November 15, 2005

Neo-Con Shia-philia?

I'm reading an excellent book at the moment, George Packer's Assassins' Gate. It's the best book I've read on Iraq yet, and I recommend it highly. Packer doesn't come off as someone trying to take cheap shots, which makes portions of the book even more damning. I'm travelling now outside the U.S., and I'm tight on time, but I wanted to share a few portions tonight. For one, can someone explain to me why some neo-cons seem to have embraced a quite odd Shia-philia? Was it just Chalabi's influence? Or what?

Packer, p. 31:

Wurmser elaborated the theory in his 1999 book Tyranny's Ally: America's Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein, published by the American Enterprise Institute...[the book] reads as if a graduate student were feverishly trying to apply the half-digested concepts he'd learned in a class with Leo Strauss to subject matter he'd learned in a class with Bernard Lewis. There's an undercurrent of deep distrust of the modern world: Modernity gave us totalitarianism, therefore modernity must be undone. Wurmser wanted to return Iraq to traditional values, especially to Shiite religious tradition (about which he knew almost nothing). "The root of the violence is a century-old radical attack on the Arab world's traditional elite," he wrote. "Proponents of the secular ideology assumed the prerogative to shape and reshape mankind according to their concept of perfection." Dostoyevsky's anti-revolutionary novel Demons is invoked; the political ideas of Wurmser and a few other proponents of American intervention in the Middle East were closer to Dostoyevsky's religious authoritarianism than to John Stuart Mill's secular liberalism. They advocated democracy, but at bottom they were anti-Enlightenment. [emphasis added]

Now, to be fair, I didn't read Wurmser's book, and in passing I'll mention I think Packer over-simplifies Dostoyevsky by describing him merely as a religious authoritarian, but if Packer is right that Wurmser was advocating a return to traditional Shiite religious tradition, well, why in the world would he do such a thing one wonders? It's quite baffling, isn't it? Just Chalabi's influence? Or despising Baathist totalitarianism so deeply (and for good reason) so as to erroneously espy some Iraq panacea via the vessel of Shi'a resurgence (no thought to the dangers of Shi'a crude majoritarianism, revanchism, support to Hezbollah, etc etc). Can any commenters help?

Posted by Gregory at November 15, 2005 02:59 AM | TrackBack (1)
Comments

From reading the excerpt of Packer's book, it sounds to me as though Wurmser was reading his view of American politics onto Iraq. The language he uses echoes conservative commentary about American politics remarkably closely. It's Republicans like him who stand for a return to traditional values against Democrats who they suppose want to "reshape mankind according to their concept of perfection." And how different could Iraq be?

Pretty different, obviously, but assuming Packer is correct that Wurmser knew next to nothing about Shiite tradition but wanted nonetheless to use it as the basis around which to reconstruct Iraq (given what we now know about the thinking of the people who took us to war, all too plausible), he seems to be envisioning the devout Shia as little different from the Christian Right. He wanted, in other words, to go to war against Arab hippies.

Posted by: Mike at November 15, 2005 04:02 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don’t know anything about Wurmser, but the quote reads like gibberish, frankly, from the perspective of political theory. We have Leo Strauss, "opposed to modernity". Then there's the idea that totalitarians (and perhaps revolutionaries) want to reshape the world according to their vision of perfection—which is a traditional conservative point ala Burke and Hayek. I haven't read Demons but it wouldn't be surprising if it expressed this idea. Then the writer says that Wurmser et. al. were "opposed to the Enlightenment" and he charges "religious authoritarianism".

The only actual idea I can separate from the insults here is conservative skepticism about our ability to reshape the social and political world from scratch. While in Strauss's case this may go along with criticisms of the Enlightenment, the idea is broader than that. Nor does it have anything to do with religious authoritarianism. And it is in principle compatible with liberalism, although it certainly opposes the "crusading secularism" of leftist movements.

So: I gather from the extremely garbled and badly written quote that Wurmser thought that Iraqi civil society and traditional social life had been brutally suppressed by Saddam's revolutionary secularism, and so a return to Shiism was warranted. Then the author threw in Leo Strauss to make it sound worse. Just a guess.

Posted by: Zena at November 15, 2005 02:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

thx zena for this interesting, and perhaps correct, take. i agree that packer played it a little loose and glib on the straussian bit. and i pointed out i think he simplified dostoevsky quite crudely inded. still, it's not an uninteresting passage, and his book is quality.

Posted by: greg at November 15, 2005 02:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

1. Shiites nominally believe in a separation of religious and political authority.

2. Shiites have a religous heirarchy that would have unique authority to discredit jihadic extremism.

3. Strengthening the Najaf school has the potential of undermining Khomeinism.

Some of these points are addressed in this CS Monitor article (with quotes from Cole): http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0120/p01s04-woiq.html

Posted by: PD Shaw at November 15, 2005 07:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Wurmser's ideas seem dependent upon the assumption that Iraq's Shias would operate almost wholly independently of the Iranian Ayatollahs -- or perhaps was informed by the evolution to a more "liberal" society that Iran that was under-going at the time he was writing his book.

Thus, despite Wurmser's "neo-con" credentials, not having read Wurmser's book I'm an agnostic in this discussion.

Posted by: lukasiak at November 15, 2005 08:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg- here's a simpler question: what is with the neo-cons' fascination with Chalabi???

Posted by: Brad R. at November 15, 2005 09:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Greg- here's a simpler question: what is with the neo-cons' fascination with Chalabi???"

I dunno, a man who hated Saddam Hussein, wanted to liberate his people, appeared to be prosecularist and willing to make peace with Israel.

I note Chalabi will be running on his own this time - not with the UIA - why dont we wait and see what the Iraqis think of him?

I guess Iraq and Iraqis are as interesting as Neocons, and other US stuff.


