Tuesday, January 16, 2007
you are guilty:
Reuel rejoinders to Larry Korb in a manner that's pretty beneath him:

I can understand--though not appreciate--Americans who don't want to see Americans dying in Iraq because they value American lives more highly than they do Iraqi ones. This sentiment, more common on the right than on the left, inevitably leads to a bigoted isolationism that allows nefarious forces to run amok. Dressed up by a higher education, it usually depicts most foreigners as too culturally retrograde to sustain liberal and democratic values--and therefore not worth the loss of American life. Saving people from slaughter, even genocide, isn't worth the effort for this school of thought, since such calamities are, in part, condign punishment for having retrograde political cultures. Foreigners would have to be real innocents being butchered by easily defeated bad guys before these folks would be compelled to dispatch American soldiers to stop a slaughter. Even if the United States were in part responsible for provoking a humanitarian catastrophe, this group doesn't feel guilt long, at least not sufficiently to stop the mess, especially if we have to spill much blood and treasure for natives deficient in reasonableness and gratitude.
This is a gussied-up version of saying that withdrawal advocates are motivated by racism. An honest assessment would grapple with the idea that the war is already lost; that America has more to gain by mitigating the regional effects of a lost Iraq war than by increasing U.S. deaths for the preservation of an Iranian-allied sectarian government; that any obligation to the Iraqis is nullified by the sheer inability of the U.S. to stop the nightmare (ought, the philosophers tell us, implies can); and that sending 21,500 more troops into the meatgrinder in order to "try" God-knows-what is immoral. Indeed, Reuel adopts the voice of people who argue this, but never to refute them; only to sneer at them.

Gerecht will not directly say what he means. "What important," he writes, "... is that the Iraqi political system among the Shia is still functioning." What's significant, however, is that this dubious assertion -- working in the sense of not having formally collapsed? Does Gerecht deny that the most powerful Shiite political actor, Moqtada al-Sadr, steps out of the process whenever he feels like, and only reaps more prestige as a result? -- is contrary to the strategy of the surge, which he advocates. Bush said last week that the issue is sectarianism. Gerecht, as his Islamic Paradox monograph demonstrates, rather likes sectarianism. He believes the best case is one in which the "Shiite Crescent" rises across the Middle East to smite the Sunnis and somehow create a democratic/theocratic awakening that will, by some alchemy, undermine the Teheran regime. It's crackers, but fair enough -- he should argue for that explicitly, and then we can debate its merits. The most-recent troubling thing about the neocons is that they are hitching their star to the surge despite

1) not believing enough troops are being devoted to make it "work"

2) half-conceding it will probably fail

3) disbelieving, in significant ways, that it supports a wise strategy

A generous person might say that the neocons are doing this in order to preserve the rhetorical gambit that the war is winnable, now that there's a presidential option on offer to "make it work," Tim Gunn-style. More cynical readers might say that they're doing this to show some politically loyalty to the GOP at a time when the 2008 candidates, except for McCain, are inclined to throw them out on their asses. Either way, it's a lot easier to call your opponents racists. I now propose that if the neocons are going to say this about us, we should rally our efforts to say this about them, over and over and over. I suspect we'll have an easier time making our case.

--Spencer Ackerman
Gerecht's arguments are also consistent with the neoconservative penchant for creating poorly thought out and insincere moral arguments. Yes, the invasion of Iraq was all about selfless love for the repressed Iraqi people. Apparently, the United States has a moral obligation to see x thousands of its citizens killed in battle if it believes it will save x thousand + 1 citizens of another country.

