At his speech in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, last week, President Bush alluded to an observation by a Middle East scholar who had been to Iraq eight times since the beginning of the war: "A traveler who moves between Baghdad and Washington is struck by the gloomy despair in Washington and the cautious sense of optimism in Baghdad." The president's use of Fouad Ajami as his witness is a first strike, certainly among our readers, against the most learned American writing about the situation. It was natural for Bush to rivet onto even so hesitant a hopeful reading of the outcome of the struggles among Iraqis and between some Iraqis and U.S. forces. Still, the president's appropriation of Ajami's words does not nearly recognize the complex interpretive history he was trying to tell.
There are two recent articles by Ajami recounting a narrative that delves deep into Iraq's past. The first essay was in The Wall Street Journal of April 11. The second, a long review of a book by Ali 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 always with Ajami, whether he is writing about the darkness of the Middle East or, in the rare instances when he can, about some light. He does not skirt America's errors in Iraq, and he knows them all. Indeed, he knows them not just as the tactical mistakes of Bremer and Khalilzad but as lumbering strategic--and sometimes even moral--errors inserted into the path of the whole saga of modern Mesopotamia.
There may be very little inevitability in history. But one thing is for sure. The Shia, who constitute maybe 65 percent of Iraq--long brutalized and repressed, and several hundred thousand of whom were murdered in Saddam Hussein's tenure--will not let the cup of power pass from their lips. Not strangely at all, there is no just theory of government that would prescribe that they should.
This is the nub of the controversy. As soon as Saddam's bronze head fell and the Baath Party with it, there emerged among the newly freed a demand for de-Baathification, a purge of the totalitarian agents, grand and petty, who ruled the country, enslaved it, and profited from it. The insistence rose from a sense of due cause, a fear of the return of the monsters, and real hatred. Hatred might not salve. But sometimes it cleanses. And, in the case of Iraq, there was plenty of reason to hate. De-Baathification was nowhere as harsh as de-Nazification, a U.S.-initiated process in our zone of occupied Germany that, only a few months ago, a self-righteous critic of the Iraq war suggested should be undertaken in the United States. The discussion of the war is now so irrational that the same person may believe that de-Baathification is wrong in Iraq but de-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 settlement and the war against our troops is largely a Sunni phenomenon. It is suicidal. They cannot win. No way. But they might be able to drive us out.
Ajami betrays some contempt for other writers on the war: those who understand or speak no or little Arabic and thus talk as foreigners to the Iraqis; those, actually most, of the "experts" who are ignorant of the religious struggle and its social and economic consequences through the centuries; those who see the fighting as mostly an Iraqi conflict with clumsy and, worse yet, cruel American fighting men and women. His view of the U.S. presence is, by contrast, 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 usual contingent of derisive European journalists, under U.S. protection in the Green Zone, in exactly the same palaces where Saddam hid from his population. He sleeps where Iraqis sleep and eats where Iraqis eat.
I write about this because I think that these 10,000 words taken together give the reader a more complex and reasonable version of the war than you have gotten elsewhere. We will run the two articles on tnr online [here and here] so that you can refer to them. I do not know exactly how Ajami believes this long war will end. But, from him, I do know why it is being fought.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief of The New Republic.