"Critics of American policy in Iraq since 2003 have sometimes charged that the United States created the sectarian divisions in the country by treating Iraqis as Shiites, Sunnis or Kurds, rather than simply as Iraqis. But the opposite has in fact been the case. Under the influence of exiles like Ahmad Chalabi, administration officials anachronistically insisted that Iraq was cosmopolitan and postethnic. The most serious intellectual deficit that has plagued the American presence in Iraq — and a crucial reason for our repeated failure to predict Iraqis’ behavior — has been insufficient awareness of the conflicting perspectives of Iraqis from different backgrounds and communities."
THE FOREIGNER’S GIFT
The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq.
By Fouad Ajami.
378 pp. Free Press. $26.
THE END OF IRAQ
How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.
By Peter W. Galbraith.
260 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.
"Two new books set out to improve our understanding, each providing a window into particular aspects of the current situation in Iraq. Both authors are fascinating, indeed idiosyncratic figures, and each has played a role in the events of the last three years: Fouad Ajami, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has been a regular White House visitor as an unofficial adviser to the Bush administration. Peter W. Galbraith, a former Senate staff member and ambassador to Croatia, has been a constitutional adviser and political counselor to the Kurdish leadership in Iraq.
Few other Americans have Ajami’s distinctive qualifications for reflecting on the Iraq war. Born to a Shiite family in Lebanon, he has written several important books about Middle Eastern political culture, including a recognized classic on the Lebanese Shiites, “The Vanished Imam.” He supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, and his extraordinary level of access in Washington is reflected in “The Foreigner’s Gift,” which recounts many conversations he had in Iraq while shadowing American officials or traveling with close American allies like Chalabi. Respected by politicians who disdain most academics, and excoriated by antiwar academics who detest the present government, Ajami richly deserves the attention of both camps.
His core argument is that the trouble we are seeing in Iraq results from the profound unwillingness of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and elsewhere to accept the rise to power of Shiites in what is, after all, their own country. Shiite Arabs have long been second-class citizens, repressed and kept from political power even where, as in Iraq, they are a numerical majority. “For us — rule; and for you — wailing,” runs the adage Ajami cites to capture Sunni attitudes to Shiites. Though he does not say so, the second clause has at least two meanings. The Shiites are meant to bemoan their subservient state; at the same time, they are being stereotyped on the basis of the annual rites of mourning and self-flagellation Shiites practice in memory of the 7th-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein.
For Ajami, the foreigner’s gift is, in the first instance, the removal of dictatorial rule and the opportunity for self-government. But Iraqi Sunnis have refused to accept their transformation from rulers of the country to a minority within a democracy. The local insurgency was born of this denial, and has been augmented and transformed by an infusion of support from elsewhere in the Sunni world. This support, according to Ajami, comes not just from the jihadis crossing borders but from the mainstream (Sunni) Arab news media, which have depicted the United States as an Israel-like occupier rather than as a force liberating Shiites from Sunni oppression and all Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.
Meanwhile, Ajami suggests, Shiite leaders have begun fitfully to come to terms with what it means to exercise secular political power in the name of a group that is, after all, a religious denomination. He describes a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — one of the first such accounts to appear in English — and is impressed by the leader’s light touch when it comes to politics. Ajami is sophisticated enough to realize he is present by virtue of Shiite birth, not American citizenship (in fact Sistani regularly refused to see non-Shiite Americans). In one of the most self-revealing passages of the book, he confides his discomfort at the possibility that he will be asked to perform prayers whose rituals he does not know. It is easy to feel sympathy for the cosmopolitan immigrant-expatriate in this moment, especially one whose very name, Ajami, means “foreigner.” Viewed as a credentialed native Arab informant by the Bush administration and as an American traitor by the Arab press, he is a proud Shiite. Yet face to face with the most beloved Shiite religious leader alive, he senses his own alienation from the very tradition that has gotten him in the door.
Ajami’s American sensibilities come through most powerfully in his discussions of the American soldiers he meets in Iraq, from generals like David Petraeus to anonymous enlisted men. Ajami honors and respects their dedication, their optimism and their genuine desire to improve Iraq, and he quotes whole pages from their e-mail messages. But his world-weary take on Sunni irredentism ultimately makes the Americans seem naïve and out of place. As the violence increases and Iraqi deaths mount, the foreigner’s gift assumes the terrible ironic meaning of destabilization and terror. Ajami maintains that it is too soon to know whether the war will be considered heroic or tragic, and so, formally at least, he does not despair of a positive outcome. But one is left wondering how someone so cynical about the dysfunctionality of Arab political patterns could have been so optimistic about the “Baghdad spring” in the first place.
