The scaffolding of the Iraq war is under renewed attack. So there had been no meeting between Mohamed Atta and Iraqi intelligence operative Ahmad al-Ani in Prague; and Saddam’s regime was “intensely secular” while al Qaeda was steeped in religious doctrine. Tariq Aziz, once Goebbels to his master, now in captivity, says that Saddam had only “negative sentiments” about Osama bin Laden, and that the despot had issued a decree “outlawing Wahhabism in Iraq and threatening offenders with execution.” The case against the Iraq war now has a new canonical document: a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released on Sept. 8. Opponents of the war–to use their own language against the Bush administration–now “cherry pick” this report, and they find in it the damning evidence that had been their conviction all along. In their eyes, the case for this war was a willful hoax. And on the heels of this report, it was revealed that the National Intelligence Estimate now depicts Iraq as the breeding ground of a new generation of terrorists. Intended or not, the release of the Senate report, around the fifth anniversary of 9/11, has been read as definitive proof that the Iraq war stands alone, that the terrors that came America’s way on 9/11 had nothing to do with the origins of the war. Few will read this report; fewer still will ask why a virtually incomprehensible Arab-Islamic world that has eluded us for so long now yields its secrets to a congressional committee. On the face of it, and on the narrowest of grounds, the report maintains that the link between the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq cannot stand in a Western court of inquiry. But this brutal drawn-out struggle between American power and the furies of the Arab-Islamic world was never a Western war. Our enemies were full of cunning and expert at dissimulation, hunkering down when needed. No one in the coffeehouses of the Arab world (let alone in the safe houses of the terrorists) would be led astray by that distinction between “secular” and “religious” movements emphasized by the Senate Intelligence Committee. They live in a world where the enemies of order move with remarkable ease from outward religious piety to the most secular of appearances. It is no mystery to them that Saddam, once the most secular of despots, fell back on religious symbols after the first Gulf War, added Allahu Akbar (God is great) to Iraq’s flag, and launched a mosque-building campaign whose remnants–half-finished mosques all over Baghdad–now stand mute. No Iraqi agents had to slip into hotel rooms in Prague for meetings with jihadists to plot against America. The plot sprang out of the deep structure of Arab opinion. We waged a war against Saddam in 1991 and then spared him. We established a presence in the Arabian Peninsula to monitor him, only to help radicalize a population with religious phobias about the “infidel” presence on Arabian soil. The most devout and the most religiously lapsed of the Arabs alike could see the feebleness of America’s response to a decade of subversion and terror waged by Arab plotters and bankrolled by Arab financiers. The American desire to launch out of Iraq a broader campaign of deterrence against the radical forces of the region may not have been successful in every way, but the effort was driven by a shrewd reading that, after Kabul, the war had to be taken deep into the Arab world itself. Strictly speaking, the National Intelligence Estimate–another “canonical” document–is not a finding: It is an assessment of Islamic terrorism and its perceived links to Iraq. (It is odd, and ironic, that the intelligence agencies that had been mocked by liberal opinion for their reporting on Iraq before the war have now acquired an aura of infallibility.) Islamic terror did not wait on the Iraq war. The assertion that Islamic terrorism has “metastasized and spread across the globe” because of Iraq takes at face value what the jihadists themselves proclaim. It would stand to reason that their Web sites, and the audiotapes of their leaders, would trumpet their attachment to the cause of Iraq. It is inevitable that American analysts glued to jihadist cyberspace, and lacking intimate knowledge of Arab ways, would take the jihadists at their word. But Islamic radicals have not lacked for grievances. The anti-Americanism and antimodernism that brought them onto American soil five years ago predated Iraq. For the good part of two decades, jihadist terror blew at will, driven by the conviction in the lands of Islam and its diaspora communities that America was a pampered land with little zeal for bloody struggles. The declassified portions of the NIE are not particularly profound in the reading of Islamism. Their sociologese is of a piece with a big body of writing on Islamist movements–that the resentments of these movements arise out of “anger, humiliation and a sense of powerlessness” in the face of the West. I dare guess that were Ayman al-Zawahiri to make his way through this report, he would marvel at the naïveté of those who set out to read him and his fellow warriors of the faith. Ayoob al-Masri (Zarqawi’s successor in Iraq) would not find himself and his phobias and his will to power in this “infidel document.” These warriors have a utopia–an Islamic world ruled by their own merciless brand of the faith. With or without Iraq, the work of “cleansing” Islam’s world would continue to rage on. It was inevitable that the Arabs would regard this American project in Iraq through the prism of their own experience. We upended an order of power in Baghdad, dominated as it had been by the Sunni Arabs; and we emancipated the Shiite stepchildren of the Arab world, as well as the Kurds. Our innocence was astounding. We sinned against the order of the universe, but called on the region to celebrate, to bless our work. More to the point, we set the Shia on their own course. We did for them what they could not have done on their own. For our part, we were ambivalent about the coming of age of the Shia. We had battled radical Shiism in Iran and in Lebanon in the 1980s. The symbols of Shiism we associated with political violence–radical mullahs, martyrology, suicide bombers. True, in the interim, we had had a war–undeclared, but still a war–with Sunni jihadists. But there lingered in us an aversion to radical Shiism, an understandable residue of the campaign that Ayatollah Khomeini had waged against American power in the ’80s. We were susceptible as well to the representations made to us by