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Shiites and Stereotypes

Iraq Policy's Critics Could Use Some Discernment

By Robert Kagan
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page A29

President Jimmy Carter once asked Americans to abandon an "inordinate fear of communism" that "led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear." That was back in 1977, when a standard critique of American Cold War policies was that policymakers held a simplistic, monolithic view of communism. Not all communists were stooges of the Soviet Union, as China and Yugoslavia demonstrated. And not all national liberation movements were led by communists. More often, they were led by nationalists. Then there was the whole kaleidoscope of the global left: the socialists, the euro-communists, the trade union leaders, the advocates of a "third way" between East and West. It was a mistake to lump them all together as "communists."

This was generally a liberal critique of conservative anti-communist rigidity. Conservative Cold Warriors were always crying "Communist!" and thus missed opportunities that came from making more subtle distinctions. And the critique was not without merit. Over time, the United States did decide to take advantage of a Sino-Soviet schism, did differentiate among the various communist nations of Eastern and Central Europe, and did learn to work with socialists and labor leaders and others whom American governments had once shunned. Of course, the liberal-left took its own point too far sometimes. Ho Chi Minh, it turned out, was a nationalist and a communist. When the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979, the New York Times and The Post did not report it as a victory for the Soviet Union or Cuba. On the contrary, they resisted coming to that judgment for a decade and more. It took the Sandinistas themselves to confirm, as Humberto Ortega did years later, that from the very beginning they had sought to emulate the Cuban model and ally themselves with the Soviets.

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Compare liberal and journalistic open-mindedness during the Cold War, when the subject was communism, with the remarkable rigidity from these same quarters today when it comes to a very different group of people: Shiite Muslims. The votes were still being counted in Iraq this month when the New York Times reported in the opening sentence of a front-page article that the likely winners of the Iraqi election were "an alliance of Shiite parties dominated by religious groups with strong links to Iran." The Post went the Times one better 10 days later with this sensational headline: "Iraq Winners Allied With Iran Are the Opposite of U.S. Vision." Columnist Robert Scheer wants to know "why the United States has spent incalculable fortunes in human life, taxpayer money and international goodwill to break Iraq and then remake it in the image of our avowed 'axis of evil' enemy next door." Or as James Carville says more pithily: "We done trade a half-a-trillion dollars for a pro-Iran government!"

So much for the subtle distinctions of the past. So much for complexity. And so much for letting a little time pass before jumping to alarmist conclusions that are likely to prove, shall we say, simplistic. Much of this anti-Shiite paranoia is being stirred by other Iraqis, of course, either because they are sore electoral losers or because they hope to weaken Shiite influence in the new government. Most leaders of the neighboring Arab states are Sunni and make no secret of their anti-Shiite prejudices. But that doesn't mean Americans should adopt their prejudices or their paranoia.

One could note, for instance, what Iraqi Shiite leaders have actually been saying since their election victory, which is that they have no interest in or intention of copying the Iranian model or in making Iraq an ally of Iran. Adel Abdul Mahdi, a top Shiite leader, told CNN exactly that. He also insisted, "We don't want either a Shiite government or an Islamic government." Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of the Shiite alliance that won 48 percent of the vote, has pledged a "government of national unity," and already it is clear that bargaining among Iraq's constituencies is likely to produce a government with strong Kurdish as well as Sunni participation.

Then there is the fact that the Shiite alliance itself is not monolithic but includes prominent secular moderates such as Ahmed Chalabi, religious moderates such as Ibrahim Jafari and religious conservatives. This means even more bargaining and the practical impossibility of any one group -- including the most religious Shiites -- dominating and ramming through legislation.

Yes, the monolithically inclined journalists say, but didn't a lot of these Iraqi leaders once live in Iran and seek Iranian support? Indeed they did. When Saddam Hussein was in power, murdering the Shiites by the tens of thousands and using chemical weapons against the Kurds, while the United States, Europe and the rest of the Arab world stood by and did nothing, many Iraqis looked for help from the only nation that would provide it. Does that mean now that Hussein is gone and they have a chance to take part in governing their country that they are stooges of Iran? Was George Washington a stooge of France? Some may retain ties to onetime Iranian supporters, but a better bet is that Iraqi Shiites will want to be just that: Iraqi Shiites. Remember nationalism? And as scholars of Islam such as Reuel Marc Gerecht point out, it's probably the Iranian Shiite leaders who are now worrying. In the end, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and his allies may prove to have more influence in Iran than Iran does in Iraq.

No one can know for sure, of course. But now is the time for a little subtlety, a little discernment and a little patience. Above all, it is time to abandon our inordinate fear of the Shiites.

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.


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