Lounsbury on Iraq & MENA: War, Politics, Economy & Related Questions

After some thought I have decided that I will limit my participation on the Straightdope to this single thread. The current situation requires no small degree of attention on my part to various work issues arising from the same.

For those who do not know, I took a new position in what I will describe as a ‘front line state’ in asset management. (Actually you can see my house from where BBC broadcasts from.) My intention at this time is to remain in place and work with my team, although certain events might require such plans to change.

As such I believe the best use of my time is to simply create a space to respond to questions and to a limited extent, debate. Knowing myself and my argumentative nature, other choices will simply not work given the enormous demands on my time.

Should you see assertions or need issues clarified, I will do so here. I do not plan to participate in other threads at this time, but should one desire to bring clarifications here, I will engage them.

What I will not do is attack military issues: I have no training in this area, I do not wish to discuss it as there is nothing I hate more than uninformed spouting off. As such, let me not fall into sin myself.

I will try to post a further commentary on my approach to the issues and the like, but I may not get around to that.

Heya Coll.

So from where you sit, what’s your gauge of the current mood in the street ( I have a pretty good idea what the answer is already, but any elucidation with details would be useful )? How serious is the disconnect ( if any exists ) between regional government stances on the war and that street-level sentiment ( I notice King Abdullah of Jordan seems to be getting nervous )?

Talked to any ex-pat Iraqis out your way? Their take?

How are the local markets bearing up a week in - panic or wait and see?

What biases, if any, are you seeing in local media? Is there a strong pro-Iraqi government slant, a anti-U.S. AND anti-Saddam slant, playing up of coalition failures vs. successes, other? Aside from the views of the U.S., how is British involvement being covered and has it generated much comment, or is it largely being ignored in favor of a focus on the U.S.?

I’ll think of some more presently :).

  • Tamerlane

Please allow me to say; Welcome Back.

I would appreciate your insight as to the feared reunification of any Shi’a minority in Iraq with their breathern in Iran.

More important are the ramifications of Shrub’s attempts to detach us from Saudi oil production by propelling Halliburton’s (or anyone else’s) interests in the the retake of Iraq’s oilfields. I fully support disengagement with the house of Saud, I fear GB II’s approach is an inappropriately targeted Christian centrist slough of hogwash that makes America vulnerable to increased risk of terrorist attack.

I’d enjoy knowing what you think about Bush 2.0’s devilish deal with all these “Axis of Evil” countries that he so vehemently decries. The ones he is making deals with to prevent the spread of abortion and postnatal services that will save millions of children’s lives.

You’re input is most welcome.

[hijack]holy bat droppings, we’ve got a welcome return of both zenster and colls from sabbatical[/hijack]

Any thoughts on the broader Bush plan vis-a-vis Iran and more especially in my case N. Korea. That Axis of Evil speech has got to be setting pretty poorly with both Iran and NKor these days.

How much chance is there that a swift resolution, and equitable post-war setup in Iraq, could regain the hearts of those members of the Arab street that were formerly neutral towards the west, but are currentlt antagonized?


Extremely angry. As I said here or elsewhere, I have never seen it this bad.

My own driver told me he was happy to see Americans dying. So did my secretary. Neither are radical people. It gives you pause.

Last Friday’s demonstrations were huge. I expect this Friday’s to be worse. Cairo in particular. I saw last Friday’s live. It was stunning to see tens of thousands take to the street despite massive security presence, take over Tahreer square, and burn security vehicles.

A stunning event, and a bad sign.

In Jordan, much of the same: wildcat demonstrations, just yesterday I saw – in the snow mind you, a rare event in Jordan – a march by the Ikhouan al-Muslimine. Security forces did not try to impede them.

Very serious, and very dangerous. This war had better not last long or you may see some very unpleasant regime changes.

The manner of execution of the war has been stunninlgy tone deaf in re reginal sentiment, never mind global sentiment. I frankly see this as, to date, a propaganda coup for the al-Qaeda types. Manageable if (a) the war is short and (b) reconstruction is brilliantly managed. Brilliantly.

