Special Report

Iraq Agonistes

We sent Americans to liberate Iraqis, not to create a protectorate for a theocracy.

By 7.2.04

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WASHINGTON -- No structure built on a faulty foundation can ever be truly stable. This basic truth seems to have escaped the architects of our policy in Iraq, who continue to ignore realistic assessments in favor of whatever bliss-filled platitude it takes to weather the next news cycle.

Case in point: this week's early transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government. Any fool can see why this is an attractive proposition -- no one likes the idea of an "occupation"; it will mute, if only slightly, international criticism of the United States; it gives Republicans something to crow about in the upcoming campaign. The Iraq handlers hope that these short-term benefits will be augmented in the next year or so by a de-escalation of the American presence in the country.

These are wonderful goals that most of us hope to see accomplished in Iraq one day soon. But the truth is, in its haste accomplish these tasks the U.S. government may be putting them at risk.

Consider: "Please let us not be afraid by those outlaws that are fighting Islam," interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said in his inaugural address Monday. "Some of them have already gone to the fires of hell and others are waiting their turn."

Fighting Islam? How about going after those people fighting Iraq? The definition of an "enemy of Islam," as we have been made painfully aware these last three years, is very much open to interpretation. We sent Americans to liberate Iraqis, not to create a protectorate for a theocracy.

Now there is renewed talk of an amendment being added to the Iraqi constitution that would strike down any law conflicting with Islamic teaching, and Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem al-Shalan has pledged to give insurgents the traditional Islamic treatment. "We will cut off the hands of those people, we will slit their throats if it is necessary to do so," he told reporters.

Another bold reality check came in the form of the flag hoisted above government buildings after the hand-over: Saddam's flag, created in the aftermath of the 1991 war, with the Islamic "God is great" emblazoned across it in Arabic.

Perhaps we have become so caught up in the rhetoric of Islam -- the "hijacked" religion of peace -- that we've forgotten that Islamists of Middle Eastern extraction are rarely fond of Americans. It would only be a matter of time before an Islamic government in Iraq becomes hostile to the United States if for no other reason than to gain credibility in the eyes of the Muslim world, including its own hard-line constituents.

REMEMBER, AFTER WORLD WAR II, American forces introduced and enforced basic human rights and instituted universal suffrage to radically alter Japan's violent society -- and they occupied the country for seven years to get it done. An occupation force held fast in Germany for nine years.

Change does not come overnight, and it is not easy. The eagerness to hand over power in Iraq has created a situation where forces that oppose fundamental change are able to bide their time, and keep their powder -- well, some of their powder -- dry. Our hands in the bargaining have been tied behind our back.

Flying in the face of all rational thought, the United States continues to tiptoe around the bastions of Islamic extremism in Iraq. While the comparisons of the second Gulf War to Vietnam by anti-war types generally showcase a dearth of understanding, one likeness is undeniable: Both were political wars with all the baggage that that carries.

To avoid any nasty questions on the evening news the armed forces don't avenge the brutal murders of innocent civilian contractors in Faluja. Instead they hand over the city to a former Baath Party general who can't seem to find a single insurgent within city limits. We end up with five Marines shot dead waiting for permission to fire on a mosque being used as a bunker. What did those kids die for? To keep nitwits like Keith Olbermann and Anderson Cooper from having anything to tsk-tsk over in this news cycle?

The other day, in a particularly galling statement, President Bush attempted to set the concerns of Islamic fundamentalists in Turkey at ease. "Some people in Muslim cultures identify democracy with the worst of Western popular culture and want no part of it," he said. "And I assure them, when I speak about the blessings of liberty, coarse videos and crass commercialism are not what I have in mind."

Harrumph. I'm not sure a particularly effective weapon against fundamentalist Muslims is to start sounding like them. There is a reason why the closed societies of the world hate our "crass commercialism." It is a Trojan horse loaded with inconvenient ideas about individualism, dissent, and hope -- a consciousness of self, essentially.

To think the U.S. can ever hope to spread democracy and rationalism in Muslim societies while leaving the blinders on the eyes of the oppressed within them -- to believe that you can sell people the idea of the right to vote without allowing them the courtesy of deciding for themselves what is crass -- is both arrogant and self-defeating.

If Americans really want to help the Iraqis, we will remember that government based on a narrow interpretation of one faith is a recipe for tyranny. We have told the people of Iraq that we have come to their country to ensure that the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein was an aberration in their history, not their destiny.

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