It is one of President Bush's favorite applause lines. "Freedom isn't America's gift to the world," he repeats in speech after speech. "It is God's gift to mankind." And I, George W. Bush, am merely the delivery man. (That follow-on line is only implied, but you can't miss it.) The president has indeed been making deliveries—planting seeds of freedom, at least rhetorically, wherever he goes. In Iraq, in the Palestinian territories, in troubled Lebanon, even in politically stifled Egypt, we are told, democracy is blooming like so many biblical lilies of the field.
But what if what is actually blooming out there isn't lilies at all, but something more like stinkweed? What if we're seeing not the beginnings of secular, friendly democracies in the Arab world, which Bush and his advisers have spoken of so hopefully, but Islamic-dominated governments that are antithetical to American interests, giving off foul odors of Sharia and caliphates to come? What if Allah wants to have his own say in this divine gift to mankind?
In fact, this seems to be happening. Fundamentalist stinkweed is sprouting up all over the Arab world. Yet the Bush administration—employing the same creative skills that it used to recast its reasons for the Iraq war several times over—is still telling the American people that what they're seeing is lilies.
American policymakers got many things wrong when they decided to invade Iraq. Most of these errors have been amply thrashed over: the manipulated intelligence on WMD and Saddam's ties to terror; the decision to lay down a smothering, paternalistic occupation despite having insufficient troops to secure the country; the reckless conflation of Al Qaeda with the Iraqi insurgency, so that U.S. troops came to treat ordinary Iraqis with harsh techniques intended for a handful of hardcore Qaeda leaders; above all, the pretense that Bush's "war of choice" in Iraq had anything at all to do, at the beginning, with America's war of necessity against Al Qaeda.
But one major mistake has mostly escaped scrutiny: the Bush administration's misreading of the power of Islam in the Arab mindset, and of Islam's central importance in Arab society. The administration is still in a state of denial about this. Consider the election results in Iraq. Right up until the parliamentary elections in mid-December, U.S. officials were waxing hopeful that Iyad Allawi, the secular Shiite exile and former CIA operative they installed as interim prime minister, would be returned to power. Ahmad Chalabi, the once and again Pentagon favorite—the man who once sold the administration on dreams of a secular, Israel-friendly Arab model state—made a triumphal sweep through Washington last fall before the election. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, thinking Chalabi might be on the verge of a major comeback, agreed to meet with him despite accusations that he and his associates revealed U.S. secrets to Iran.
Instead, the outcome stunned the administration. According to European foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, fully 78 percent of Iraqis voted for religious-party candidates. The secularists were marginalized. Allawi garnered a mere 25 seats out of 275 in the new Iraqi Parliament, and Chalabi's party was completely shut out. The new Iraqi prime minister may well be someone the Americans can work with, like current Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari or Adel Abdel Mehdi. But both these men will be at the beck and call of Shiite clerical leaders Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose slates dominate half of Parliament and who have their own agendas.
This follows a pattern of denial going back to the beginning of the U.S. occupation. A year before the U.S. invasion, a Pentagon source who spoke on condition of anonymity told me that Central Command ordered Army intelligence to work up a file on Sistani, the most powerful cleric in Iraq. Central Command wasn't sure exactly who he was, but they knew he was important. Yet when Sistani rose to become the dominant voice for the majority Shias after the invasion, the Bush administration sought to brusquely shove him aside, and the Army's intel dossier was apparently forgotten.
Sistani, a fast learner once described to me as "frighteningly intelligent" by his political ally, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, pleaded for early elections and a quick handover. He suggested, reasonably, that the Americans make use of the widely distributed United Nations food cards for voter registration. According to Rubaie, who is currently the Iraqi national-security adviser, the savvy Sistani went about pressing his demands with a studied disingenuousness, knowing that Shiites made up 60 percent of the population. "He said, ‘I read this textbook of democracy in the world, and the first thing I read is about elections, and so I'm asking for elections. I didn't go to the Qur'an, there is nothing written in the Qur'an about elections'."
But for the Americans, empowering Sistani was just too scary. Born in Iran, he was seen as a medieval relic who perhaps harbored dreams of emulating the practices of his mullah pals next door. And Chalabi and his intellectual sponsor, the great sage Bernard Lewis, had told us that people like Sistani were yesterday's men, that secularism was the way forward.