Yes, I have number of good friends in the Iraqi community. In large part they are looking forward to a post-Saddam future, but again there is little to no support among them for the war, and the manner in which it is happening they find humiliating and are very angry. My housekeeper, a Shiite told me she was happy to see Iraqis fighting back, to teach Americans a lesson.

A strange mixture of pride and nationalism, mixed with fear of a colonial rule II and a widespread anger at America being high-handed. Given what I had heard on the run up, stiff Iraqi resistance is no surprise to me. I further would predict that it will not take much for guerrilla to emerge in the South if things are not handled well, the shiites are anti-Sadaam, not pro America.

Bush’s self-righteousness translates very, very poorly here, and Rumsfeld et al keep making comments that sound highly colonial and patronizing when translated into Arabic.

Paralysis, thigns are not good. If this goes on too long, … well I wrote you in private about my worst case scenario, perhaps I should share that since I am now moving it up in %. That is what I have to attend to actually, there are non-trivial business risks right now.

I don’t read very much local media, I largely follow the international channels such as al-Jazeera and the new one, al-Arabiah, although Abu Dhabi is not bad either. The slant is largely anti-Americcan more than pro-Sadaam and fits into the nationalist reaction and the seething resentment at the feeling the US has been high-handed and imperialist.

Local print media, which I largely only read the business sections, has been highly anti-war but more circumspect. International media, like al-Hayat reminds me of the al-Arabiah line, less anti-American perhaps than al-Jazeera, but anti-War. al-Quds is more like al-Jazeera. However, I should say I think al-Jazeera has been fair, and gives full air-time to American and British officials with fairly translated commentary. Unfortunatley, the Bush Administration’s comments usually do more harm than good. The British are clealry more skilled in speaking to the region.

One thing is clear, everyone in the Arab media is largely very proud that some Arab nation and Arab soldiers, despite being badly outmatched, are standing up and dying.

As I said, even anti-Sadaam people do not like this, and make unhelpful comments on America.

Now, let me be clear, this was not inevitable. Before the fiasco of such glaringly incompetent diplomacy, there was no small reservoir of anticipation that perhaps this could be done right. That is, the type of anti-Americanism was different. REsentment for the big boy, but a desire to see the thing done in the right way. I.e. coming in with an international coalition – not the transparent charade – would have, in my judgement, resulted in a sort of superficial resentment and anti-Americanism, and secret approval.

What I am seeing is a really visceral reaction. The manner in which this has happened so far has been stunningly damaging. I am fairly skilled at navigating these waters and normally people talk to me in a kind of 'Arab to Arab manner, but let me be clear, I have begun to question my own saftey to a certain extent.

Not yet ready to conclude that, but I have begun to make contingency plans based on the Baghdad battle.

Mxied, America gets most of the rancor, but al-Jazeera and to my instant recollection, al-Arabiah refer to this as the American-British War.

If you’ll allow me to chime in on this one while Coll works around to it, my own opinion is that this angle is really being overplayed. For a couple of reasons.

One, there really doesn’t seem to be a lot of clamoring for it from the Iraqi side. Khomeini was big on the idea ( in a way ) during the Iran-Iraq War, but much to his disappointment there really wasn’t a lot of support shown for the Iranians when they invaded the south. Pockets here and there, yes, mostly in the form of Ad Dawah al Islamiyah, a group with strong theological/political ties to Khomeini ( based in part on his long residence in an-Najaf ) - but no evidence of widespread desire to actually amalgamate with Iran. To the contrary, 3/4 of the regular military conscripts in the Iraqi army were Shi’a and fought with at least a reasonable degree of loyalty ( including a few generals, one whom turned back the main Iranian thrust in 1982 ). Now post-war, SCIRI ( Iranian-funded and based armed opposition group to Saddam Hussein, drawn initially from Iraqi Shi’a POW’s in Iran ) has become the primary representative of the armed Shi’a resistance, but there is some question whether they have a truly significant following in Iraq itself - and even SCIRI has indicated ( perhaps disingenuously, perhaps not ) that there are not interested in partitioning Iraq ( though they are interested in creating an Islamist state it seems ).

