Iraq Needs a Strongman

News Abroad

Mr. Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum. His website address is http://www.danielpipes.org.

The current insurrection in Iraq was discernable a year ago, as I already noted in April 2003:"Thousands of Iraqi Shiites chanted"‘No to America, No to Saddam, Yes to Islam" a few days ago, during pilgrimage rites at the holy city of Karbala. Increasing numbers of Iraqis appear to agree with these sentiments. They have ominous implications for the coalition forces."

The recent wave of violence makes those implications fully apparent.

Two factors in particular made me expect Iraqi resistance. First, the quick war of 2003 focused on overturning a hated tyrant so that, when it was over, Iraqis felt liberated, not defeated. Accordingly, the common assumption that Iraq resembled the Germany and Japan of 1945 was wrong. Those two countries had been destroyed through years of all-out carnage, leading them to acquiesce to the post-war overhaul of their societies and cultures. Iraq, in contrast, emerged almost without damage from brief hostilities and Iraqis do not feel they must accept guidance from the occupation forces. Rather, they immediately showed a determination to shape their country's future.

Second, as a predominantly Muslim people, Iraqis share in the powerful Muslim reluctance to being ruled by non-Muslims. This reluctance results from the very nature of Islam, the most public and political of religions.

To live a fully Muslim life requires living in accord with the many laws of Islam, called the Sharia. The Sharia includes difficult-to-implement precepts pertaining to taxation, the judicial system, and warfare. Its complete implementation can occur only when the ruler himself is a pious Muslim (though an impious Muslim is much preferable to a non-Muslim ). For Muslims, rule by non-Muslims is an abomination, a blasphemous inversion of God's dispensation.

This explains why one finds a consistently strong resistance to rule by non-Muslims through 14 centuries of Muslim history. Europeans recognized this resistance and in their post-crusades global expansion stayed largely away from majority-Muslim territories, knowing these would awesomely resist their control.

The pattern is striking: For over four centuries, from 1400 to 1830, Europeans expanded around the world, trading, ruling, and settling — but distinctly in places where Muslims were not, such as the Western Hemisphere, sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and Australia. In a clear pattern of avoidance, the imperial powers —Britain, France, Holland, and Russia especially — took control of far-away territories, while carefully avoiding their Muslim neighbors in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Only in 1830 did a European power (France) find the confidence frontally to confront a Muslim state (Algeria). Even then, the French needed 17 years just to control the coastal region.

As European rulers conquered Muslim lands, they found they could not crush the Islamic religion, nor win the population over culturally, nor stamp out political resistance. However suppressed, some embers of resistance remained; these often sparked a flame of anti-imperialism that finally drove the Europeans out. In Algeria, a successful eight-year effort, 1954-62, expelled the French colonial authority.

Nor was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq the first Western undertaking to unburden Muslims of tyrannical rule. Already in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte appeared in Egypt with an army and declared himself a friend of Islam who had come to relieve the oppressed Egyptians of their Mamluk rulers. His successor as commander in Egypt, J.F. Menou, actually converted to Islam. But these efforts to win Egyptian goodwill failed, as Egyptians rejected the invaders' proclaimed good intentions, and remained hostile to French rule. The European-run"mandates" set up in the Middle East after World War I included similar lofty intentions and also found few Muslim takers.

This history suggests that the coalition's grand aspirations for Iraq will not succeed. However constructive its intentions to build democracy, the coalition cannot win the confidence of Muslim Iraq nor win acceptance as its overlord. Even spending $18 billion in one year on economic development does not improve matters.

I therefore counsel the occupying forces quickly to leave Iraqi cities and then, when feasible, to leave Iraq as a whole. They should seek out what I have been calling for since a year ago: a democratically-minded Iraqi strongman, someone who will work with the coalition forces, provide decent government, and move eventually toward a more open political system.

This sounds slow, dull, and unsatisfactory. But at least it will work — in contrast to the ambitious but failing current project.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Daniel Pipes, a leading voice on this pretend History website, has made it clear in his scores of prior articles that he considers "democracy" to be the power and freedom to agree with his extreme and fear-based agenda for dealing with the challenges Islamic fundamentalism poses to the West (i.e. real democratic societies). This latest bit of half-baked punditry underscores the unworkability of Pipe's approach to international affairs.

