Iraq: The Stakes

In response to continuing calls for troop withdrawals from Iraq, including from within his own party (see Sen. John Warner’s “bring them home for Christmas” plan), President George W. Bush made two major addresses — to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion — and then made a surprise visit to Anbar province. While victory may appear elusive, the consequences of failure are becoming clearer. As General Petraeus begins his briefings to Congress, here is some background to help assess the fallout from the forces that are at play.
After 9/11, President Bush said that state sponsors of terrorism would be held as culpable as terrorists themselves. Surveying the Middle East, there were four contiguous state sponsors, running from west to east: Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. The Taliban in Afghanistan and the Baathists in Iraq were overthrown, though remnants of both regimes continue to fight.
Iraq was the key insofar as its development into a democratic, constitutional order would, over time, transform the entire Middle East — the locus of terrorist ideology — by showing that there is a way other than the typical Arab tyranny. The problem with this scenario was that not everyone in the Middle East wished to be transformed. In fact, as Israeli scholar Shmuel Bar was warning before the invasion of Iraq, “No one there wishes you well.” In other words, it was in no one’s interest in the Middle East that we succeed in the terms in which we were describing success.
What would a democratic, constitutional order in Iraq mean for its neighbors? For Baathist Syria, it would clearly mean its ultimate demise. The proximity of a successful Iraq would, if only by force of its example, completely undermine the only remaining Baathist regime and its national socialist ideology. The Syrian regime would lose its moral legitimacy.
The same is true of Iran, but at a more profound, theological level. Iraq is a majority Shia state. Its cities of Najaf and Karbala — the resting places, respectively, of Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, and Ali’s son Hussein — are the holiest sites in Shia Islam. Under Saddam Hussein, the Shias were brutally suppressed, and the center of gravity in the Shia world moved temporarily to the city of Qum in Iran. The Khomeini theocratic doctrine (velayat-e faqih) embodied in the current Iranian regime is considered heterodox by most Shias.
Now that the Shias in Iraq are free to practice their faith, the Iranians fear the shift of the theological center of gravity back to Najaf and Karbala, where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is ensconced. I remember being told at the time pilgrims from Iran started streaming into Iraq after Saddam’s fall that they were telling their Iraqi Shia confreres, “Whatever you do here, don’t do what we did in Iran.” Sistani reflects orthodox, quietist Shi’ism that holds that religion should be kept out of political affairs until the return of the Hidden Imam. Thus, Sistani encouraged Iraqis to vote in the Iraqi elections and embrace a democratic constitutional order for Iraq.
Should Sistani’s views prevail, the theocratic doctrine on which Iran is based cannot survive. That is most likely why Abdul Majid al-Khoei, son of the Grand Ayatollah Abdul-Qasim al-Khoei, who also represented these views, was murdered in Iraq in the spring of 2003, probably by Muqtada al-Sadr, for whom an arrest warrant was issued. He was never apprehended, and continues to serve Iran’s interests with his Mahdi militia.{mospagebreak}
One cannot comprehend the violence in Iraq without an appreciation of what is at stake there — for Syria and Iran, everything. A successful Iraq would undermine their legitimacy; they could not withstand its example. That is why they have been so deeply involved in Iraq since Saddam’s fall, and why they provide safe haven, transit, supplies, training, and personnel for insurgent and terrorist forces. Many analysts have warned that Iraq’s problems could spill out into the Middle East, without seeming to realize that it is the Middle East’s problems that have spilled into Iraq. As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wrote in the Wall Street Journal on June 13: “Our conflict, it should be emphasized time and again, has been fueled by regional powers that have reached into our affairs.”
When Igor Gaidar, Russia’s first prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, traveled to Iraq to assess its possibilities during Ambassador Paul Bremer’s CPA days in Baghdad, he said that Iraq had all the ingredients for success — a talented population, a high level of education, abundant natural resources — but that it was in a “rough neighborhood.”
Exactly. Last year, when I had the chance to ask the former deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament what Iraq would have been like now had we controlled its borders from 2003, he threw up his hands and said it would be a different country. What indigenous insurgency would have occurred anyway could not have sustained itself without outside support and safe havens from Iraq’s two adjoining state sponsors of terrorism.
President Bush has said that success in Iraq would be transformative. In this, al-Qaeda agrees. As Mohamed Darif, a terrorism expert at Hassan Il-Mohammedia University in Morocco, said in the Washington Post (February 20, 2007), “Al-Qaeda has the same strategy as the United States: It wants to win in Iraq so it can transform the whole region. They are fixated on Iraq.” The transformation for which al-Qaeda is working was expressed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi just before he was killed: “We fight today in Iraq, tomorrow in the land of the Holy Places, and after there in the West.”
Failure can also be transformative. President Bush told the American Legion, “The region would be dramatically transformed in a way that could imperil the civilized world.” How could that be? Here are some likely consequences of our hasty withdrawal from Iraq.
Success against the Soviets in Afghanistan had a hugely galvanizing effect on the forces of radical Islamism. However, Afghanistan is at the periphery of the Muslim world; Iraq is the former seat of the Abbasid caliphate and at its very heart. The consequences of a loss there would be incomparably greater, stirring the Islamic world and validating the al-Qaeda narrative. Our allies in the Middle East would be subverted and most likely unable to withstand the growing Islamist forces seeking their overthrow. If the United States could not defeat these forces, how could these allied countries hope to do so? They would first try to accommodate these forces and then be taken over by them. Failure, according to Shmuel Bar, would also be the death sentence for the Sistani quietist version of Shi’ism and the vindication of Iranian theocracy.
The leverage that radical Islamist forces would gain over oil supplies critical to the functioning and survival of the industrialized world would be enormous. In fact, it would be intolerable. In other words, failure is a prescription for more war, and a worse one. If Senator Warner hurries our troops home for Christmas, he had better get them ready for a terrible Good Friday.

Robert R. Reilly served as senior advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Information in Operation Iraqi Freedom.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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