Two, there is a significant cultural gulf between the Arab Shi’a of Iraq and Perso-Turkic ( mostly, there is a smallish Arab minority concentrated Khuzestan ) Shi’a of Iran.There is a little evidence that Iraq’s Shi’a populace are a hotbed of fundamentalism and are interested in aligning themselves with a theocratic state. Nor that they are interested in becoming another ethnic minority, probably with very limited political influence, in a Greater Iran.

Not to say, it is an impossibility. Just that it seems rather unlikely.

There’s also the practical matter of regional and international opposition. The Gulf states would be horrified at such a notion and I doubt the U.S. would permit it as a practical matter ( and Iran would have a very difficult time forcing the issue unless support in Iraq became overwhelming ).

  • Tamerlane

Thanks for the insight Coll. Worrisome, indeed. I suppose at this point, one can only hope for as quick a resolution as possible and hopefully a more international ( and regional ) presense after the fact.

I think your economic concerns might be worth sharing with the group - You’re much better at explaining them than me ;).

  • Tamerlane

What do they think of Western reports from BBC, CNN, and the like, that Iraqis are dying at the hands of Fedayeen Saddam, who are mortaring protestors and uprisers, bombing water supplies, using children as shields, comandeering hospitals for military purposes, dressing as American soldiers and executing those who “surrender”, and so forth? Do they give any consideration to reports from Western media that coalition forces are making more of an effort to spare civilian lives than is being made by the Iraqi paramilitary itself? Or do they believe that these are lies, and that American and British troops are raping and pillaging, murdering children, and targeting civilian populations indiscriminately?

Always a pleasure, Tamerlane. Might I ask about your reaction to Bush’s backdoor negotiations with “Axis of Evil” countries in order to further suppress women’s reproductive choice and gay rights? (As documented in the Washinton Post)

Not a chance.

The Arab Shiites want their own political power. They are open to political support and some influence from Iran to counterbalance Sunni oppression, but not rule.

I should say the easy nonesense bandied about in re Iraqi secularism is just that. That’s an image frozen in the past. The past 15 years have seen a substantial decline in secularism generally and a rise in religious sentiment. Radicalism even. Bush has opened Pandora’s Box on this, the Baath regime and Sunnis were long a dam against religious revivalism, in the context of a “Democracy” in Iraq, I see strong Shiite led pressures for a Islamicized state. Not an Iranian theocracy, but Islamicized.

And this will, in my opinion, be popular. Not a theocracy, but…

Should we not respond to that, well we get Egypt Part Two. That policy has of course been such a stunning success in not breeding radicalism.

PR disaster. Fuels the charges of American imperialism and neo-colonialism and lays the basis for radical recruitement. This Administration had bloody well better start looking to such issues and listening to the regional experts.

(Aside, my contacts in official circles in the Arabist community are profoundly depressed about the entire poilicy execution. )

Shrug. The House of Saoud sits on top of the cheapest to extract and largest reserves in the world. Disengagement is a naive fantasy.

Sorry not up on that, focused on my parochial concerns.

I’m actually not acquainted with this point. Do you have a link?

  • Tamerlane

Any indications that SCIRI has strong support in the south? Most of what I’ve read has been eqivocal and uncertain on that point.

  • Tamerlane

Thank you, Collunsbury.

How would you correlate this drive towards increased secularism with the recent polarization of Pakistsan’s newly elected legislature or Turkey’s prime minister? I find it rather disconcerting that given all of the arrests, Pakistan is still so unhinged about al Qaeda. I fully understand that it is probably precisely because of our search for al Qaeda within Pakistan’s borders that sentiment runs this way.

Welll given the quality of CNN reporting , almost no one believes them per se. E.g. reports on Umm Qasr falling. Further, the entire build up for war on faked evidence played into the hands of those who look to discredit Western information.

Of course, on the other hand, there was little trust to begin with.

Much as you are running with the party line (for all that it likely is mostly true),. so the Arabs are. Not an issue of ‘free press’ but confirmation bias.

