Superfluous Israeli advice

It is obvious to everyone today – that is, apart from the policy wonks at the White House – that the United States has failed in its policy in Iraq and that the chances of stabilizing the situation there are close to zero. This also has to be admitted by those who justified the war against the tyrant, who used poison gas on the Kurdish population and in the war with Iran, and who for years played cat-and-mouse games with United Nations mechanisms over the disarming of his regime’s non-conventional weapons.

There are two reasons for the American failure: The first has to do with the creation of Iraq as a state by British imperial planners after World War I; the second stems from the belief of U.S. President George W. Bush’s associates that it is possible to export democracy to a country like Iraq by means of occupation and force.

Of all the Arab countries, Iraq has been exceptionally oppressive since its establishment. The background to this was provided by the British decision in 1918 to combine three provinces of the Ottoman Empire into one state. This union did not have historical or demographic roots that reflected the population’s consciousness. While the Mosul province had a Kurdish majority, Sunni Arabs dominated in Baghdad and the center, and there was a Shi’ite Arab majority in the south. The British installed a prince from the Sunni Hashemite dynasty to rule over this hybrid structure.


The result was that the entire history of Iraq has consisted of a series of revolts against the Sunni hegemony by Kurds, Shi’ites and even the small Assyrian Christian minority. Saddam Hussein’s regime was just the cruelest and most brutal of all the Sunni hegemonic regimes the British forced on Mesopotamia. The Americans’ mistake lay in adopting the neo-conservative belief that the moment oppressive regimes fall, the democratic alternative arises by itself, in what was assumed to be an automatic historical development. As the example of Eastern Europe shows, this is not a deterministic inevitability.

The transition to democracy has been relatively easy in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, where a strong civil society with an extensive tradition of representation and strong institutions had once existed. In other places – with Russia being the outstanding example – which have no tradition of civil society, the transition to democracy has in fact created disorder and chaos; and President Vladimir Putin’s neo-authoritarian regime has seemed like the only alternative to the total disintegration of the state.

The neo-conservatives in Washington have learned nothing from the lessons of the past 15 years in Eastern Europe. In a combination of arrogance and ignorance they believed that Saddam’s fall would herald the rise of a democracy by its own accord, of course with the help of American spears. What they did not take into account is the fact that the sudden introduction of democratic procedures into a society that lacks the most basic infrastructures will inevitably lead to chaos. What the ideologues in Washington forgot is that even if democracy is a recipe for stability, the processes of democratization can in fact lead to prolonged instability.

Six elections in three years, a referendum on a constitution, constantly evolving and unstable governments – all of these have given rise to instability and even a certain sense of nostalgia for the stability under Saddam. What the United States has ignored entirely is the fact that in a fractured society like the one in Iraq, the effect of making elections a means for determining control is liable to create serious distortions. The Shi’ite majority, which suffered from oppression not just during Saddam’s reign but ever since Iraq became a state, considers elections a means for ensuring its hegemony. The government of the Shi’ite majority does not see democracy as majority rule that ensures the rights of the minority, but rather as granting unbounded legitimacy to the rule of the majority.

For their part, the Sunnis consider the democratic process to be a tool for turning them from the ruling class into an oppressed minority. They are doing all they can to thwart those chances of stabilization that are based on the principle of majority-rule. Only the Kurds, who have in any case established a quasi-state in their autonomous region in the North, are prepared to hoe the row that has allowed them to obtain, in the meantime, what they want: a more or less secure place under the sun.

Another matter beyond the field of vision of Washington’s democracy engineers is the fact that in the absence of an existing framework of democratic political and party activity, every entity that wants to participate in elections has to establish an armed militia that can impose its interests. Thus, democratization without a democratic infrastructure gives rise to armed militias that serve as the power base for entities competing for power. The ability to forge a coalition and the recognition that real compromisesare needed are alien to a political culture that emerges in circumstances like these.

In such a reality, the United States has no chance of bringing about stability in Iraq, in part because Iraq no longer exists as a state. The illusion that sending another 10,000 or 20,000 soldiers to the region will reap any results is fading with each passing day. America’s problem in Iraq is no longer Iraq itself but rather the international standing of the United States. Sooner or later the U.S. will withdraw from Iraq, without having succeeded in stabilizing the situation there. The question is how to realize such a withdrawal without causing further deterioration in America’s international status.

This is where the Israeli aspect comes in. It is clear that Israel is worried, and rightly so, about the rise of Sunni fundamentalism in Iraq, which is linked to Al-Qaida, as well as about the increase in Iran’s power. It is obvious that Tehran’s nuclear program, alongside its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, are only deepening Israel’s concerns. Because they worry about what will happen if the United States pulls out of Iraq, quite a few strategic and diplomatic experts in Israel have encouraged the U.S. to continue on its current path. It is no coincidence that some of these Israeli advocates are close to the American neo-conservatives. But, much like the latter, these spokesmen do not have an answer to the question of how a stable democracy can be established in Iraq when there aren’t any democrats there.

However, Israel must be extremely cautious about being seen as the spearhead of an attempt to find a solution through bullying. The same caution applies to what may be thought of Israel’s Jewish friends in the U.S. Israel has already suffered significant damage from the accusation that the U.S. went to war in Iraq in order to protect Israel. It is important that the view not gain ground that the bloody and useless U.S. presence in Iraq derives from Israeli interests.

Israel must be interested in the United States withdrawing from the battle right now, when its standing has not suffered any more damage than it already has: America’s global status is without a doubt one of the foundations of Israel’s strategic power. It will not be built up by Israeli advice that will not change the American position and will only exacerbate the hostility to Israel in the Arab countries and in Western public opinion.

Even if right now it is difficult for Israel to progress toward peace with the Palestinians, it must not come across as the driving force behind Washington’s bullying obduracy that is unaware that it has reached the end of the road in Iraq.

Ref: Haaretz, By Shlomo Avineri

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