Presumably, this also means that Gerecht will be selling all of this worldly possessions to fund food aid, vaccinations and UN peacekeeping operations throughout the world. Or does Reuel think his toaster and television are more important than the lives of children living in lesser developed countries? Talk about your racism.
Blogger Chuck | 12:50 PM

Spence, Just for the record: I don't believe Larry Korb is a rascist. I don't think George Will or Charles Krauthammer are rascists, either, and both gentlemen accentuate the cultural in their comparative critiques, and in the increasing distance they put between themselves and Iraq. Nor is Pat Lang, a seriously conservative fellow, quite well versed on the proclivities of the modern Arab world (I often disagree him, but his angle of attack is regularly a reflection of an indisputably accurate understanding of the differences between Arab Isamic culture and our own). Lang was against the war for many reasons, some well-founded (I didn't find them convincing then, and I don't now, but they weren't light weight.)

Among Bernard Lewis' greatest contributions to Islamic studies has been the eyes he's given to both Westerners and Muslims to see how Muslims historically have seen outsiders, most importantly the Christian West. The insights are often invidious and in today's eyes culturally explosive, but I've found them often still valid and they certainly don't incline one to be an optimist about liberal values in the Muslim world.

I'm pretty sensitive to the validity of cultural critiques, even though I think they are often, especially when applied to the ever-evolving Shiite clergy, dead wrong. I could go on about your rather fervid observations about my Shiite affiniites—the Shia do interest me for many reasons, from their birth and astonishingly rapid expansion to the rise of the Safavids, gholat extremism, and a slowly crystalizing clerical order, to Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr and Khomeini, and to Sistani (as a man of the left, you should appreciate the Shia's historical role as a vehicle of dissent and protest, and perhaps, too, as a faith of suffering)--but I don't have the time here to correct what you imply. Your characterization of what I said in the Islamic Paradox is, to put it politely, a bit quick. I don't think I've ever hesitated to expound on the idea that democracy will expand via fundamentalism in the Muslim Middle East, and that my view of this is not the happy ecumenical view of someone like Joseph Esposito. This expansion is nevertheless a good thing. And I will expand more on this theme with Iraq.

The Bush administration certainly hasn't done a brilliant job of drawing a p;icture of what they'd like to see in Iraq and what is likely to happen there given a scenario where it doesn't all go to hell. And at least among the Weekly Standard and AEI crowd, I don't know of anyone who has pulled punches in critiquing the Bush administration's conduct in Iraq. But I'll stop now. Summing up: I can't think of one person I've met who opposes the war in Iraq who I know to be a rascist. Among those folks who write for a living, on either the left or the right, it's pretty hard--not impossible--to find rascists in general. I do believe there are a lot of folks out there--just as many on the left as on the right--who see the Muslim Middle East as just culturally beyond repair, and for those on the left, a less estimable place now than when secular dictators were expanding women's rights in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I think that critique is misguided and blind to the evolution in Islamic thought. But I personally wouldn't call them rascist. But if you insist, I'll suspend judgment for awhile. The Iraq war is a long way from being over. Best, Reuel
Blogger Reuel Marc Gerecht | 1:26 PM

Reuel, you'll forgive me if I'm a bit baffled by your reply. If you don't think that your adversaries in this debate are racist, why did you write that several of their arguments "inevitably lea(d) to a bigoted isolationism that allows nefarious forces to run amok"?

As to my description of the Islamic Paradox, I'll plead guilty to being quick. However, I have to say that in my reading of the IP, along with your Standard essays of the past four years, it's my understanding that your argument is, roughly:

1) There is a great deal of intellectual room for a democratic realignment in the Middle East;

2) That room is largely created by the direction of religious debates, largely among Shiite scholars;

3) Cultivating the emergence of this democratic realignment is in the interests of the United States;

4) Iraq is the proving ground for any successful U.S. cultivation of this democratic realignment;

5) Therefore, the U.S. ought to align with Shiite clerical forces prepared to bring this into being.

Am I misunderstanding you?

