The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, December 04, 2003

Iraq: Friedman of Arabia pulls it off!

Or pulls it, at least...

In the great, no cost, no obligation experiment that is the blogosphere, the immediate post-war temptation to dabble in the stuff of the Orient - the impossible names, the exotic locales - was irresistible. It was fun fit for a board-game: the division of the land in three parts (spookily Gallic, of course!), the neat divisions between PUK and KDP in Kurdistan, between Grand Ayatollah Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr amongst the Shi'ites - not to mention the Chance cards of the Saddam remnants [1] provide just enough variety for an hour or two's entertainment for the longueurs of the upcoming Christmas vacation [2].

From those actual journalists - who are paid actual money for their scribblings (tons of it, in some cases) - I think we are entitled to greater circumspection.

Step forward Thomas L Friedman [3], newly leapt down from his camel, trailing sand on the plush carpet of the Times building, with the reassuring news (December 4 - reprint) that
There is...good reason to believe that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq and the only one who can claim to speak for Iraqi Shiites as a whole, does not aspire to be a Khomeini.

Phew! Ali really had me going there - great to see him and Tom sitting down for a mint tea, chewing the fat over old times - in Iraqi Arabic, natch, and putting our minds at rest.

Which, being interpreted, is - how in Allah's name does he know?

Many Iraqi Shiite clerics have lived in Iran and avowedly do not want to follow its authoritarian path.

Where does he get this bromide from, I wonder? I believe - subject to confirmation by those with direct knowledge - that Iraqi Shi'ites are indeed a culturally distinct group from their Iranian brethren; perhaps, even, bear ill-will towards them, on nationalistic or other grounds. That is no evidence that they do not share the Iranian affection for the iron rod.

And, again,
...because Shiites are a majority in Iraq, they are the ones with the greatest stake in keeping Iraq a unified state.

Truth or onanism? Is Friedman arguing from first principles from the comfort of his Jayson, or has he persuasive intelligence on the subject?

Apparently, his informant is one Yitzhak Nakash, from Brandeis University. Nakash delivers one upbeat quote for the Friedman programme:
What we are witnessing is a very healthy bargaining session over what will be the relationship between religion and politics in Iraq and over the process of choosing legitimate national and communal leaders.

But I'm not clear that he shares Friedman's optimism on the question of saving Iraq for democracy - the other quotes seem pretty cautious to me.

A cursory search shows that Nakash is kosher - he has a 1995 book on the subject, and a piece in Foreign Affairs July/August 2003 entitled The Shi'ites and the Future of Iraq.

From a skim of the article, the tone appears roughly similar to the Friedman quotes - on the comparison between Iraq and Iranian Shi'ites, for instance. But he does say that
There is a big gap...between the Bush administration's vision of a new Iraq and the expectations of Shi'ites for the post-Saddam era. Whereas some members of the administration have envisaged a Western-style democratic Iraq led by a secular pro-U.S. government, Shi'ites (and many other Iraqis) appear to prefer an independent Iraq with a system of government that reflects their own culture and traditions and that does not serve as a base for U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf

Friedman, on the other hand, says
If things go reasonably well, the result will be an initial Iraqi government that is more religious than Turkey but more democratic than Iran. Not bad.

If things go reasonably well is weaselling of a high order: he wants to give the impression that what he suggests is likely to happen without actually saying so. The casualness of his attitude is confirmed by the self-satisfied tag
Not bad.

Sounds like Homer Simpson contemplating one of his brilliant schemes.

What are Friedman's qualifications to talk about Iraq, exactly?

  1. Oh, for an automatic flusher!

  2. Regular readers will have noted that, here, at least, the box has been definitively placed in the attic!

  3. Why the L? Are there are other columnists called Thomas Friedman with which he fears he might be confused? Or is it like the S in Harry S Truman? Perhaps, it's an homage...

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