I mean the Iraqi Shiias seem to have no great enthusiasm for Hezbollah. Most of the folks who I see saying not to worry about Hezbollah, who deny that Iran actually supports terrorism, for ex, are also generally unfriendly toward the Iraqi Shia - seems the Iraqi Shia (muqty excepted) are just too friendly to the US.


Posted by: liberalhawk at November 15, 2005 10:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Greg- here's a simpler question: what is with the neo-cons' fascination with Chalabi???"

They thought the world of him because he told them what they wanted to believe, namely that if the US conquered Iraq, then Iraq would immediately become peaceful, democratic, capitalist, and a close ally of both the US and Israel.

Posted by: Les Brunswick at November 16, 2005 12:53 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Greg- here's a simpler question: what is with the neo-cons' fascination with Chalabi???"

They thought the world of him because he told them what they wanted to believe, namely that if the US conquered Iraq, then Iraq would immediately become peaceful, democratic, capitalist, and a close ally of both the US and Israel.

Posted by: Les Brunswick at November 16, 2005 12:57 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

King Hussein may have ideas for Israel in bringing its Lebanon problem under control. The predominantly Shia population of southern Lebanon has been tied for centuries to the Shia leadership in Najf, Iraq rather than Iran. Were the Hashemites to control Iraq, they could use their influence over Najf to help Israel wean the south Lebanese Shia away from Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. Shia retain strong ties to the Hashemites: the Shia venerate foremost the Prophet's family, the direct descendants of which -- and in whose veins the blood of the Prophet flows -- is King Hussein.

From A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm
http://www.israeleconomy.org/strat1.htm
A report prepared by The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies' "Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000." The main substantive ideas in this paper emerge from a discussion in which prominent opinion makers, including Richard Perle, James Colbert, Charles Fairbanks, Jr., Douglas Feith, Robert Loewenberg, David Wurmser, and Meyrav Wurmser participated. The report, entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," is the framework for a series of follow-up reports on strategy.

Posted by: NeoDude at November 16, 2005 04:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

King Hussein may have ideas for Israel in bringing its Lebanon problem under control. The predominantly Shia population of southern Lebanon has been tied for centuries to the Shia leadership in Najf, Iraq rather than Iran. Were the Hashemites to control Iraq, they could use their influence over Najf to help Israel wean the south Lebanese Shia away from Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. Shia retain strong ties to the Hashemites: the Shia venerate foremost the Prophet's family, the direct descendants of which -- and in whose veins the blood of the Prophet flows -- is King Hussein.

From A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm
http://www.israeleconomy.org/strat1.htm
A report prepared by The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies' "Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000." The main substantive ideas in this paper emerge from a discussion in which prominent opinion makers, including Richard Perle, James Colbert, Charles Fairbanks, Jr., Douglas Feith, Robert Loewenberg, David Wurmser, and Meyrav Wurmser participated. The report, entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," is the framework for a series of follow-up reports on strategy.

Posted by: NeoDude at November 16, 2005 04:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

One problem hidden here is that there are different varieties of Shi'a. The pertinent split in the Gulf area is that between Akhbari and 'Usuli Shi'ism. This is not well understood, nor is much written about it. Sadly, Juan Cole, wearing his academic (rather than polisci) hat, is one of the few to do so.

You can get a glimpse of what the split means at Global Security.

I differ with their analysis a bit, based on my experience with Akhbari Shi'a clerics in Bahrain, where there's about a 50/50 split in the Shi'a population.

The Global Security article suggests that because the Akhbaris do not permit new interpretations (ijtihad) they are more "fundamentalist".

That may be technically so, but it's not how it works out in practice. Akhbaris believe that in the absence of true legal authority (that is, a legitimate Imam) following the disappearance or occlultation of the 12th Imam, there is no one more or less qualified to offer moral judgements than any other. Succinctly, it's a matter of: "Do what you think best. You'll find out at the Last Judgement whether or not you were right."

This permits a wide variety of personal behaviors--good and bad. On the bad side, it makes it difficult to condemn bad acts like terrorism or extremism. On the good side, it does not automatically call for the banning, shunning, condemnation of other behaviors. An instance of this is one of the most stunning things I ever observed in the Muslim world: the marriage of the daughter of a Shi'a imam to the son of a Jewish merchant. In most Muslim countries still governed by Sharia' law, that is a capital crime.

This also explains why Bahrain became somewhat of a center for behaviors illicit in other Gulf states, like drinking, going to nightclubs, gambling, etc.

Lack of an ultimate religious authority, however, does not mean the lack of guidance. Bahraini Akhbaris very much looked to Al-Khoie in Iraq for guidance, deeming him an honest and just man. They objected vehemently, consequently, to Ayatollah Khomeini's usurpation of the role of "ruler."

Unfortunately, US foreign policy toward the Shi'a has not been terribly well informed. Instead, the word "Shi'a" is sufficient to cause the hoiking of skirts. Iranian 'Usuli Shi'ism (which is also that school followed by Hizbollah), which produced the current Iranian theocracy and much terror, has led to blanket fear and condemnation of the Akhbari as well.

Cole and I have differed, during one of his visits to Bahrain, on just how widespread Akhbari Shi'ism is on the Arab side of the Gulf. He believes not very. My Akhbari sources say otherwise.

The split between Sistani and Sadr, though, indicates that there are sufficient numbers of Akhbaris to make it worth paying attention to them.

Posted by: John Burgess at November 16, 2005 09:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, I believe Wurmser is simply a moron, but one sympathetic take on the Shi'a by another neocon has some more depth behind it. Google Reuel Marc Gerecht's "The Islamist Paradox" and you'll get the full exegisis.

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Posted by: Netpowersoft at November 29, 2005 04:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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