Grounds for optimism about Iraq — the center seems to hold

Fouad Ajami is a professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. He’s also the author of several books about the Middle East including most recently The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and Iraqis in Iraq. If you ever have the chance to hear him speak, take it. I did so this evening at a small dinner gathering of journalists and policy experts hosted by the Hoover Institution.
Ajami has made eight trips to Iraq, the last one in August of this year. During that three week visit, he spoke to virtually all of the top leaders in Iraq, representing all three of the major factions, as well as General Petraeus and other U.S. military leaders. On a previous visit, he became one of the very few westerners to speak with Ayatollah Sistani.
Based on what he has seen, Ajami concludes that the tide has turned in Iraq and that the country is basically “working.” The Kurds, he says, have what they want — autonomy. They don’t really want independence because, despite their oil reserves, they rely on oil revenue from the south. Moreover, they do not want to have to deal with Turkey and Iran alone. Finally, they hold their share (or more) of the key government positions.
The Shiites also have what they want — the upper hand. They decisively and irreversibly won the Battle of Baghdad, and it’s now their government. Naturally, therefore, they are heavily invested in the success of the state. In addition, as a matter of pride, they want to prove that they — the much maligned and ridiculed Shia Arabs — can govern. They realize that this means some accommodation for the Sunnis, and they are increasingly willing to accommodate them now that they know they (the Shia) have won. Thus, according to Ajami, Moqtada al Sadr’s influence is down, and the Shia center appears to be holding.
For their part, the Sunnis bet on al Qaeda and the powerful Sunni Arab states, and lost. As a result, they now are switching horses, working increasingly with the U.S. to defeat al Qaeda and with the Iraqi government upon which they rely for revenue.
Ajami disputes the conventional wisdom that the current government is dysfunctional. He finds that the government is paying its debts and distributing money (including oil revenue) to the provinces. The parliament is functioning as a parliament should, passing laws and budgets, etc. The congressional “benchmarks” may not have been met, but that’s largely irrelevant. For example, the Iraqis have not passed an oil law, but oil revenue is being shared, and “rather equitably.” Ajami, an Arab, adds that it’s not the Arab way to do this sort of thing according to a formal written instrument. Similary, there may be no “national reconcilation” as the U.S. defines it, but the three factions manage to get things done together. Finally, corruption is still widespead, as it invariably is in Arab countries, but outright plunder has diminished sharply under Maliki, who Ajami regards as generally “clean.”
Ajami thinks the U.S. will remain in Iraq for a long time regardless of which party wins the presidency, but that we will be able to reduce troop levels substantially. From Iraq, we’ll be in a posiiton to “monitor” Iran, and that will be fine with the Iraqis. Iran will have influence in Iraq, but will not dominate.
Ajami’s conclusions clearly are more optimistic than what one generally hears even from the most ardent supporters of our Iraq policy. However, I have heard the same basic line from a few others who have recently spent time in Iraq. For example, Sen. Lindsey Graham (of all people) presented a similar report at the American Enterprise Institute after he returned from active duty in Iraq as a military judge not long ago.
One certainly should not accept Ajami’s views uncritically, but neither should one reject them simply because they are optimistic and don’t comport with the mainstream media’s narrative. Ajami’s views may or may not be correct, but he knows more about Iraq, and the Middle East generally, than do the MSM members who insist that no substantial progress is being made.

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