Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Political bifurcation ... Juan Cole's take today on Spencer Ackerman's latest at TNR:
As Ackerman says, this alignment of Washington and Najaf has been a long-term project of the Neoconservatives. I think they just want to divide the Arab world between Sunnis and Shiites so as to make trouble and weaken the Arabs, for the benefit of the Likud Party in Israel. Frum and Perle even want to encourage Shiite separatism in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia so as to split up Saudia and defund the Wahhabis ... As if the Shiites of Qatif and Hufuf would necessarily be pro-American!

Anyway, if Bush wants a constitution to be passed in Iraq, he needs it to be endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Sistani. The provision that no law may be passed contravening Islamic Law (article 2A) is a non-negotiable demand of Sistani. Without it, he might well come out against the constitution, which would certainly sink it. He has bucked Bush quite successfully before. Ackerman's concerns all flow from the Jan. 30 elections, which the fundamentalist Shiites and Iran won, and which Bush lost. It's been over with all this time.

To begin with, I want to clarify that I stopped reading Juan Cole regularly some time ago -- not because I necessarily disagreed with him, but because he'd become manifestly careless when it came to checking himself against the contrapositive. Or put differently, Cole has simply drawn the same conclusions from the same arguments for so long that he now treats them as premises. And when critics stop being self-critical, it's tough to trust their criticism in general. (The Likud reference above demonstrates this: certainly the neoconservatives overwhelming align themselves with Likud, but it's not an absolute alignment.)

Now. All that said, the two thrusts of the particular passage above both play out. Let's start with the election. Despite the exultant coverage at the time, Bush got creamed in the actual voting. And when Cole says "it's been over with all this time", he's really going back not to Jan. 30, but to the crucial post-war decisions to dissolve the Iraqi Army and to prohibit Ba'ath party officers from holding office in the new government. Once that happened Sistani became central, which meant that the "Article 2A" provision became a given. And that, in turn, meant that the constitutional referendum we're now facing was lost long before it began. As with so many other aspects of the occupation, the decisions made in April and May 2003 still haunt us today -- and will do so for years and even decades to come.

Which brings me to Cole's other point. The "divide and conquer" principle is not knew. In the West it goes back to imperial Rome and classical Greece and undoubtedly even before. But what is new is that in the last fifty years we now have examples of how disastrous bifurcation can become when those divisions are then forcibly incorporated into a self-determinative national sovereignty. For instance, that the Kurds are spread over Turkey, Iraq and Iran is not an historical accident; it was an intentioned consequence of British colonial policy, and it continues to have profound regional effects today. Given how many examples like the Kurds history offers, the fact that neoconservatives consider ethnic bifurcation to be viable indicates both an astonishing disregard for the lessons of history and a reckless faith in the lasting efficacy of contemporary political solutions.

Cole may be a little over the top at times, but he's dead on the money with this one.


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