The Post-Saddam Middle East
Saddam Hussein is dead, but the wounds in the Iraqi polity and, indeed, in the very soul of Iraq as a nation are deep and enduring. For Sunni Iraqis, his death was the ultimate revenge of America and the Shias. He never accepted America’s dominance of his region and was contemptuous of the Shias. He expressed his contempt toward both, even moments before his death. For the international community, Saddam’s trial was a farce. No one was interested in giving a fair trial to a dictator who was responsible for the death of thousands of people, if not more. His rule was unjust and he died under a system that did not give him a fair hearing.
Now the sectarian violence in Iraq will have another wrinkle, taking revenge for the hanging of Saddam. Sunnis and Shias are not likely to live together in that country. In that sense, Iraq has become a permanently divided country within its current borders.
The Sunni Arab leaders appear as confused as ever. He was just like them, a ruthless dictator, who denied personal freedom and considered himself above the law. Yet, unlike them, he later became a pariah, not for the invasion per se, but because he invaded Kuwait. The politics of oil and the Sunni-Shia divide played a crucial role even in 1981, when Saddam invaded Iran. But that action had the sanction of the United States. In fact, the Reagan administration sided with Iraq in that invasion. The American objective was to unravel the Islamic revolution. Inside Iraq, Saddam continued to brutalize the Shias and the Kurds. But no one in the Middle East, or elsewhere, really cared until the post-1991 Gulf War, when those very reasons were depicted as Saddam’s crimes against humanity.
The politics of the Middle East have always been violent. However, the post-9/11 era—a period when the United States and the Islamists have declared war against each other—promises to be especially violent and deadly. One reason for its deadliness is the fact that the Islamists are fighting in the name of Islam.
But Saddam Hussein was not an Islamist. In fact, he opposed them intensely and violently. The Islamist perspectives of pan-Islamism were in stark contrast with his vision of Pan-Arabism. Saddam’s notion of Pan-Arabism glorified a secular strongman, a dictator like Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt or himself. Pan-Arabism was about uniting the Arab nations under one banner. In that sense, it was an admirable idea. But it was also a goal that never could have been achieved because of the highly discordant tribal politics of Arabs. In the late 1950s and until the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the Arab Cold War was fought between the Pan-Arabist republican forces and monarchies.
Pan-Islamism, on the contrary, is an idea much larger than Pan-Arabism. It is aimed at uniting Muslim nations from Morocco to Malaysia. It does not recognize any ethnic or racial differences. It aims to unite Muslims under the banner of Ummah (Islamic community). Yet it is equally unachievable because of ethnic, linguistic, and national differences. But, since it involves Islam, it has remained a major idea unifying Islamists around the globe. Pan-Islamism also remains a source of inspiration for Muslims at large. It is also an idea that the United States has come to fear, for the lone superpower knows the power of ideas, especially an idea that is as old as Islam.
What gives the arguments of the Islamists a worldwide audience is that it is more about politics than it is about Islam. Through their denouncement of the lone superpower and its policies in different regions of the world of Islam, they are focusing on “Muslim grievances.” It underscores the fact that Muslim countries are not part of global power hierarchy. There is no Muslim version of a “rising power,” a la China and India. What assigns the Islamists’ argument the least credibility is that it is about their vision of the establishment of a Muslim Caliphate, where their version of Islamic puritanism would be the order of the day. The Islamists have no concept of economic or military power. Power of faith is the tenet that seems to drive them. Yet that very power of faith, when it captured power in Afghanistan, created the Taliban regime. That was a model of government that was never even mildly popular anywhere in the world of Islam.
Muslims, as much as they believe in the rightness of their religion, still want to be successful as Moroccans, Jordanians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, or Indonesians. There is no incompatibility between these two ideas. Since they already live within the boundaries of various nation-states, they wish their countries to be economically prosperous, militarily powerful, and politically stable and free. The Islamists have no programs, no formula to achieve those highly intricate objectives. They have a simplistic view that Islamic puritanism will solve all their problems.
However, the seeds of a larger struggle are sown in the Middle East and South Asia and, indeed, in the world of Islam at large. In fact, those seeds were sown when the doctrine of militant Jihad was used against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In that profane ritual, the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia—one predominantly Christian nation and two predominantly Muslim countries—were partners and allies. That was a time when the doctrine of militant Jihad was used as a deadly tool to fight ‘godless’ communism.
