The Poland of Islam?
AFTER POWERFUL POLITICAL and media voices in America began expressing doubts about the war on terror, disaffection with U.S. intervention soon came to seem as if it were a permanent feature of our political landscape. Even as it is widely admitted that "the surge" has worked in Iraq, commentators remain wedded to the trope of Iraq as Vietnam. But that comparison is weak. Without a military draft, there has been no disorderly mass opposition to the Iraq war in this country. More important, Iraq itself has nothing in common with Vietnam. The latter country was a marginal element in the Communist world, with a language and culture limited to its own people, used as an anti-American proxy by China, and then by Russia. Iraq is neither marginal nor culturally isolated.
Iraq is, rather, a central Islamic country; a keystone with the potential for influencing its powerful neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It shares a common Arab language and tribal traditions with the former, and the Shia interpretation of Islam with the latter.
Defenders of the intervention, concerned that proponents of retreat would abandon Iraq, have drawn more appropriate parallels. Senator Joe Lieberman warned in 2006 that fecklessness in Iraq could reproduce the failure of the Western democracies to defend the Spanish Republic in that country's 1936-39 civil war, an abdication that encouraged the totalitarian dictatorships of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin on their paths of aggression.
Others have cautioned that newly-prolific proposals for negotiation with Islamist extremists--especially with the crazy Iranian regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--could result in Iraq, while increasingly succumbing to Iranian intrigues, becoming a Czechoslovakia. That country was sacrificed like Spain to the appetites of the dictators at Munich in 1938 and, let us not forget, left to bleed again when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague 30 years later. And finally, some have seen in Iraq a potential Yugoslavia--collapsing into bloody partition--or even a Romania, with its leadership, like Nicolae Ceausescu and his feral wife Elena, massacred.
There is, however, a more relevant and positive historical example evoked by the new Iraq, and it is that of Poland. Lest the metaphor be misunderstood, we must certainly guard against Iraq being divided between Saudi Wahhabis and Iranian radicals as the Polish Republic in 1939 was invaded and split by Hitler and Stalin.
But I have in mind the modern Poland of the last three decades. The new Iraq can play a role in the Muslim world similar to that seen when, at the end of the 1970s, the Polish nation, inspired by Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity labor movement, rose to challenge a Soviet power then viewed as invulnerable. Poland inaugurated an affirmation of popular sovereignty and intellectual freedom that spread first to countries like Hungary with which it shared a Catholic heritage, then to the rest of the Communist zone, and finally to the former Soviet Union itself, which then finally crumbled.
Iraq's achievements, rather than its recent failures, encourage transformation in its key neighbors. Particularly in Saudi Arabia, a growing discontent is visible with the Wahhabi cult that, allied to the monarchy, drove so many young people to abandon their homes and cross their country's northern border to die as terrorists in Mesopotamia.
Since his accession to power in 2005, Saudi king Abdullah has set the kingdom on a course of undeniable reform. His position is difficult because of his isolation within his own family, most of whom deserve Talleyrand's contemptuous description of the French Bourbons after their post-Napoleonic restoration: "They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing."
Abdullah's steps forward include a serious effort to curb the power of Saudi Arabia's so-called religious police, the mutawiyin, and the lifting of strict censorship in media and book publishing. He has also encouraged new business and professional opportunities for women, including work without wearing full body covering, as well as measures pointing towards a female right to drive (which is banned, alone in the world, by the Saudi kingdom). In a series of declarations culminating at the end of May with an invitation to the World Jewish Congress, King Abdullah has called for an interfaith summit to be held in his country. Recent reporting indicates that Buddhists and adherents of the Chinese religions would be included, besides the world's monotheists.
This last development portends notable possibilities for a turn in Saudi attitudes. Inviting Jewish religious leaders to the Saudi kingdom would be absurd unless the presumptive guests include Israeli citizens, who are presently barred from Saudi territory. If an interfaith summit in Saudi Arabia is real, King Abdullah will effectively begin to circumscribe Saudi participation in the Arab boycott against Israel. Such an outcome would be one item of evidence for the role of Iraq as a Polish-style agent of change in the Arab world.
Meanwhile, in Iran, the frantic demagoguery of Ahmadinejad and the interference of the regime's elite provocation and diversion units in Iraq have stirred deep unease among the Persian populace. Although evidence of unrest inside Iran is anecdotal and often clandestine, many Iranians are said to fear that Ahmadinejad, obsessed with the return of the Islamic messiah or mahdi, will launch his country into a Mao-style "cultural revolution" in a bid to revive the Khomeini movement of 1979. Such a crisis of the Iranian regime, while dangerous for Iran and Iraq alike, would be unlikely were the latter country not providing a contrasting style of Shia governance just beyond Iran's borders.
This is not to say that a Polish parallel in Iraq would bring instant gratification for a West, and a world, hungry for resolution of the Mideast crisis. In the 30 years that have passed since the beginning of the Polish national revival, that country has yet to fulfill its noble promise as a herald of democracy. It has contended with its own religious and national extremists, undergone disillusion with its hero Lech Walesa, and has even slid back, at times, into governance by its enduring "post-Communist" nomenklatura. But its role in the dissolution of Communist tyranny in Europe is inarguable.
Many wars fought by Americans were considered lost during the struggle. Washington at Valley Forge, the U.S. after the burning of the capital in the War of 1812 (which we did lose), Lincoln in the early period of the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt before the Battle of Midway in 1942, all faced the specter of defeat. The Korean War ended without a clear victory, although the people of South Korea today enjoy freedom and prosperity thanks to the sacrifice of American forces. Many Americans have lost touch with our military history, and these examples may mean little to them as they ponder the conflict in Iraq.
But in living memory, it is impossible to think that President Ronald Reagan would have told the Soviet rulers, between 1981 and 1989, to dispose of a reborn, independent Poland as they saw fit. Reagan would not have called out, in an unamusing paraphrase, "Mr. Gorbachev, reinforce this wall!" The Poles, like the Iraqis, faced setbacks and disappointments, but they prevailed, and their example changed the history of the world. A firm commitment to the new Iraq from the next American president may do the same for the Muslim nations.
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