rulers in the Sunni-ruled states about the dangers of radical Shiism. The case against the war makes much of Iran’s new power in Iraq. To the war critics, President Bush has midwifed a second Islamic republic in Iraq, next door to Iran. But Iran cannot run away with Iraq, and talk of an ascendant Iran in Iraqi affairs is overblown. We belittle the Iraqi Shiites–their sense of home, and of a tradition so thoroughly Iraqi and Arab–when we write them off as instruments of Iran. Inevitably, there is Iranian money in Iraq, and there are agents, but this is the logic of the 900-mile Iranian-Iraqi border. True, in the long years of Tikriti/Saddamist dominion, Shiite political men persecuted by the regime sought sanctuary in Iran; a political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and its military arm, the Badr Brigade, rose in those years with Iranian patronage. But the Iraqi exiles are not uniform in their attitudes toward Iran. Exile was hard, and the Iranian hosts were given to arrogance and paternalism. Iraqi exiles were subordinated to the strategic needs of the Iranian regime. Much is made, and appropriately, of the way the Americans who prosecuted the first Gulf War called for rebellions by the Shiites (and the Kurds), only to walk away in indifference as the Saddam regime struck back with vengeance. But the Iranians, too, averted their gaze from the slaughter. States are merciless, the Persian state no exception to that rule. We should not try to impose more order and consensus on the world of Shiite Iraq than is warranted by the facts. In recent days a great faultline within the Shiites could be seen: The leader of the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq, Sayyid Abdulaziz al-Hakim, has launched a big campaign for an autonomous Shiite federated unit that would take in the overwhelmingly Shiite provinces in the south and the middle Euphrates, but this project has triggered the furious opposition of Hakim’s nemesis, the young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Hakim’s bid was transparent. He sought to be the uncrowned king of a Shiite polity. But he was rebuffed. Sadr was joined in opposition to that scheme by the Daawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, by the Virtue Party, and by those secular Shiites who had come into the national assembly with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. A bitter struggle now plays out in the Shiite provinces between the operatives of the Badr Brigade and Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The fight is draped in religious colors–but it is about the spoils of power. The truculence of the Sunni Arabs has brought forth the Shiite vengeance that a steady campaign of anti-Shiite terror was bound to trigger. Sunni elements have come into the government, but only partly so. President Jalal Talabani put it well when he said that there are elements in Iraq that partake of government in the daytime, and of terror at night. This is as true of the Sunni Arabs as it is of the Shiites. The (Sunni) insurgents were relentless: In the most recent of events, they have taken terror deep into Sadr City. The results were predictable: The death squads of the Mahdi Army struck back. It is idle to debate whether Iraq is in a state of civil war. The semantics are tendentious, and in the end irrelevant. There is mayhem, to be sure, but Iraq has arrived at a rough balance of terror. The Sunni Arabs now know, as they had never before, that their tyranny is broken for good. And the most recent reports from Anbar province speak of a determination of the Sunni tribes to be done with the Arab jihadists. It is not a rhetorical flourish to say that the burden of rescuing Iraq lies with its leaders. No script had America staying indefinitely, fighting Iraq’s wars, securing Iraq’s peace. The best we can do for Iraq is grant it time to develop the military and political capabilities that would secure it against insurgencies at home and subversion from across its borders. No one can say with confidence how long the American body politic will tolerate the expense in blood and treasure. It would be safe to assume that this president will stay with this war, that its burden is likely to be passed onto his successor. The Iraqis are approaching reckoning time, for America’s leaders are under pressure to force history’s pace. The political process here at home is not likely to impose a precise deadline for withdrawal. But the Iraqis should not be lulled into complacency, for the same political process is more likely to place limits on this commitment in Iraq. For their part, the Iranians will press on: The spectacle of power they display is illusory. It is a broken society over which the mullahs rule. A society that throws on the scene a leader of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s derangement is not an orderly land; foreigners may not be able to overthrow that regime, but countries can atrophy as their leaders–armed, here, by an oil windfall of uncertain duration–strut on the world stage. Iran’s is a deeper culture than Iraq’s, possessed of a keen sense of Persia’s primacy in the region around it. What Iranians make of their own history will not wait on the kind of society that will emerge in Iraq. On the margins, a scholarly tradition in Najaf given to moderation could be a boon to the clerics of Iran. But the Iranians will not know deliverance from the sterility of their world if Iraq were to fail. Their schadenfreude over an American debacle in Iraq will have to be brief. A raging fire next door to them would not be pretty. And, crafty players, the Iranians know what so many in America who guess at such matters do not: that Iraq is an unwieldy land, that the Arab-Persian divide in culture, language and temperament is not easy to bridge. We needn’t give credence to the assertion of President Bush–that the jihadists would turn up in our cities if we pulled up stakes from Baghdad –to recognize that a terrible price would be paid were we to opt for a hasty and unseemly withdrawal from Iraq. This is a region with a keen eye for the weakness of strangers. The heated debate about the origins of our drive into Iraq would surely pale by comparison to the debate that would erupt–here and elsewhere–were we to give in to despair and cast the Iraqis adrift.
(Fouad Ajami, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, is the author, most recently, of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2006). He is a recipient of the 2006 Bradley Prize.)