November 20, 2004

Bernard Lewis, the Neocons, and Iraq

Michael Hirsh's Washington Monthly piece on Bernard Lewis would live up to all its hype and then some—if it was getting any hype. So let's give it some hype!

The basic thesis is that neoconservatives, as influenced by Bernard Lewis, believe that the Islamic world needs a Mustafa Kemal-type figure to root out and crush the rotting bits of Islam, and then forcibly plant in the Middle East a whole new brand of secular democratic principles. The alternative vision—as laid out by anti-Lewis "Arabists" in liberal academies and the State Department—is that those rotting bits of Islam, of the Qutb/Zawahiri/bin Laden variety, are actually a very marginal strain of thought that sprung up in reaction to neo-colonial despots, and Islam needs a political forum in which to flower and thence move to modernity. If Islam existed as a dominant political mode, rather than as a counter-culture response to secular tyranny, than radicals like Ayman Zawahiri would be relegated back to the margins were they belong.

You'll notice an obvious exception here—the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Islam is the official political culture, and the lunatics still have control. But the Arabists have an explanation for Iran too: "The forces of bottom-up secular democratic reform and top-down mullah control may be stalemated simply because there is no common ground whatsoever between their contending visions." That jibes with what I know/believe about Iran, and if true, has important consequences for U.S. policy: political-engagement engagement with those top-down mullahs would move them towards that "common ground."

Anyways, Hirsh puts a lot of stress on neoconservatives and their dreams of a Kemalist state in Iraq—this was the whole reasoning behind putting Chalabi in charge, and is why some elements in the Pentagon would prefer strengthening Allawi's hand. (No doubt you've noticed that talk of postponing elections only comes from the Defense Department.) One oft-overlooked point, though, is that George W. Bush has a very different view of freedom than the neo-conservatives.

Without delving into complexities, the president believes that freedom is a God-given gift, and will burst forth like a geyser if you simply take off the manhole of tyranny. Now this obviously betrays a rather stark ignorance of the sort of institutions necessary to build a democracy—and indeed, we've done a miserable job along that front. But it's the sort of view that's not entirely incompatible with promoting Islamic democracies. Bush has said that he would accept an Islamic government in Iraq—though my hunch is that this isn't the preferred view of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, who would prefer secular elements (Kurds, Allawi) to retain maximal control. Hence Paul Bremer's TAL, which gave a ludicrously high amount of veto power to the Kurdish provinces. But whether Bush has a strong enough vision to overcome his vice-president and Pentagon on this issue is very much up in the air. I think Condoleeza Rice falls on Bush's side, but I'm also not sure this ideological fight is so pronounced that we'll see actual battle lines being drawn.
-- Brad Plumer 5:25 PM || ||