The Shiite Revival
The Wall Street Journal describes the theories of a rising academic who believes that the central driver of instability in the Middle East is no longer Arab nationalism. It is the Islamic schism. Unfortunately most of this article is behind a subscription wall. But the excerpts below give the gist of the argument.
From the violence in the Mideast, new realities are emerging -- and a new generation of experts to interpret them. ... Mr. Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School ... calls this a historic "Shiite revival" and has gone further than most in identifying it as a central force in Mideast politics. He also frames a possible U.S. response: Engage Iran, especially over the issue of reducing violence in Iraq, and try to manage Tehran's rise as a regional power rather than isolating it.
Mr. Nasr's analysis begins with the idea that the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq has transformed the Mideast, but not in the ways promised by President Bush. By replacing Iraq's Sunni-led dictatorship with an elected government dominated by the country's Shiite majority, the U.S. destroyed the Sunni wall that had contained the restless Shiite power to the east, Iran. The clerical regime in Tehran was immeasurably strengthened. ... Today, the conflict is most visible in Iraq, where foreign and local Sunni insurgents refuse to accede to the country's Shiite majority. But Mr. Nasr sees the backlash in Iraq as auguring a wave of similar sectarian battles in a broad swath of Asia from Lebanon to Pakistan where the populations of the two sects are roughly even. ..
Yet U.S. foreign policy still operates under the "old paradigm" of Sunni dominance, he contends. ... This prediction was based on a pivotal misunderstanding about Iraq's Shiites, Mr. Nasr says: that their Iraqi and Arab identity would supersede their Shiite affinity with Iran. As it turned out, as soon as Shiites took power in Iraq, they eagerly threw open the gates to Iranian influence and support. Now, Iran operates a vast network of allies and clients in Iraq, Mr. Nasr says, ranging from intelligence agents and militias to top politicians in Iraq's Shiite parties.
On older posts on this blog I had argued that American Iraq campaign was deliberately aimed at this fault line in Islam. I also speculated this was because Iraq would provide a route of access to Iran. But maybe Professor Nasr is correct in saying that it backfired. Iran might have been a revolving door after all, except that the door revolved the other way. Time will tell.
One historical quibble with using the terms "Sunni" and "Shia" in place of "Arab" and "Persian" is that those terms exclude the rich background of Arab nationalism from Zaghlul in Egypt through to Nasser and Saddam Hussein from the model. Those personages were not primarily Sunni so much as Arab figures. The other quibble one might make is why OIF and not Carter's response to Khomeini should be the starting point for the Shi'a rise. Clearly Saddam's war with Iran and al-Qaeda's mission as a counter to Khomeini for the "leadership" of Islam both predated Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nor should it be forgotten that particularly the Syrians went out of their way to support the insurgency and that their eventual defeat, which they could have forseen, did much to create the Shi'ite majority state whose emergence they now regret. If the Shi'ites had gotten out the bottle Zarqawi had certainly lent a hand with his explosive corkscrews.
James Fallows (in another behind the subscription wall article entitled "Declaring Victory" in the Atlantic) makes observations similar to Nasr's but from a slightly different vantage. According to Fallows, the US has already largely succeeded in defeating the original enemy, al-Qaeda, but in so doing it inherited a new set or problems.
This spring and summer, I talked with some sixty experts about the current state of the conflict that bin Laden thinks of as the “world jihad—and that the U.S. government has called both the “global war on terror” and the “long war.” ... The larger and more important surprise was the implicit optimism about the U.S. situation that came through in these accounts—not on Iraq but on the fight against al-Qaeda and the numerous imitators it has spawned. ... The essence of the change is this: because of al-Qaeda’s own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda’s ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.
... “Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” asks David Kilcullen ... He was referring to the argument about whether the terrorism of the twenty-first century endangers the very existence of the United States and its allies, as the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons did throughout the Cold War (and as the remnants of that arsenal still might). “I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.
American victories as usual, are to be dreaded rather than celebrated. And in this case too. As the "Sunni" branch of terrorism lost operational capacity it began to concentrate on spreading pure hostility which unfortunately cannot be targeted or controlled to any great degree. It began to kill not only the infidel but apostates as well.
What they have done is to follow the terrorist’s logic of steadily escalating the degree of carnage and violence—which has meant violating the guerrilla warrior’s logic of bringing the civilian population to your side. This trade-off has not been so visible to Americans, because most of the carnage is in Iraq. There, insurgents have slaughtered civilians daily, before and after the death this spring of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But since American troops are also assumed to be killing civilians, the anti-insurgent backlash is muddied.
The situation is different elsewhere. “Like Tourette’s syndrome, they keep killing Muslim civilians,” says Peter Bergen. “That is their Achilles’ heel. Every time the bombs go off and kill civilians, it works in our favor. It’s a double whammy when the civilians they kill are Muslims.” Last November, groups directed by al-Zarqawi set off bombs in three hotels in Amman, Jordan. Some sixty civilians were killed, including thirty-eight at a wedding. The result was to turn Jordanian public opinion against al-Qaeda and al-Zarqawi, and to make the Jordanian government more openly cooperative with the United States.
There's probably quite a bit of truth in Professor Nasr's paradigm of the "Shiite revival". But a lot of that was driven by historical forces already underway before OIF though it was probably exacerbated by decisions made both in Washington and in the Arab capitals after 2003. People speak of Saddam Hussein as if he would live forever. Castro reminds us that even the hardiest and evil weeds eventually age and die. Saddam would have grown old and passed without a popularly elected successor and the day of reckoning would have arrived eventually.