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The Gift; A master narrative for Iraq.

At his speech in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, last week, PresidentBush alluded to an observation by a Middle East scholar who had beento Iraq eight times since the beginning of the war: "A traveler whomoves between Baghdad and Washington is struck by the gloomydespair in Washington and the cautious sense of optimism inBaghdad." The president's use of Fouad Ajami as his witness is afirst strike, certainly among our readers, against the most learnedAmerican writing about the situation. It was natural for Bush torivet onto even so hesitant a hopeful reading of the outcome of thestruggles among Iraqis and between some Iraqis and U.S. forces.Still, the president's appropriation of Ajami's words does notnearly recognize the complex interpretive history he was trying totell.

There are two recent articles by Ajami recounting a narrative thatdelves deep into Iraq's past. The first essay was in The WallStreet Journal of April 11. The second, a long review of a book byAli A. Allawi called The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War,Losing the Peace, was in the most recent issue of The New Republic.Together they are 10,000 words--beautiful writing, as it is alwayswith Ajami, whether he is writing about the darkness of the MiddleEast or, in the rare instances when he can, about some light. Hedoes not skirt America's errors in Iraq, and he knows them all.Indeed, he knows them not just as the tactical mistakes of Bremerand Khalilzad but as lumbering strategic-- and sometimes evenmoral--errors inserted into the path of the whole saga of modernMesopotamia.

There may be very little inevitability in history. But one thing isfor sure. The Shia, who constitute maybe 65 percent of Iraq--longbrutalized and repressed, and several hundred thousand of whom weremurdered in Saddam Hussein's tenure--will not let the cup of powerpass from their lips. Not strangely at all, there is no just theoryof government that would prescribe that they should.

This is the nub of the controversy. As soon as Saddam's bronze headfell and the Baath Party with it, there emerged among the newlyfreed a demand for de- Baathification, a purge of the totalitarianagents, grand and petty, who ruled the country, enslaved it, andprofited from it. The insistence rose from a sense of due cause, afear of the return of the monsters, and real hatred. Hatred mightnot salve. But sometimes it cleanses. And, in the case of Iraq,there was plenty of reason to hate. De-Baathification was nowhere asharsh as de-Nazification, a U.S.-initiated process in our zone ofoccupied Germany that, only a few months ago, a self-righteouscritic of the Iraq war suggested should be undertaken in the UnitedStates. The discussion of the war is now so irrational that thesame person may believe that de-Baathification is wrong in Iraq butde-Nazification is apt for our own country.

There are, of course, Shia fanatics and murderers, and they, too,kill American soldiers. But the war against a political settlementand the war against our troops is largely a Sunni phenomenon. It issuicidal. They cannot win. No way. But they might be able to driveus out.

Ajami betrays some contempt for other writers on the war: those whounderstand or speak no or little Arabic and thus talk as foreignersto the Iraqis; those, actually most, of the "experts" who areignorant of the religious struggle and its social and economicconsequences through the centuries; those who see the fighting asmostly an Iraqi conflict with clumsy and, worse yet, cruel Americanfighting men and women. His view of the U.S. presence is, bycontrast, ethically and psychologically reassuring--and believable.Abu Ghraib is not the rule but a rare exception.

He does not spend his time, like other Americans and the usualcontingent of derisive European journalists, under U.S. protectionin the Green Zone, in exactly the same palaces where Saddam hidfrom his population. He sleeps where Iraqis sleep and eats whereIraqis eat.

I write about this because I think that these 10,000 words takentogether give the reader a more complex and reasonable version ofthe war than you have gotten elsewhere. We will run the twoarticles on tnr online so that you can refer to them. I do not knowexactly how Ajami believes this long war will end. But, from him, Ido know why it is being fought.

By Martin Peretz