Now, more than 2,200 American deaths and countless Iraqi casualties later, what we have in Iraq is essentially Sistani's democracy. That may not be, after all, so terrible in the end. Stinkweed isn't as pleasant as lilies, but it's not terribly toxic either—not nearly as bad as, say, terrorist bombs. Still, the Bush administration's willful denial about the Islamist flavor of Arab politics has prevented us from seeing opportunities that have since passed by. In Iraq, that might have meant a faster handover that turned the country over to the same Shiite majority parties that now control it anyway. It also might have meant dealing with a less troubling, or at least less Islamicized, Sunni minority (which began the occupation largely secular but is no longer after years of infusion by foreign jihadis). Now, after two years of being put off by the Americans, then murdered en masse by Sunni insurgents, the Shiites are no longer in much of a mood to share power.
Yet such is the paranoia of U.S. policymakers about Islam that, since the Khomeini revolution in 1979, they still see every Islamic party as an incipient Iranian-style mullah state, or as a budding terrorist group that will give succor to Al Qaeda. What these policymakers miss is this: what happened in Iran hasn't occurred anywhere else. Iran underwent a unique revolution, one in which mullah control was written into the radical new constitution (much to the frustration of many in its younger generation today). In truth, a consistent minority of people in most Islamic countries want to see genuine theocracy. Hard-line Islamist parties generally get 15 percent of the vote or less.
And Sistani has proved to be in every respect reasonable and moderate. During a trip I made to Iraq two years ago, when all this was just getting in motion, Rubaie complained that the Americans didn't understand how far Shia have traveled ideologically in their direction. "The traditional Shia political position was that of Hizbullah," he told me. "Now the Shia have made a paradigm shift toward the position of the U.S." But the occupation authorities, he said, "did not understand."
Other Islamists, like Hakim, have been willing to accommodate the Americans, if not quite cozy up to them. (Hakim has already made one trip to Washington, and may well make another in coming weeks.) "Nobody knows the failure of the Iranian system better than the Iraqis," says Reza Aslan, author if the new book "No God But God."
The obvious question arises: how could a U.S. president who has made his own religious faith so much a part of his political philosophy—even in America's supposedly secular system—miss the fact that Arabs might want to do the same thing in their own politics? Bush was, quite simply, misled, Aslan says. "For the past few years or so, Western governments have been essentially blackmailed by our allies in the region, by [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and King Abdullah [of Jordan], into believing that autocratic antidemocratic policies are necessary; if it weren't for them there would be theocracy in the region."
Another reason was the preeminence in Washington of the "Lewis Doctrine," as The Wall Street Journal once called it. Bernard Lewis, the dominant scholar of Islam of recent decades, succeeded in persuading his Bush administration allies of the need to forcibly implant, in the Arab world, a secularized democracy. Lewis saw Islam as essentially antimodern and antidemocratic, the Arab equivalent of the medieval mindset in Europe that had to be vanquished by the Reformation.
Rival scholars argue that Lewis and other conservative thinkers underestimated the role that Islam plays in Arab self-identity—the sense of protective justice that the religion imparts to ordinary people, especially in traditional Arab autocracies. For centuries, there was comparative stability and prosperity in the Islamic world because Islam was playing its traditional role of constraining tyranny, argues Richard Bulliet, a Columbia University Arabist.
When many Iraqis felt themselves subject to an autocratic U.S. occupation—it's difficult for Americans to stomach this, but they are seen as autocrats—they simply resorted to Islam, expecting it to play its traditional protective role. "Lewis gave a kind of scholarly gloss to what the administration wanted to hear" about secular democracy, says Bulliet. After 9/11, Bulliet and other Arabists with kinder, more nuanced views of Islam were branded soft on terrorism and hounded into silence (even today, a Web site called Campus Watch monitors their every statement for evidence of squishiness on Islam and on anti-Semitism).
Now Bush and his advisers have been quietly grappling with the idea that their principal interlocutors across the Arab world may soon be very religious men (sort of like them). Not just in Iraq either: Wednesday's historic Palestinian election is likely to produce a substantial presence in Parliament for Hamas. When asked, U.S. officials insist they will have no dealings with Hamas, because it is a terrorist group. In private, however, the president has been gingerly laying out what one senior European official described last year as Bush's "theory of redemption."
As Bush put it in remarks last spring, even terrorists can be weaned from violence by the need to satisfy their constituencies. "Maybe some will run for office and say, 'Vote for me; I look forward to blowing up America'," Bush said. "But ... I think people who generally run for office say, 'Vote for me; I'm looking forward to fixing your potholes or making sure you've got bread on the table'."
Author Aslan—whose book argues that Islam has always made room for democracy, going back to the days of the Prophet—sees an "excellent political experiment" in all this. Hamas has removed sentences calling for the destruction of Israel from its campaign literature, he says, and it has performed better than the corrupt Fatah in delivering services to people. "For years we've been talking about how democratic participation is the only way to moderate extremist ideologies," he says. "Here is the perfect chance to see that in play." But first the Bush administration must admit that everything may not be coming up lilies.