"Seeking out" "democratically minded strongmen" was the foolish policy of America towards the Islamic Mideast for decades - from the Shah to Saddam. Going back to that shortsighted approach, to "cut and run" as President W. put it today, will be no more effective at defusing Mideast time bombs than the Cheney-Wolfowitz-Sharon practice of blow-things-up-and-see-what-happens.

We need to drastically cut the bloated American consumption of energy, reduce the portion coming from unstable and terrorist-fomenting Mideast sources, and make any purchases of oil from such tyrannies contingent upon lasting policy changes there. And put some people in Washington who know how to conduct diplomacy without repeatedly insulting and antagonizing most of the rest of the world. Without such steps any reasonable plan for cleaning up the mess W. and his buddies have made in Iraq has little chance of success. Unreasonable U-turns of the type Mr. Pipes advocates here belong in the trash bin (where most reasonable and informed historians would relegate HNN).

Arnold Shcherban - 5/3/2004

I can answer your question for Mr. Pipes, based on his
ideological and political principles:
It doesn't matter what kind of strongman it will be, it
doesn't matter whether he murders 100 or 1 million of
his compatriots, as long as he submits his regime to
the "needs" of the US multinational corporations.
We have seen this(allegedly new) pattern too many times
in the past all over the world.

Michael Green - 4/22/2004

I appreciate Mr. Pipes providing this history lesson. How nice it would have been if his friends in the Bush administration had thought of such things before sending innocent Americans to die for the sake of providing their manhood. Now, if Mr. Pipes would kindly explain what kind of pro-democracy strongman he recommends? A lot of dictators claim to be pro-democracy. Perhaps he means the right kind of dictator.

Daniel B. Larison - 4/22/2004

Mr. Pipes really likes to push dictatorship, doesn't he? He must be the odd man out at neoconservative drinks parties, I suppose, at least when they're pushing the official party line. After all, not only is he breaking with the official, pure doctrine of democratism, but he even has the temerity to utter 'defeatist' comments in public (i.e., current policy is failing)--usually very un-neocon. But I guess he makes up for it in his obsession with the "democratically-minded strongman."

Mr. Pipes' delusion that there are, or ever have been, "democratically-minded" strongmen seems to be his sole observation about modern political history. In this strange narrative, Chiang Kai-shek and Ataturk, to name Pipes' favourites, are "democratically-minded." Is that like being "objectively democratic"? Ataturk had some liberal, that is freisinnige/freethinking, instincts and modernising goals, which are all well and good in their way, and there were some quasi-representative elements under Ataturk, but the truth is that real, broad participatory government was a concession to post-WWII political realities by Kemalist authorities and these only occurred over a decade after Ataturk's death. Theoretically, Kemalism was always populist, but as any beginning student of politics knows populism does not require participatory government. Kemalism's reformist heritage may have inclined its adherents to be more open to representative systems, but it certainly did not make them vital to the official ideology. One may say that Ataturk's reforms helped prepare the way, in a sense, but the establishment of full representative government did not necessarily have to follow from his reforms.

Until the last decade, one cannot speak of a successful and relatively independent Turkish civil society and government that is not entirely in the shadow of the military, and along the way there have been several instances of governments being ousted for their failure to adhere to the proper Kemalist principles and policies, as everyone, perhaps even Mr. Pipes, knows. This may have been in the best interests of Turkey, but what it was not was democratic. Indeed, one might argue that until the election of the current government of Turkey, the military's influence has always overshadowed the process to such an extent that Islamist and reformist parties have never had a real chance of governing for very long--and that was some 65 years after the death of Ataturk! The Taiwanese example is even more clear-cut: single-party rule was eventually rejected by enough of the population, and the KMT bowed to reality. Chiang Kai-shek was hardly paving the way for democratic rule--his rule was the obstacle to it that only encouraged democracy by instilling frustration and dissatisfaction among the people.

