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Ignorance May Be Bliss, but It Makes for Bad Policy: Analysis of the Iraq Study Group Report

In perhaps no region of the world is history more important  than in the Middle East; to note just a few of the most striking examples: Jewish claims to Jerusalem and environs are at least partially predicated on the Hebrew Scriptures’ 3,000 year-old assertions of divinely-assigned real estate rights; a significant slice of Muslim Arab public opinion resonates to every attempt by Usama bin Ladin and his ilk to link millennium-old Crusader belligerence with the Americans; and millions of Shi`is in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are waiting for a man who disappeared over a thousand years ago to re-emerge onto the historical stage as the Mahdi. 

So it is particularly disappointing when America’s best and brightest bipartisan foreign policy minds, when tasked by the President to devise ways to drain the bog of war in Iraq, come up with a document steeped in historical misunderstandings and downright inaccuracies about Islam, Iraq and the Middle East.

One jarring misapprehension is the ignorance of (or perhaps simple refusal to acknowledge) the eschatological element of  two of the major Shi`i players in the region: Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq,  and—more ominously—Mahmud Ahmadinezhad and the ayatollahs of Iran.  These are men who clearly hold, and frequently publicly express, a strong belief in the imminent re-arrival of the long-Hidden Twelfth Imam (a descendant of Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, who died in 680 CE): al-Sadr is said to believe that the U.S. invaded Iraq in order to stymie the Mahdi’s coming-out party, and Ahmadinezhad—when not holding Holocaust denial conferences and musing about a world without Jews or Americans—is publicly praying at the U.N. for Allah to send the Mahdi.  Yet Messrs. Baker and Hamilton suggest that we “try to talk directly to Moqtada al-Sadr” (p. 67) and “should actively engage Iran and Syria in…diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions” (p. 50). 

Is the eschatological fervor, bordering on irrationality, of al-Sadr and Ahmadinezhad not worthy of some consideration? One might think it would somewhat complicate the “can’t we all just get along?” approach that Baker and Hamilton seem to be promoting.  The flip side of the coming of the Mahdi is the emergence of al-Dajjal, “the Deceiver” of the Islamic traditions—an anti-christ figure who will lead many  believers astray and into apocalyptic  battle against the forces of the Mahdi and the returned Muslim prophet Jesus.  And the Dajjal, by the way, will be Jewish.  How, pray tell, does the U.S. negotiate with folks who not only hold but configure their politics around beliefs like that?  Yes, of  course, George Bush believes Jesus will return—but has he prayed publicly for that to happen in the well of the U.N. General Assembly, as Iran’s president has done regarding the Mahdi? WWJD—“What Would Jesus Do?”—is not a question bandied about at Bush Administration Cabinet meetings; I am not sure that the same can be said of “WWMD?”—“What Would (the) Mahdi Do?”—in Ahmadinezhad’s strategy meetings.

Baker and Hamilton et al. suggest bringing Saudi Arabia into the diplomatic mix, which is probably a good idea; however, they muse that “the Saudis might be helpful in persuading the Syrians to cooperate” (p. 48).  Well, while it’s true that both the Saudis and Syrians are Arabs (unlike, of course, the Iranians and Turks and, for that matter, Kurds), that is where the resemblance ends.  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ardently religious, styling its Wahhabi Sunni sect as the most piously Sunni state of all. 

Syria, on the other hand, is officially secular—the government is run by the Ba`th Party (akin to Saddam Husayn’s ousted one in Iraq), a decidedly non-Muslim, Arab Socialist organization.  However, unlike Saddam or the Saudis, the al-Assad family regime running Syria does so in the name, and with the support, of  a quasi-Shi`i sect called the `Alawis or Nusayris which comprises probably less than 10% of the population.  `Alawis have been considered heretics by Sunnis since the time of Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328), who issued fatwas condemning them. 1 And since Ibn Taymiyah’s writings were a major influence on Muhammad Ibn `Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), the founder of the Wahhabi brand of Islam, one wonders just how the modern Wahhabi Saudi government would have any pull, or even desire to intervene, with the heretical `Alawi regime in Damascus?  And one wonders if the ISG staffers really were ignorant of this rather important facet of Islamic history? 

On page 13 of the report is this statement: “The Shia [sic], the majority of Iraq’s population, have gained power for the first time in more than 1,300 years.”  This is simply not true.  Shi`a have held power before, notably the Shi`i Fatimid dynasty which ruled Egypt for several centuries (969-1171 CE); and even if the report means to refer to Iraq alone, it is inaccurate: the Shi`i Buyids ruled the region from Baghdad for a century or more (945-1055 CE); and Iraq, although contested between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shi`i Safavid Empire of Persia/Iran for centuries, was under the latter’s control for much of the 16th c. CE.  The report seems to be striving here for portentousness, but instead just comes off as, frankly, ignorant.  Furthermore, the ISG here reinforces the ahistorical notion of a nation-state of Iraq going back more than a millennium—whereas in fact al-Iraq was in pre-Ottoman times simply a geographical label and, under the Ottoman Empire, what is now Iraq was divided into three main vilayets, or administrative districts: Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.  There was thus no “Iraq” before the British created one from these three Ottoman districts in 1932.

Other suggestions put forward by the ISG are subject to criticism as well: do the authors really think that “a Syrian commitment to help obtain from Hamas an acknowledgement of Israel’s right to exist” (p. 57) is politically viable? Aside from Syria’s stance, the Hamas charter enjoins jihad for the “liberation” of Palestine.  And Hamas seems to have its hands full these days with deciding whether Fatah has a right to exist—much less Israel.  And even as a former member of U.S. Army intelligence, I have no idea what this means: “human intelligence in Iraq has improved from 10 percent to 30 percent” (p. 94).  In accuracy? Reports generated? Sources interrogated? Without a frame of reference, that statement is meaningless. 

There are, to this military veteran, what appear to be some good ideas in the report: getting the Organization of the Islamic Conference to meet in Baghdad would at least legitimize the Iraqi government (p. 46); creating “a single office in Iraq to…aid a program to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate militia members” (p. 69) probably couldn’t hurt; maintaining quick-strike U.S. special forces to take out al-Qaeda [sic] cells (p. 71) whenever possible should be done for years to come, even after most of our troops come home.  On the tactical, domestic Iraqi nuts-and-bolts issues the Baker-Hamilton report seems pretty solid; but on the strategic, pan-Islamic front it comes off as a rather historically ignorant, Dr. Phil-ish “help us, help you” manifesto.

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1 See Yaron Friedman, “Ibn Taymiyya’s Fatawa against the Nusayri-`Alawi Sect,” Der Islam, vol. 82, no. 2 (2005), pp. 349-363.