NDN Blog

The rise of the Shiites

One of the very predictable outcomes of America's taking out of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein was an opportunity for Iran and the region's Shiites to exert themselves. Understanding this dynamic is critical to understanding what is happening in the Middle East today. Some thoughts:

- Iran is the global center for Shiite Muslims. Shiites are a minority of the world's Muslims, an estimated 10 percent. There are old, deep and difficult tensions with the majority Sunnis, many of whom do not view the Shia faith as a legitimate form of Islam. Sunni Muslims run the Arab world, and while many Arab nations have a minority Shia population, Sunni Islam is the politically and culturally dominant form of Islam in the Arab Middle East.

- One of the holiest cities in the Shia faith, Najaf, is in the Shia dominated part of southern Iraq. Many Shia religious leaders have studied and trained in Najaf, including the leader of the Iranian revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeni. There are very strong cultural and religious ties between the Shiite South of Iraq and Iran, even though Iranians are Persians, not Arabs. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis are Shiite Arabs, with small minorities of largely Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Saddam Hussein's government was run by Sunni Arabs, oppressed the Shiite majority and significantly curtailed the public expression of the Shiite faith.

One of the first acts of the revolutionary Iranian government was to end up in a war with Iraq, a war that lasted 8 years and cost more than a one million lives. America sided with the Iraqis in the war to help curtail the expansion of the Iranian, Shiite-led revolution, a revolution that Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, was very well aware could radicalize his majority Shiite population. Shiites well remember whose side America was on in this terrible battle.

- The Taliban, and Al Qaeda, are Sunni extemists, and do not see the Shia faith as a legitimate form of Islam.

- Thus, when our government cleared out the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq, and created a process that guarenteed the election of the first Shiite-led government in the history of the Arab world, we dramatically reorganized the region's balance between Sunni and Shiite in favor of the Iranians and the Shiites. A clear outcome of our early post 9/11 strategy would be the rise of Iran, growing power for the regions Shiites and a remaking of the Middle East in a way that would not sit well with the region's Sunnis, and that would embolden deeply anti-American and anti-Western elements.

- The regional Shiite, Iranian momentum is growing. Iran has aggressively pursued nuclear weapons despite extraordinary global condemnation. The Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah are in the process of taking down the fragile Lebanese government. Iran has become one of the most significant financial backers of the new Hamas-led Palestinian government. The Shiites who run the Iraqi government refuse to disband their Shiite militias, and have rejected the idea of a regional peace conference involving neighboring Sunni states. There is new evidence that Iranian security services have been training and funding the Shiite militias in Iraq, and have now embedded military advisors in the militias themselves.

It is my view that Iraq is lost, but not to chaos per se, but to a regional set of Shiite leaders now in firm control of the Iraqi government and politics, desperate to right the wrongs of generations and bent on holding and expanding power at all costs. The Shiites have waited over 1,000 years to control an Arab Muslim country, and will use this new base to wage a pitched battle against their Sunni adverseries for the future of Islam and regional control.

- The expected reactions to this American-led reordering of the Middle East have begun. The Israelis went after Hezbollah this summer in large part to send a signal to the Iranians that despite the Americans failings their regional hegemonic desires would not go unchecked. Last week Sunni Saudi Arabia made it clear they are willing to go to war with Shiite-led Iraq if necessary. Finally, Al-Qaeda is developing a very strong base in Western Iraq as a vehicle to help protect Sunni Arabs against the Shiite majority.

A long post, I know. But very little of what I hear from our government seems to understand all this. While so much of our discussion now is about the Iraqis taking more responsibility for their country, in practical terms turning over the reins of power to the Iraqis means turning over the reigns of power to the region's Shiites. It also almost certainly means the strengthening of Iran, the revival of Al-Qaeda, a potential regional war and oil soaring way beyong $100 a barrel. If this is where we are headed our government better start having a big conversation with its people about the consequences of so many bad and niave decisions by the Republicans in charge of our government these past six years. I hope this process begins this week with the release of the Iraqi Study Group report.

More on the need for a new strategy for the Middle East

Paul Richter of the LATimes has a provocative story today, one that echoes many of my posts these last few weeks (here's one, and another):

Mideast allies near a state of panic -
U.S. leaders' visits to the region reap only warnings and worry.

WASHINGTON — President Bush and his top advisors fanned out across the troubled Middle East over the last week to showcase their diplomatic initiatives to restore strained relationships with traditional allies and forge new ones with leaders in Iraq.
But instead of flaunting stronger ties and steadfast American influence, the president's journey found friends both old and new near a state of panic. Mideast leaders expressed soaring concern over upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy — and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse.