What is required to be democratically-minded? Is it uttering pious phrases about democracy? Communist dictators have never tired of talking about how they are doing "the people's" work--perhaps they are other possible models? Or is it just neutrality or anticommunism during the Cold War that makes someone "objectively democratic", so to speak? In other words, if we could find a suitable lackey in Iraq (Chalabi?), Mr. Pipes would probably assure us that he was democratically-minded, regardless of his actions, because it is his tilt towards us that makes him receive democratic principles as if by osmosis. There is hardly any other way to understand how Chiang Kai-shek is democratically-minded.

Saddam Hussein used to be at least be "Western-minded," one might say, which was good enough for Washington once, but then he made the mistake of getting off his leash. Have we not learned that choosing the rulers of other countries is bound to fail? Either those rulers will be abusive, or turn against American interests anyway, or both. Given the American track record of choosing strongmen to back in the Near East, I would much sooner leave the choice of leadership and the responsibility for it to the Iraqis--they could hardly do worse than Washington!

Concerning Hussein's fall from Washington's grace, I suspect that the same will happen to any "democratically-minded" strongman who makes the mistake of believing he is actually in control of his own country, since the point of his rise to power is to avoid real local rule at all costs, even to the point of utter hypocrisy on the part of our government. Never mind that the imposition of a dictator at this stage would provoke a real general uprising of a kind that would make the present upheaval seem pleasant by comparison. Then there would be a real disaster and the internecine violence that so many war supporters purport to care about so deeply.

The fact that representative government only succeeded in Turkey and Taiwan at the expense of the ruling clique put in power by Kemalism and the KMT (both partly modeled, it is worth noting, on Leninism) ought to dispel all of this nonsense about a strongman being consistent or theoretically in sympathy with democracy as anyone today understands it. Perhaps if one defines democracy as Franquistas or other authoritarians defined it, it might be compatible, but that is not what we're talking about. Indeed, given the moderately leftist preoccupations of Mr. Pipes and many of his associates, Franquism would be the last thing they would ever want.

A dictatorship may be more or less benevolent, but it is not and cannot be a popular government, inclined towards satisfying popular opinion or open to democratic-leaning reforms in any meaningful sense (its own self-interest repudiates real participation)--this is the whole appeal of it for foreign agitators such as Pipes. This is the man, after all, who wants to "fix" Islam--what colossal arrogance one must possess to suppose that it is some foreigner's responsibility or prerogative to "fix" another society's religion!

The goal of this strongman idea, and indeed of the entire occupation to date, is to deprive Iraqis of any chance of self-government until they vote for the 'right' sorts of people, and to try to impose the cultural and mental habits through a dictator to teach them to elect the 'right' sorts. No foreign power has ever succeeded in instructing local people to fall in line in this way, and with gentlemen such as Mr. Pipes as the intellectuals behind our efforts it is highly unlikely that America will now succeed where others have failed before.

It is not hard to see this idea as the advocacy of the crass domination of another country through coercion and intimidation that it is, and it is an unworthy enterprise for our good country (as was the invasion itself). Let the Iraqis have their own government, or let them split up their country or let them sort out which faction will dominate the region--it is not, and should not be, our concern.

Kevin Shanks - 4/21/2004

I'm all for "diversity," but could we get a more credible voice on the Middle East than Pipes? Getting your information on Islam and Arabs from Pipes is like sitting down to a civil rights lesson with Jesse Helms. Please.

Now Pipes, who one year ago was all for "liberating" Iraq from a strongman who was pro-Arab, now wants to replace him with a strongman who is pro-Israel. Wouldn't that work wonders for the U.S. "image problem" in the Arab world?

And what about Bush's posturing and preening about bringing "freedom" to Iraq? How quickly his true motives are laid bare....

Jonathan Dresner - 4/20/2004

Nice thought. But Ataturk was drawing on nearly a century of modernizing movements -- the Tanzimat and Young Turks -- when he made modernity his legitimizing strength. I'm not sure whether there is a similar movement or rhetorical strain in Iraq which would allow such a leader to justify political repression in the name of development.... wait, what about the Baathists? Socialist developmentalists, unifying nationalists..... oh, I guess not.

