America’s New Revolutionary War

Why is Muqtada Sadr defending the status quo?

While there’s some hope that Muqtada Sadr will agree to take part in Iraq’s January elections, it appears that his negotiations with Iyad Allawi’s government have been called off. The purpose of Sadr’s insurgency, as University of Michigan professor Juan Cole sees it, is to install a theocratic state like the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. To achieve that goal, Cole maintains that the “rebel cleric” is willing to martyr himself. Others disagree. “Sadr could’ve died heroically 50 times,” Amatzia Baram, a professor at Israel’s University of Haifa, told me. “But he decided to hide 50 times and sneak out like a rabbit. He chose to use the holiest place of the Shiites as body armor. This is not the behavior of a would-be martyr.”

No doubt martyrs are stirring figures in the popular imagination, where the talismanic nature of purposeful death and its attendant power is awesome. However, in the real world, martyrs are incomparably less dangerous than active leaders who are capable of ordering the use of deadly force with some degree of competence. Certainly, causes need martyrs, but successful military operations demand living men who can convince others that their goal is attainable. After all, if martyrs were so powerful, then Saddam Hussein, who left quite a few martyrs in his wake, wouldn’t have ruled Iraq for a quarter of a century. Had Muqtada Sadr wanted to commit suicide, he would have picked a fight with Saddam, an option other members of his family chose. He wants power for himself in the here and now. “He already has a state within a state,” says Baram, “and he intends to expand it until he can take over Iraq completely.”

If Sadr recognizes how fortunate he is that Iraq’s current rulers are nowhere nearly as brutal as Saddam was, he is still operating under the time-tested rules of the region, where most rulers come to power and hold onto it through violence. From that perspective, Sadr must be wondering by what right Iyad Allawi gets to call himself the prime minister of Iraq. Allawi didn’t earn his title the way Saddam did, or for that matter the way most of the region’s rulers have.

Sadr contends that Allawi’s government is illegitimate because it serves a Western, non-Muslim, occupying power. But according to Islamists, Arab nationalists and even the vast majority of moderate Muslims, virtually all Arab states are puppet regimes. Nevertheless, there are only two Arab governments that are actively combating insurgencies: Saudi Arabia, which until recently was protected by the U.S. military, and the new Iraq, which was created by U.S. armed forces. All the most successful and vicious regimes know that until you decapitate the opposition yourself—as in the case of Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Iran, and Saddam—you will be vulnerable. In the context of Middle Eastern politics, Allawi’s problem, his real legitimacy deficit, lies in the fact that he has no blood on his hands. What the United States is trying to do is overturn the established order of Iraqi political culture, and this is much more complicated and ambitious than changing a regime.

“When you watch U.S. officials on television, they say we’re bringing democracy to Iraq,” William McCallister, a U.S. Army major who recently retired from active service after his tour in Iraq, told me. “So we’re liberating Iraqis, but from what? It’s not really a liberation, but a change of social order and thought process.”

In an unpublished paper called “Iraqi Insurgency Model,” McCallister argues that the nature of the Iraq war is revolutionary. “The goal of creating a ‘representative government for and by the Iraqi people,’ ” he writes, “is nothing less than the restructuring of Iraqi cultural and ideological institutions. The desire to impose change is very close in spirit, if not definition, to what has been termed revolutionary warfare. … The removal of Saddam Hussein by military force is not revolutionary. The act of changing a political and ideological culture and its institutions is.”

As counterintuitive as McCallister’s description of the war seems, a glance at Iraqi history, and indeed at that of most of the region, bears out his redefinition. In Western liberal democracies, political authority is decided by the people in a free election and maintained by democratic institutions; with Middle Eastern regimes, “legitimacy” is a function of the leadership’s ability to crush opponents and to hand off power to a chosen successor. Muqtada Sadr is not a rebel bristling under tyranny; rather, he is merely the latest manifestation of a political culture that typically rewards its blood-thirstiest aspirants with absolute power. The goal of the United States’ revolutionary war right now is to create the conditions under which Iyad Allawi’s government can ensure a safe transition to a government that is representative of the Iraqi people. U.S. officials are gambling that if Sadr does enter the political process, Iraqis will not choose as their prime minister a man who wishes to reverse the course of the revolution with a theocratic state he rules in perpetuity. The fact that Sadr himself apparently feels his best shot at the prize is through an insurgency rather than the ballot box suggests that the United States is correct.

I asked McCallister if he thought this revolution on behalf of the Iraqis was worth so many American lives and so much American money. “Yes,” he said after a long pause. “It was the right thing, and it still can be. But to believe we’re going to do this in a year—well, that’s not going to happen. The three, four, five years we’re staying will shape the direction somewhat, and then we’ll see what happens. It’s not going to look like a Western parliamentary government; it’s going to be Iraqi. But there were already a number of democratic-style institutions in place on the local level. This is what the tribal meetings are, like when the sheik just keeps quiet and listens to everyone in the group for a while as a consensus is being built. The sheik interjects every once in a while, but after some time, the meeting murmurs to a balance, and he restates what the group has already decided. Everyone votes by discussing it out. It’s not our democracy, but it’s a kind of democracy, and down the road, the Iraqis will find what their own democracy looks like on a national level.”

So, is the revolution taking root? It’s much too early to tell, but one good sign is that while analysts disagree about the level of support for Muqtada Sadr, his insurgency has not spread throughout the country’s Shiite community. Whether or not a liberated and democratic Iraq will make the rest of the region hungry for freedom and subsequently topple regimes like Iran and Syria, is a different question. Right now, those two states consider Iraq a vulnerable protectorate and are busily dispatching aid and foot soldiers, many of whom have been fighting alongside Sadr, to further destabilize the country. For Iran and Syria, the added attraction, according to one analyst, is that they get to wage war openly against the United States while they’re at it.

It’s not clear whether Washington intended to fight, as McCallister describes it, a revolutionary war. And yet the Bush White House manifestly wanted to change the perception that the United States couldn’t conduct successful military operations in the region. After all, as far as the Arabs and Iranians are concerned, we have never gotten over our “Vietnam syndrome.” We evacuated Lebanon in 1983, retreated from Somalia in 1993, and after, Gulf War I, let Saddam stay in Baghdad, where he made his bones as the Arab leader who took on the world’s most powerful army and lived to boast about it. Deposing Saddam was supposed to change the idea that the United States was, in Osama Bin Laden’s words, “a paper tiger.” After Sept. 11, we had to wage a decisive campaign that showed the United States was not avoiding conflict at all costs, but actually looking for a fight.

The problem is that our understanding of successful warfare, like our definition of legitimate governance, is different from the region’s. And a lot of people—from Muqtada and Osama to the mullahs in Tehran and the Baathists in Damascus—have a lot at stake in defining their own version of success. If history is written by the victors, the outcome of this war partly depends on how well we describe it, and how well we enforce those descriptions while we’re fighting it.

So, maybe the most important positive development over the last year is the way in which the United States has started to learn how to adjust to the realities of the region. A year ago, many U.S. analysts and Iraq experts who’d never even been to the country predicted failure and catastrophe. Today, the real Iraq experts are U.S. soldiers and civilian administrators who tell us that success in Iraq will look like a tribal meeting on a national level where everyone, including women and minorities, has an equal say.