Finally, a plea: in your sixth graf, you write, "But Humpty Dumpty has gone off the wall. A sensible man confronted with all of this must run." You put this out there as self-evidently absurd. I happen to believe it to be the case, and fail to see why I'm wrong. You might rejoinder that the greater harm to U.S. interests is to withdraw, and therefore we need to continue *despite* Humpty Dumpty being immune to the best wishes of the King's horses and men. But often it reads as if you don't think that. I mean this sincerely: I'd like to read a piece from you that makes one case explicitly or the other. You may recall that in a piece of mine a year or so ago I called you the most insightful neocon Iraq critic, and I meant it -- and certainly not to damn you with faint praise, either.
Blogger spencerackerman | 3:00 PM

Spence, It's late and I'm tired, so this will be a bit rough. I used that phrase because I think much of the commentary on the paleo right, and even creeping closer to the mainstream, and on what we might call the Nation's Left, is moving in an isolationist direction, and I also think it's (i) very quick in describing American culpability and American responsibility in Iraq (the left has less of a problem describing culpability; no greater desire to decribe responsibility), and (ii) I think this train of thought in Iraq has led to some pretty warped and bigotted--ignorant might have been better here, though I'm not sure—critiques of the Iraqis, particularly religiious Shiites.

The potential for violence in Iraq was always enormous--only Algeria can rival in what one might describe as a savage birth defect. Hence the need for the Americans to get a grip on this early. But I'm just floored by the descripton of the Shia that one often sees. Let us make a parallel: Let us imagine that every male member of your family--save you--had been murdered either by Baathists under the old regime or Sunni insurgents under the new. Let us suppose that several women in your family have also been murdered, some raped. Let us imagine that for two years you turned the other cheek, hoping that somehow this would work out (i.e., the Americans would do something beyond trying to make feelers to ex-Baathist military officers and pray that Allawi would, deus ex machina, make a successful deal with the Sunnis), and then when members of the communiity do strike back--ugly for sure--well, that's it, you've crossed a line from which you can never walk back. The Shia community, quite astonishingly, hasn't cracked up. (I would've yelled Moqtada! Moqtada! at Saddam's execution, for Allah's sake--Muhammad Baqir would have been more my taste, but the former I suspect would have caused Saddam more pain, which is just fine. This event doesn't reveal any great moral depravity or any greater likelihood that Muqtada will be crowned king.)

People may not like who the religious Shia are, but the description of them in the press after the communtiy started to counterattack is distressing. The religious Shia are the only thing ethically holding the community together right now in horrendous circumstances. (That may prove to be the case on the Sunni side, but I doubt it given the greater atomization of the Sunni Arabs and the weakness of Sunni ulama as an institution. Also the radicalization of the Sunni ulama seems further advanced.) This is, I would argue, mostly ignorance, or to put it perhaps a bit more sharply, the limitation of the liberal imagination at work--a kin at an earlier date in 2004/2005 to the regular surreal discussions of Sistani's retrograde views on homosexuality or women's rights. (Wouldn't it be nice to have that dicussion back now?)

There are obviously many awful forces at work inside the Shia community now, but it's not yet gone down. But for many here it has gone down--actually it went down a long time ago before the militias started to strike--because they weren't going to back the kind of democratic society that we could be proud of. There are at least two questions here: has the violence destroyed the Shia? (I would answer still quite strongly no--indeed, the last year has been, just the opposite of the usual commentary, astonishing in that it hasn't led to an internal crack among the Shiite Arabs. And can they build a society that Americans think is worth fighting for? (There are many other reasons why the US should continue fighting in iraq, and I suspect will continue fighting in Iraq, but much recent commentary focuses on how the Shia government has proved so disappointing--on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give it a 4 maybe 5, no more than one could expect after three years of Rumsfeld and Abizaid.

I have to stop now. And no, I didn't use the Humpty Dumpty allusion to suggest absurdity--I was just trying to portray accurately how some folks view it (and given your reaction, it would appear that I did). I think this view is just flat wrong—I'm not trying to make fun of it.

Night, night, Reuel

P.S. A point in the Islamic Paradox is that the US wouldn't appreciate the development of democracy among the Shia. I think that's proven true. We really won't like it when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt gets in gear.
Blogger Reuel Marc Gerecht | 4:43 PM