But in the following decade—1990s—the same militant doctrine was used against the United States, a country that played a crucial role in legitimizing its use to attain heady political objectives. There was one very crucial difference, however. America’s two important Muslim partners, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, did not wage a campaign to explain to the world of Islam and to the Islamists why militant Jihad cannot or should not be used against the United States. Their inability or unwillingness also became an unspoken reason why the Islamists remained highly effective in their own claim about depicting the United States as a major “un-Islamic” force.
There is another reason why the doctrine of militant Jihad remained an effective tool of Islamists in the 1990s. They were interested in altering the regional order in the neighborhood of Pakistan and Afghanistan during that decade. They first captured Afghanistan under the banner of the Taliban. Then, using Afghanistan as a launching pad, they initiated the doctrine of regional Jihad. Their purpose was to “Islamize” Central Asia, Chechnya, and the Xinjiang province of China.
It was only after the United States came under the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 that the very notion of militant Jihad became a source of America’s antagonism, criticism, and a major target of its military operations.
America first went to Afghanistan to fight global Jihadists, who were operating under the safe haven provided by the Taliban. It won that operation handily, but its forces are still fighting the regional Jihadist forces of Taliban and al-Qaida in that country.
When President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, his country eventually became the target of Islamist forces and the Iraqi insurgency. America’s continued occupation of two Muslim countries became the chief reason why Iraq became such an important place for the Islamist attacks on the lone superpower.
At the end of 2006, it appears that the sectarian violence that intensified after the bombing of the al-Askariyya mosque of Samarra is pushing Iraq closer to civil war with the passage of each day. Global Jihadists also have been equally busy. As long as Iraq continues to remain plunged in violence and mayhem, the Islamist groups are content. The end result is the same. They want to defeat and expel the U.S. forces. But that is also the underlying purpose of the mayhem created by the Shia militias (Jaish al-Mahdi) headed by Muqtada al-Sadr. So death still rules in the “liberated” post-Saddam Iraq. Under Saddam’s regime, people died for opposing the dictator. Today, they are dying for being Shias and Sunnis. Iraq was a doomed place then. It remains a doomed place now.
What about the larger implications of the U.S. presence and Saddam’s hanging for the Middle East at large? The politics of the Middle East are being steadily Islamized. Islamists swept the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia in April 2005. Hezbollah claimed a “massive victory” in Southern Lebanon in the election of June 2005. The Islamic Brotherhood gained 88 seats in the Egyptian elections in November 2005. The most stunning victory was when the Palestinians elected Hamas in January 2006. More to the point, Islamists also captured power in Iraq, a place where George W. Bush aspired to sow the seeds of Jeffersonian democracy after toppling Saddam Hussein.
If democracy is introduced in the Middle East, Islamists are likely to sweep the ballots and capture power. However, since the existing regimes are not likely to allow such a happenstance, we are in the process of witnessing the creation of either of the following two scenarios.
The first scenario is that Islamists will capture power through elections. Once they come to power, the chances are that they might outlaw elections. Even if they were not to outlaw elections, they are not likely to pave the way for the emergence of opposition of all colorations. Bottom line outcome under this scenario: the politics of the Middle East will remain highly turbulent because of ongoing battles between forces of change and Islamist rulers.
The second scenario is that the existing government will maintain its autocratic rule and continue to fight Islamist forces. This is what is most likely to happen in the post-Saddam Middle East. The United States is not likely to earnestly advocate the promotion of democracy after what it saw happen in Iraq.
So the lines of battle have been drawn in the post-Saddam Middle East. America has to stay put in Iraq or get out and accept defeat. If it stays put, it remains the target of global Jihadist forces. If it gets out, it will still remain the target of global Jihadists. Since they no longer form lasting organizations, they are hard to dismantle. Since they can absorb losses and regroup for future battles, they are hard to defeat. Their targets are the United States as well as the existing regimes.
The Long War that the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, used to talk about is very much on. Whether it will last as long as the previous major political battle between the two superpowers—the Cold War—is purely a matter of conjecture at this point. But the post-Saddam Iraq—even though it has emerged as a major battlefield between the American forces and the global Jihadists—may be just one such battlefield.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms Defense Consultancy based in Alexandria, VA, US. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. He is also the USA Editor of World Security Network Online (WSN), and a regular contributor to the Global Beat Syndicate. He can be reached at: [email protected] or [email protected].