In Memory of Hardy C. Dillard
Culture in US Middle East Policy
Remarks by R. K. Ramazani
Business Advisory Council Program Dinner
The School of Law, September 30, 2004
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am deeply touched and flattered by the invitation of my old friend John Jeffries for me to talk tonight to such a distinguished gathering of my fellow-alumni. I am also grateful to Luis Alvarez, Laura Monroe, and Eileen Lavis for helping me with the logistics.
The reasons for President George Bush's decision to invade Iraq and the post-invasion insurgency against the American occupation are many, varied, complex and controversial. I have decided to list seven of these that seem important to me and that fit my time limits:
1. The link between Saddam Hussein's Iraq to the tragic attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
2. Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction.
3. The American desire to control Iraqi oil.
4. The defense of Israel emanating from Bush's belief that support of the Jewish state is a "biblical imperative" and that the war in Iraq is "God's plan."
5. "Theology of empire," that is, according to Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack, Bush prayed "for the strength to do the Lord's will" in Iraq. And according to others, Bush seems to believe that he has a "divine appointment" because he has said, "They're evil and we're good" and, also, he has said to other nations, "If you are not with us on all issues, then you are with the evildoers."
6. Democratizing Iraq as the model for the entire Middle East and North Africa.
7. The influence of such neoconservatives as Paul Wolfowitz in the Bush administration.
Regardless of the merit of any one or all of these presumed explanations, I have come to believe that the grave decision to invade Iraq and the chaos and bloodshed that have followed essentially reflect a deeply flawed understanding of Middle Eastern culture and society. Muslim nations of the Middle East are essentially traditional in nature. To be sure, the Middle East was the cradle of world civilizations in ancient times and the abode of a progressive Islamic civilization in the Middle Ages at a time when Western civilization remained relatively backward. But the fortunes were reversed in modern times. While Western civilizations flourished, Islamic civilization stagnated and remained largely traditional. This traditional nature of the culture has manifested itself throughout the Muslim Middle East in forms of a millennial tradition of authoritarianism and religious, ethnic, social, and political divisions.
These home-grown problems of Middle Eastern culture, however, have been compounded by an unprecedented degree of peoples' resentment against the West, particularly the United States. Many factors fuel this fury of the Muslim peoples, including especially the history of Western colonial and imperial domination of the Middle East, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian-inhabited lands, the overwhelming American military presence in the Middle East, and the inclusion of Iran, the country of one of the most pro-democracy people in the Muslim world, in Bush's" axis of evil" side by side North Korea and Iraq.
This traditional character of Middle Eastern culture is graphically on display in Iraq today. The British Empire created in 1920 an artificial Iraqi state carved out of three provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Since then the people of Iraq have known only authoritarian governments—whether ruled by three British-appointed monarchs until the Iraqi Revolution of 1958, or by home-grown dictators such as Saddam Hussein who fell from power after the American invasion in 2003. Furthermore, Britain's creation of the Iraqi state did not necessarily result in the emergence of a modern nation-state. The people of Iraq continue to give their loyalty primarily to their family, tribe, religion, sect or ethnic communities rather than the Iraqi nation as a whole. They are divided into three major religious and ethnic groups of people, the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurdish communities. Because of this fractured nature of the society, the Iraqi population has always been held together by a strong authoritarian ruler.
Against the backdrop of such cultural realities, it should have come as no surprise to us that the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein from power would result in factional rivalry for power, no matter how these diverse communities appear to be united at the moment against the American occupation. Yet the Bush administration assumed unrealistically before and even after the invasion that a liberated Iraq would hold together, that after the invasion the Iraqi people would welcome the American liberators with open arms, and that they would embrace an American-style democracy.
Instead, we face the rising challenge of a tenacious insurgency against our military presence in Iraq, which has so far cost us billions of dollars, more than one thousand dead and over seven thousand wounded American servicemen. What is more, we face a horrendous challenge in our insistence on transplanting democracy in Iraq primarily by means of killing Iraqi insurgents so as to prepare to hold national elections in January 2005. Yet our own intelligence services see the overall situation in Iraq as bleak, the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan contends explicitly that the invasion of Iraq was "illegal," and he doubts that credible elections could be held in a few months while the insurgency is spreading. Finally, leading Republican senators Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar, and John McCain believe that America is in deep trouble in Iraq, and that the White House may be in deep denial about the need for a new approach. President Bush himself demonstrated such denial on September 21, 2004 when he told world leaders at the United Nations that progress was being made against the insurgents, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
In concluding my remarks, I only wish that I could say that our poor understanding of the Middle Eastern cultural realities alone has forced us to face some of the most formidable challenges of our time. I have often wondered whether we are also failing to understand our own American heritage of opposition to foreign domination and belief in independence and self-determination for all people. Having lived under the ever-lasting shadow of Thomas Jefferson for more than half a century, I have been asking myself ever since the terrorist attacks on America: What would Thomas Jefferson have thought about exporting democracy to Iraq by invading it and claiming to make it the model for democratizing the entire Middle East and North Africa?
No doubt, the aspiration to promote liberty has been part and parcel of the American political culture ever since the birth of the American Republic. And, like Thomas Jefferson, I firmly believe in the value of promoting liberty worldwide. I should mention parenthetically that I immigrated to the United States more than half a century ago to be free from the tyranny of the land of my birth and to study the majesty of law, particularly international law, in this beloved law school. But the most vexing question for all of us still remains: By what means should America try to spread democracy to the rest of the world? I think Thomas Jefferson, the intellectual father of America as well as that of the University of Virginia, would have said that liberal education rather than coercion is the best means for promoting democracy at home and abroad. There is no better way of expressing this fundamental idea of his than by quoting Jefferson's own memorable words: "Enlighten the public generally, tyranny and oppression of mind and body will vanish like the evil spirit at the dawn of day."