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The Kagans on Iraq

Like Abe Greenwald, I was struck by the New York Times‘ article on Tuesday that described the growing disenchantment of young Iraqis with the clerics.  And I share his assessment that it offers the hope of vindication for the Bush Doctrine.  History may come to see the Iraqi insurgency as the natural result of lifting the lid off of the Iraqi kettle: the pressure built up by Saddam, and fueled by Al Qaeda Iraq, had to blow off before a reaction, aided by the remarkable campaign led by General Petraeus, set in.

It is far too soon to start claiming victory.  The Times‘ story is based on a mere forty interviews, and as Frederick and Kimberly Kagan point out in their latest piece in the Weekly Standard, on “The Patton of Counterinsurgency,” “the war is still very much ongoing and victory is by no means assured.”  But the Kagans’ article also draws attention to the same trends the Times has discovered.  According to them, while there is widespread frustration with the Maliki government:

that frustration is increasingly expressed not simply as resentment of Maliki and his allies, but in a rejection of clerical government (the dominant Shia party south of Baghdad is controlled by a turbaned cleric, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim); of Iranian influence; and of regionalism, factionalism, and sectarianism. Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, are increasingly defining themselves as Iraqis, that is to say Arabs, rather than Sunnis or Shia.

That last sentence is the crucial one.  Across the Middle East, surveys repeatedly show that many people describe themselves as Muslim first and as a nationality second.  In Egypt in 2000, for instance, 80 percent of those surveyed replied that, above all, they were Muslim.   This is quite compatible with the reality that most Muslims are not Islamists.  Nor does anyone in the Middle East need to place the state before God to achieve democracy: state-worship is never desirable.

But as long as faith squeezes nationalism out of the public square, the various body politics of the region will be weak and divided, prone to manipulation by dictators and terrorists.  That is exactly what happened in Iraq.  Abe describes Iraq as moving towards a new faith in freedom. If the Times and the Kagans are right, it is more fundamental than that: it is the rise of a shared national identity, which is what makes freedom possible.


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