If Ajami is the self-made outsider from the Lebanese hinterland who has reached the corridors of power, Galbraith is an aristocrat of American foreign policy who has thrown in his lot with the stateless Kurdish people. A son of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, presidential adviser and United States ambassador to India, he first encountered the Kurds during his long tenure as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. Although his book is titled “The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End,” nearly a third of it is devoted to the story of Hussein’s oppression of the Kurds and Galbraith’s efforts on their behalf before and during the Kurdish uprising that followed Operation Desert Storm. When President Clinton sent him to Croatia in 1993, he not only turned his attention away from Kurdistan but also became a second-generation ambassador.
When that other hereditary member of the governing elite, George W. Bush, assumed the presidency, Galbraith, who had once disguised himself as a Kurd to avoid capture in 1991, reassumed the mantle of the Kurds’ chief guide to the folkways of Washington. This time, though, he was a professor at the National War College. In Galbraith’s telling, the Kurdish leadership made a tactical determination not to cross the American government on Iraq policy, but at the same time, maintained — and still maintains — a profound desire for total independence. The Kurds have been willing to participate at high levels in the Iraqi government, and even to ratify a constitution giving them de facto autonomy under the rubric of federalism. But to Galbraith, this position is temporary, convenient and a sham. “Every Kurd I know,” he says, “wants an independent Kurdistan.”
This perspective on Kurdish politics is extremely valuable, and in certain ways borne out by, for example, an unofficial referendum in which more than 90 percent of those casting ballots in Kurdistan expressed the desire for independence. (Galbraith claims credit for suggesting that the referendum be held on election day outside the official polls.) Galbraith is undoubtedly correct that most Kurds would prefer to be on their own, particularly in light of their history of being oppressed and killed by Iraqi (and other) governments. But it is much less clear that the Kurdish leadership is engaged in an elaborate subterfuge when its members participate in the government of federal Iraq. They have much to gain from a serious role in the national government, and their bargaining position is only strengthened by polls or votes showing that their constituents crave independence.
By his own account, Galbraith’s purpose in his book is to advocate a policy of American withdrawal from Iraq. That policy is simple: break the country into parts, beginning with an independent Kurdistan, possibly followed by the further breakup of the Arab parts of Iraq into Shiite and Sunni regions. This opinion needs to be taken very seriously, because through Galbraith’s writings and foreign policy connections, it has entered the rhetoric of some in the Democratic Party, including the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph R. Biden.
The chief problem with the “break Iraq in two” option is that creating an independent Kurdistan does absolutely nothing to address the present violence in the country. It might be nice for the Kurds, especially if the United States gave them the Kirkuk oil field and then permanently stationed large numbers of troops in Kurdistan to protect it. But Kurdistan is mostly peaceful, and at present Kurds are not fighting Arabs in Iraq, except to some small degree around disputed Kirkuk itself. The violence in Iraq is predominantly Sunni-Shiite; and the United States desperately needs the stabilizing third force of the Kurds in the national leadership and the armed forces to have any hope at all of damping it down. To the contrary, breaking off Kurdistan would create a new violent front, because a Sunni ministate could never survive without a share of Kirkuk’s oil, and so Sunni insurgents would have to turn their attentions to the Kurds. This is to say nothing of the continuing concerns of Turkey about an independent Kurdistan, or the possibility of Turkish encroachment having to be confronted by American forces.
AS for breaking up the rest of the country, Galbraith frankly concedes there is no good solution for Baghdad, with its mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, which includes perhaps a quarter of the whole population of the country. “No good solution” is code for massacres of the kind that have accompanied breakups from India-Pakistan in 1947 to Yugoslavia in the 1990’s.
So it is a bit mystifying to hear Galbraith say that he is promoting American interests in calling for an independent Kurdistan and a partitioned Iraq. There is a long tradition, stretching from Byron’s love of Greece to T. E. Lawrence’s Arab nationalism and Orde Wingate’s Zionism, of foreigners bringing their considerable talents to advancing the independence of faraway peoples. Often such identified advocates take a harder nationalist line than the local leaders themselves, and often, like Lawrence and Wingate, they believe they are advancing the interests of their home country. But it is another matter for prominent Democrats to buy into Galbraith’s claim that breaking up Iraq will make us or the Iraqis safer. The Kurds have as strong a claim to self-determination as anyone, but for now it should be up to their leaders, not someone else, to call for something more than the de facto autonomy they currently enjoy."