Suppose, as a result of George W. Bush's decision to go to war there, that Iraq turns into Iran? Just what do we do then?
As the vote-counting continues in last month's Iraqi elections, it's clear that the predictable has in fact occurred: The electoral alliance put together and dominated by Iraq's Shiite clerics has swept to power. It will command a clear majority in the National Assembly, with the Kurds, Sunnis and various secular groups bringing up the rear. It will write the national constitution, although, according to the soon-to-be-replaced transitional authority of Ayad Allawi, the new document needs a Kurdish and Sunni buy-in to go into effect.
That, at least, is the theory. In practice, the clerics are getting restless. For the first time in Iraq's unhappy history, the Shiite majority will control a national government. And some Shiite clerics can't stop talking about codifying Koranic law in the new constitution.
We're told that doesn't mean the imposition of an Iranian-style theocracy. We have assurances that clerics won't wield too much power in the new Iraq. The assurances come from the only force in Iraqi society with enough power to make such an assurance credible: the clerics.
The Iranian model, they rightly note, has created all manner of problems in Iran, where the mullahs themselves administer the law. All that the Iraqi clerics are asking, by contrast, is that the Shiite majority in the National Assembly write a constitution suffused with Koranic values. A conscientious civil service can take it from there.
The Shiite clerics have convinced the Bush administration that we have nothing to fear from the new-model Iraq. "We have a great deal of confidence in where they're headed," said Vice President Cheney over the weekend. Cheney hasn't sounded this certain since he predicted that American troops would be welcomed as liberators.
As the clerics tell it, those sections of Islamic law that they're keenest to codify would restrict the rights of women in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance. Men would be entitled to multiple wives. Male children would inherit twice the amount that female children would receive. "This is written in the Koran and according to God," a spokesman for Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, one of the leading Shiite clerics, told a New York Times reporter.
While such an inheritance law would run counter to our egalitarian ideals, at least the clerics aren't calling for an estate tax, which would truly be an affront to Bush values. The clerics may not be sold on the Enlightenment, but they probably know better than to really upset the administration with anything crazy like progressive taxation.
There's a limit, surely, on how far the clerics can go in the new constitution without provoking an upheaval among the Kurds and widening the rift with the Sunnis. Perhaps all sides can agree on a suitable balance of majority rule and minority rights. Even if they can, though, Koranic law is almost sure to sweep the Shiite south. In Basra, the south's largest city, where de facto clerical rule has already gone into effect, women must wear black from head to toe -- no, not the way they do it in New York -- when appearing in public.
The new Iraq, in short, may look a good deal like Iran-lite -- a state where Shiite clerics exercise indirect control, and that poses less of a threat to the wider world than the regime of the Iranian theocrats. But, Cheney's assurances notwithstanding, how can we be certain that the Shiite clerics of Iraq and Iran won't begin to find common cause on a range of issues?
Indeed, it's not hard to foresee a time a year from now, when U.S. Special Forces are in harm's way in underground operations attacking the mullahs' regime in Iran while U.S. soldiers and Marines are in harm's way defending a government of increasingly Iran-style mullahs in Iraq.
Our intervention in Iraq is already the War of the Vanishing Raisons D'Etre -- a war to save the world from a madman's arsenal, which, when the arsenal turned out not to exist, turned into a war to instill democracy in the Arab Middle East, and could now morph into a war to cement Koranic law. An unintended consequence of Bush's rush to war, certainly, but not at all an unpredictable one. And a most peculiar cause to ask American men and women to die for.