President Bush's summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister proved an awkward encounter that deepened doubts about the relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney's stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, yielded a blunt warning from the kingdom's leaders. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's swing through the West Bank and Israel, intended to build Arab support by showing a new U.S. push for peace, found little to work with.

In all, visits designed to show the American team in charge ended instead in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts. The trips demonstrated that U.S. allies in the region were struggling to understand what to make of the difficult relationship, and to figure whether, with a new Democratic majority taking over Congress, Bush even had control over his nation's Mideast policy.

Arabs are "trying to figure out what the Americans are going to do, and trying develop their own plans," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), one of his party's point men on Iraq. "They're trying to figure out their Plan B."

The allies' predicament was described by Jordan's King Abdullah II last week, before Bush arrived in Amman, the capital. Abdullah, one of America's steadiest friends in the region, warned that the Mideast faced the threat of three simultaneous civil wars — in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. And he made clear that the burden of dealing with it rested largely with the United States.

"Something dramatic" needed to come out of Bush's meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to defuse the three-way threat, Abdullah said, because "I don't think we're in a position where we can come back and visit the problem in early 2007."

and this:

"Cheney's trip to talk to Saudi King Abdullah was far less visible than Bush's mission, but helped to make painfully clear the gap between U.S. goals and those of its Arab allies.

U.S. officials said Cheney initiated the trip. But foreign diplomats said that Saudi leaders sought the visit to express their concern about the region, including fears of a U.S. departure and what they see as excessive American support for the Shiite faction in Iraq.

After the meeting with Cheney, Saudi officials released an unusual statement pointedly highlighting American responsibility for deterioration of stability in the region.

The Saudi officials cited "the direct influence of … the United States on the issues of the region" and said it was important for U.S. influence "to be in accord with the region's actual condition and its historical equilibrium," an apparent reference to the Sunni-Shiite balance.

The Saudi statement also said the U.S. in the Middle East should "pursue equitable means that contribute to ending its conflicts," pointing to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The statement "came pretty close to a rebuke, by Saudi standards," said Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "It said, in effect, that the United States needs to behave responsibly."

There have been other signals of Saudi anxiety recently.

On Wednesday, an advisor to the Saudi government wrote in the Washington Post that if the United States pulled out of Iraq, "massive Saudi intervention" would ensue to protect Sunnis from Shiite militias.

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al Faisal, warned in a speech in October against an American withdrawal, saying that "since the United States came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited."

Here is a link to the remarkable op-ed by a Saudi advisor that threatened an Iraqi-Saudi war if conditions for Sunni Arabs in Iraq continued to deteriorate.

Given the growing instability of the Middle East, it is essential that the political leadership of both parties start to talk about a long-term plan to bring stability back to the region. We need less talk about pullback and withdrawals, however important that is, and more about a comprehensive strategy to prevent the Middle East from descending into dramatic regional chaos. Our troops should be used as part of a broader strategy to bring stability back to the Middle East. Pulling them out without this broader strategy simply doesn't seem like a smart thing to do.

I worry that the Iraq Study Group will have missed an important opportunity to help transition our understanding of what's at stake in the Middle East. Perhaps we will all be impressed with their work. But so far what one can see from the leaks is not very promising.

Conservatives, Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

I am writing this from Rootscamp DC, a gathering of about 350 progressives involved in the last campaign who could be broadly categorized as part of the netroots. It really was an amazing group of people from all over the country and from many different groups. There also is a healthy number of people from organizations of the progressive establishment, like the DNC, House and Senate staffs, unions, America Votes, etc.

The conference takes the form of what has been called an “unconference,” one that has none of the sessions or speakers set before the start of the conference. Those who gather propose sessions that they stick on a grid on the wall that lines up rooms and times. In the Rootscamp case, there were slots for about 180 sessions over two days, which, remarkably, have all been filled out.

The New Politics Institute ran two of these sessions. Simon and I did a version of a talk we give, this time on Defining the Overarching Narrative of this Election. It took a big picture look at the overall strategic terrain and made our argument that this is the beginning of a new politics. The election only validated that thesis that we have been pushing for the last year.

The feeling and energy at this Rootscamp conference also bolsters the New Politics frame. Everyone here is extremely energized and excited about transforming government and politics for the long run. One session is about carrying out the progressive revolution for the next 50 years. Most of the people here are relatively young and have a long career ahead of them.

For a sense of who is here check out the stream of photos coming out of flickr, posted there by random participants.

