert, into the tribes, and instructed them in the 18th and 19th centuries. Because the market towns of Najaf and Karbala were also religious towns, when these [tribal] people would come to town for market activities, they would meet not Sunni judges and scholars and preachers. They would come in contact with Shiite judges and preachers— and that’s why they adopted Shiism and [why] Shiism became the faith of the majority.

It was only gradually, under Saddam, that the rule became more Sunni, more Arab, more Tikriti. It was very gradual. It was a long process that shredded the pluralistic heritage of Iraq, which had been a grab-bag in many ways.

When the British took over in 1920, why was there so much civil strife? Who was fighting the British?

This part of the story has relevance for today, because no sooner had the British come into Iraq in 1920, than there was a major rebellion. It was for the most part a Shiite rebellion led by the clerics, who did not want British hegemony in Iraq. They read the past and future correctly. They understood that with the British, there was going to come the rule of the Sunni Arab functionaries who were former Ottoman officers and civil servants. So there is an irony that haunts Iraq. The Shiites of Iraq rebelled in 1920 but the beneficiaries of the new order that broke and destroyed the Shiites were the Sunni Arabs. They emerged with the best of all possible worlds, with the prerogatives of power plus an ideology of Arab nationalism that they used as a whip against the Shiite seminarians and clerics in the shrine towns of Najaf and Karbala.

They insisted that the Shiites of Iraq be known as “Persians.” It was a phony story. It was a very powerful theme and worked its way into the country. The Sunni Arabs emerged with this ideology that made Iraq the Prussia of the wider Arab world. The Sunni Arabs were innately pan-Arabist because they were a minority within Iraq and were always in search of a wider Arab mission for themselves to justify their own rule over the Shiites and the Kurds.

This history haunts the Shiites to the present. Clerics and leaders say, “You have to ride the coattails of the new order, this new American order. Don’t let history repeat itself. You must understand that this new order is here.”

Could a Shiite become head of a new Iraq?

It’s a good question. Here’s what we have to do. We have to bring in the remnants of the Sunni Arab community, but tell them that their days of hegemony are over. We have to accommodate the Shiite drive for power and the Shiite sensibility that history has turned and that their time has come.

And we have to live with a kind of struggle within the Shiite community in Iraq between laymen committed to the secular idea and some people who would want a version of what the mullahs have in Iran, basically clerical rule.

We have to bring the Kurds into the political life of the country and pull them southward towards Baghdad, in terms of their political leanings. They shouldn’t be thinking of independence or even substantial autonomy in the north but should be committed to a federal project within Iraq.

We have to bring in the Shiites who have never governed, who don’t have the habits of governance. And we have to bring in the Shiites who have been based in Iran and who may want to come in with their brigades and their ideas of clerical rule.

We have to rehabilitate the Sunni Arabs in the heartland of the country. They were implicated in Saddam’s rule, they believed this was their country.

This is a tall order for any power, let alone for a power that may not be terribly patient about the details of foreign places. We have to be very patient. We have to really know about Iraq. How much does our government know and can it learn? Can we take a crash course in the management of this distant place? That’s what this next phase will be about.

Can any Arab states help?

No. The other Arab countries don’t necessarily know Iraq that much better [than the United States does.]. All countries are idiosyncratic. But this country is idiosyncratic still. Take the monuments and statues. This would strike an Arab from the peninsula or from the desert as just blasphemous in many ways. We won’t be able to rely on a wider Arab world for another reason. The Iraqi exiles that we are working with have a bitter sense of betrayal by other Arabs. They were never supported or helped by any Arab powers and never claimed by the Arab street, either.

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