Ben H. Severance - 4/20/2004

However one-sided Pipes' article may be, it does suggest a very likely outcome to the whole Iraq story. If the U.S. fails to construct a republic, then the emergence of a strong-man becomes a probability. And such a leader will NOT be someone like Sistani (the U.S. will never allow a theocracy). Instead, a charismatic, secular-minded former RGFC officer will arise to weld Iraq into a stable nation. In other words, Iraq may very well take the Turkish path following WWI. This would not be too bad, for Turkey modernized and democratized under Ataturk's firm leadership. Unfortunately for the U.S., an Iraqi version of Ataturk will have to earn his reputation by driving out the Americans just as Kemal Mustafa drove out the Greeks and their British benefactors.

Regardless of whether a republic under U.S. aegis is formed or a strong-man takes over, the new Iraq will have to permit a de facto Kurdistan as a state within a state. Unless, of course, the Iraqi Ataturk wants to go down that tragic road (Kemal's only blemish). Let's hope not, for the freedom and local rule the Kurds are currently enjoying is the best outcome of the whole war in Iraq, thus far.

Ben H. Severance - 4/20/2004

Good points. European intervention and colonization of the Muslim world increased in proportion to Ottoman decline. Hell, the Russians and Turks had been fighting in the Balkans and the Caucasus throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Britain used Afghanistan as a buffer for its "Jewel" in India and had no qualms machine gunning some 11,000 Sudanese Mahdists at Omdurman, all to protect its canal in Egypt. None of this, however, suggests that Muslims, or anyone for that matter, like being taken over and governed against their will, but Pipes seems to contend that political resistance is a unique and guaranteed character of Islam.

Michael Meo - 4/19/2004

And the fact that subSaharan Africa wasn't colonized until the 1880s is evidence, perhaps, of a clear pattern of avoidance of animist peoples, who "awesomely resist" non-animist control.

The head of the Dutch East India Company Sabastien Coen seized Jakarta in 1620, renaming it Batavia, in the partly-Moslem island of Java; the second governor of the Portuguese East Indies Alfonso d'Albuquerque took the strategic port of Ormuz in the Persian Gulf in 1507 and the port of Malacca, commanding the straits between Malaya and Sumatra, in 1511. The strategic insight of these moves is transparent, even 500 years later. Where is the pattern of avoidance?

mark safranski - 4/19/2004

It is a year later and I fear that in this case, the advice of Dr. Pipes has not improved with age.

The only Iraqi leader who is of democratic mind and has demonstrated political strength is Sistani who holds that clerics should not be direct participants in governmental offices. Outside of Kurdistan there is no one else who could fit this mold.

Our putting someone into power and calling him a " democratically minded strongman " doesn't mean anything unless this person possesses a very substantial power base of his own on which to build any type of a democratic polity. Moreover, the swiftest way to do so would be to demonstrate " independence " by frequently and publically spitting in America's eye in order to play to the Sunni nationalist equivalent of obscenity-screaming, shirtless guys in the bleachers. Quite predictably, a figure following such a political strategy would frustrate any further democratic reform while achieving neither stability nor safety.

The CPA squandered all it's chances to take and remain on the political initiative being too restrictive and isolated to be liberators while failing to be ruthless enough to be effective occupiers. The only solution or " exit strategy " is to pass power in Iraq to a democratically elected government that would possess enough political legitimacy to accept American military help to stay afloat against the insurgency. (The UN can be involved in this if it makes everyone happy but they are only popular so long as they are an alternative to the US and once we leave they have no power, even to defend themselves)


Jonathan Dresner - 4/19/2004

As Brian Ulrich pointed out (http://bjulrich.blogspot.com/2004_04_11_bjulrich_archive.html#108204839567087132) when this article appeared in the Chicago Sun, this "reluctance to rule" stemmed in large part from the existence of another power in the region with which Europeans did not want to tangle, but that didn't stop Europeans from colonizing Muslim populations in India, Indonesia, etc.

I'd like to add the voluntary existence of Muslim populations in dozens of democracies, apparently quite happy to be ruled by non-Muslims as long as their religious and political rights are preserved.

Silly stuff.