If I were part of the conservative moment, I would be worried. There is a structural, generational development going on here. This group is going to make a difference for a long time.

Peter Leyden

EJ Dionne on the new Democratic House majority

In his Friday column, EJ Dionne makes an important observation about the emergence of a new 21st century set of leaders, policies and strategies for the Democrats.  It begins:  

"The most important tension within the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is not between liberals and conservatives or free traders and fair traders. It is between older members who once enjoyed the power and perks of majority status, and their younger colleagues who will experience real power for the first time."

This piece should be read along side our "New Politics" argument, Matt Bai's recent piece in the NYTimes magazine, Sidney Blumenthal's excellent new essay in Salon, Tom Schaller's new book and our recent 2006 election analysis.

There is a growing sense that we are entering a new political era, one no longer dominated by the conservative movement, one that offers progressives a tremendous opportunity to take our values, our vision and our ideas and apply them, ably, to the great emerging challenges of the 21st century.  It is an exciting time my friends.

America appears out of touch and weak to the world

From the NYTimes this morning:

...“I am baffled by what I saw,” said Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo. “This was an expression of the Americans in deep trouble, but Bush’s approach to dealing with the Iraqi problem also bore the signs of someone out of touch with what is going on.”

“I did not see a coherent strategy that really deals with the situation,” Mr. Said said. “I did not see Bush realizing how bad it is.”

The meeting showed that Bush cared about the game, but he did not know how to make the right moves,” he said. “There were no tangible results.” And results, he said, were what Arab leaders were looking for....

So Bush goes all the way to Jordan and meets with Maliki for two hours? The whole thing was such a charade.  In the run up to the Summit, he made the argument that the Sunni-Shiite struggle in Iraq was being driven by Al-Qaeda, something that is patently false.  The ISG report appears to be a big punt, and fails to confront the emerging political reality of the Middle East.  We now appear to have two Secretaries of State, clearly in conflict with one another.  The Saudis have become so concerned about our mismanagement of Iraq that they had an op-ed placed in the Washington Post making it clear they would go to war in Iraq to protect the Sunni Arab population.  

All in all, the governing party's inability to understand or manage this growing international crisis is sending a signal to the world that America has become a weakened and stumbling power.  My own sense is that the way we can show strength to the world is to ask for help.  To admit that we are no longer capable of managing what is now an international problem, and invite the UN, NATO, the EU or others to help create a regional peace process that will put everything on the table. 

Though many may be happy that America will be redeploying our troops in the near future, without a change in the political arrangements inside Iraq and the Middle East we will be essentially staying the course, a course that is now clearly headed towards a regional conflict driven a great deal by Iran's hegemonic ambitions and long simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions. 

Biden on the ISG

I'm still not sure about Senator Joe Biden's "federalism" plan for Iraq, but he is very correct that we need to be talking about political and diplomatic paths forward for the region:

"“I look forward to the release of the Iraq Study Group's report on December 6th and I will reserve full judgment until I see it. But if today’s news reports are correct, I’m concerned the Iraq Study Group may miss the most important point: the need for a strategy to build a sustainable political settlement in Iraq. Bringing the neighbors in and starting to get our troops out are necessary, but not sufficient. We need to give each of Iraq’s major groups a way to pursue their interests peacefully. It would be a fatal mistake to believe we can do that solely by building up a strong central government. That policy has been tried and it has failed because there is no trust within the government, no trust of the government by the people and no capacity on the part of the government to deliver benefits to Iraqis.

"The best way to get a sustainable political settlement is through federalism: maintaining a unified Iraq, but decentralizing the country and giving its groups breathing room in their own regions. A central government would still be responsible for the distribution of oil and border security. We would get Sunni buy-in by guaranteeing them a proportionate share of the oil revenues and we’d bring the neighbors in to support the political settlement. If we do all these things, we can withdraw most of our troops from Iraq by the end of 2007, with a residual force to focus on counter-terrorism. And we can achieve the two objectives most Americans share: to leave Iraq without leaving chaos behind.”

Biden's idea on a "Contact Group" to help establish a regional diplomatic dialogue is something worth giving serious consideration to.  You can read more about it in a speech he gave in the fall of 2005 to the Council on Foreign Relations. 

The Politics of Exurbia

In Monday's USA Today, reporter Jill Lawrence wrote a major story on how "Democratic gains in suburbs spell trouble for GOP".  The story, based largely on a report by geographers Robert Lang and Thomas Sanchez of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, is well worth reading, as is the detailed Lang-Sanchez study.  Let me flag a couple of paragraphs of the Lawrence story that deal with exurbia in particular:

"Republicans this year continued to win in small cities up to 50,000, as well as fast-growing exurban and rural areas. Lang called the exurbs and "emerging suburbs" volatile, noting Democrats had been losing ground there but cut GOP victory margins in half this year....

Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin said Republican appeal is waning in the inner suburbs, due in part to socially conservative positions, while Democrats are getting better at reaching suburban voters. They have "doubled, tripled and quadrupled" their efforts to be competitive in exurbs and emerging suburbs, Garin said, since the "huge shock" of losing 97 of the country's 100 fastest-growing counties in 2004."

That is one of the big stories of this election: big Democratic gains in exurbia, which is composed of the borderline rural true exurbs (think Fauquier and Stafford counties in northern Virginia) and the borderline suburban and much more densely populated emerging suburbs (think Loudoun and Prince William counties in northern Virginia).

The Democrats' ability to make progress in these very important emerging suburbs, in particular--the fastest growing part of America--was flagged and analyzed in detail before the election in my New Politics Institute report, The Next Frontier: A New Study of Exurbia.  As the Lang-Sanchez report notes, Democrats grabbed 45 percent of the House vote in America's emerging suburbs this year, up from a mere 39 percent in 2002.  My NPI study gives you the "backstory" on how and why this shift happened.

This increased competitiveness in emerging suburbs, combined with Democratic dominance of the inner and mature suburbs, augurs very well for Democratic and progressive prospects in 2008 and beyond.  As I put it in my study with John Halpin, The Politics of Definition, the following is now a very real possibility, given current demographic and political trends:

"In spatial terms, progressive domination would likely spread outwards from the city and inner suburbs to include the mature suburbs and make emerging suburbs a real competitive battleground. The reliable conservative vote would be reduced to the solid red states and America’s rural areas and most far-flung exurbs."

That is what we now see happening.  Reversing Mao's dictum, progressives are surrounding the countryside from the cities.  And the emerging suburbs are now the frontline of that struggle, a struggle progressives are currently winning.

Blumenthal on Generation Dem

Sidney Blumenthal's new essay in Salon is a must read.

The Iraq Study Group's recommendations leak out

So, 9 months of meetings and what are the bold recommendations from the ISG about our great struggle in Iraq?  Regional talks and a phased pullout.  That's it.  Something as obvious as the sky is blue.  And, of course, even as innocuous as the recommendations are, Bush immediately tossed cold water on them. 

As I've been writing these last few weeks, events in the Middle East seems to have made the framework of this whole debate seem less relevant.  From the Times story today a telling quote: “I think we’ve played a constructive role,” one person involved in the committee’s deliberations said, “but from the beginning, we’ve worried that this entire agenda could be swept away by events.”

Unless the final report due out next week offers some guidance on how to deal with Iran's regional ambitions, rising regional Sunni-Shiite tensions, the viability of a Shiite-led Arab state in the heart of the Middle East, what to do about the growing Al-Qaeda presence in Western Iraq, the rise of Hezbollah and the growing instability of Lebanon, how this all impacts Israel and Palestine, and whether it is possible, or advisable, for the UN or other international body to help facilitate a regional peace process I worry that these 9 months of the ISG will be yet another missed opportunity of the Bush era. 

But perhaps that's all we can really expect now, and for the next two years. 2006 brought a major era of American politics, one we call the era of conservative ascendency, to a dramatic close.  The conservative movement has been intellectually discredited, the Republicans have suffered their greatest political defeat in two generations and Bush has been personally repudiated by the American people.  There is no blueprint for their government any more, no sign posts, no easy path forward. We should expect the Administration and the Republican Congress, still shellshocked by their defeat, to remain in a defensive crouch while their Presidentials and thinktanks work to reinvent their politics.  In essence we have to realize as a nation that our government, and its party, have no idea what to do about the major problems facing the nation today.

Of course this gives progressives an extraordinary opportunity over the next two years to imagine, define and fight for a new agenda that helps our great country tackle the great challenges of our day. 

TNR's "Iraq: What's Next? " series

The New Republic's new "Iraq: What's Next? series is worth checking out.  You can find it at http://www.tnr.com/

And what's up with the  Bush-Maliki dinner getting cancelled tonight? Have the wheels really come off the Bushies to that degree?

If you haven't read the Hadley memo on Iraq, you can find it here

And for what amounted to a Saudi threat to turn the Sunni-Shiite struggle in Iraq into a regional war if America leaves, read this remarkable Washington Post op-ed from this morning by a Saudi advisor. 

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