In re the ‘bad things’ – such as tricking American soldiers with fake surrenders, hiding out, the view seems to be largely that when you’re fighting a 800 lb gorilla that has shown little concern for international law itself, that dirty tricks are part of what you should use.

I frankly think it is naive in the extreme, and I am being polite here, to expect either Iraqis or Arabs to be particularly put out about the last items.

Now in re the first items, the reaction there is muted for we (the Bush Admin) is hardly making an outcry over the repression going on in the Arab world putting down protests, including detentions and torture.

Moral highground does not work inconsistently.

Now stepping out of those shoes, let me note I am conveying to you the Arab view, so for all those outraged replies in re me excusing atrrocities, I say, deal with the reality of public perception ex- your own. That is reality, that is how good statesmanship can achieve ends.

Well, Lib old man, first to understand these things you might try not phrasing questions in a “did they stop beating their wives” framework.

The Iraqi regime has brilliantly used nationalist rhetoric about nationalist resistance to motivate not only Iraqis, but all accounts, but also Arabs and Muslims generally.

Insofar as this war began with not a shred of legitmacy outside of the narrow Anglo-American perspective, few if any are willing to give American bombing a pass, however accurate. It of course is unhelpful to pretend to some self-indulgent morality when the same government is and has long given quite a pass to the brutality of our friendly governments, a brutality that will be again on display this upcoming Friday.

In short, if you know the region you know how hollow our sudden concerns ring, and how deeply hypocritical our criticisms seem. No one in this region has forgotten the CIA helped the Baath come to power and the US looked at the Baath and Sadaam as bulwarks to communism until that threat passed, and now has suddenly discovered a tender regard for the Iraqi people.

Further of course, the Arab stations were broadcasting live during the first strikes, which were stunning. The effect was quite the contrary of the shock and awe theory, it raised anger. As the al-Jazeera commentor said, live, and in a tone of great bitterness, (to my recollection) “hathi al-asliha ghrir dimaar ash-shaamil.” – “Those are the weapons not of mass destruction.”

That’s the political and popular context of the region. You may not like it, you may think it is deeply misguided, but it behooves us to pay attention to it, deal with it on a respectful level and get of our high horses which we frankly do not deserve – and in any case rings fundamentally hollow.

If we do not, then … well … you know my opinion, this will be the worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam.

I would agree. This is not my area really.

What I can say is that the “secular” image of Iraq depends on old stereotypes that are no longer fully true. Iraq is subject to the same trends and devleopments as the rest of the region in the past 30 years, and for those who believe in the uneventful flowering of Iraqi secularism, I say it has as much basis in truth as the Kurdish democracy based on warlords.

That is, there are things there, but 20 years of hardship have pushed people towards religion, and an alien adminsitration will not be a way to push for secularism, above all since… ding ding, secularism is associated with Sadaam and Baath.

Bit of a Catch 22 we have there.

Sorry I don’t follow you.

Turkey is not connected to Pakistan. Turks have a democracy that is working better, and a moderate goverment. Where’s the problem?

In re Pakistan, poverty, corruption and a long association with secularist goverment with the same have bred a deep distaste for secularism in the masses.

A point to recalll, neither democratic ideas nor secularism are new to the region, they are old. And they have in the past failed.

Thanks, I was wondering about the recent pro-Islamic polarization in Pakistan’s government. Coupled with (an admittedly, very) new-found Islamic administration in Turkey the entire region seems to be going through intense stratification.

The Pakistan issue is not new, it dates back some years. Rather Western Media is just discovering these issues again.

Turkey: hardly an ‘Islamic’ administrtion. More like a Turkish Christian Democratic party. At least for now.

“…the worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam.”

OK. But all this is being said in the heat of the moment. And this is a pretty excitable part of the world we’re talking about. People can calm down, too. Fast forward a few months. Saddam et al are history. The constant fear associated with his rule has lifted. I read a few weeks ago that the Baghdad property market had been picking up before the fighting started because people saw an end coming to Saddam’s regime. Iraq is potentially a prosperous and fairly sophisticated place.

Surely there’s an upside to all this? Isn’t there a pretty good chance that once the dust has settled people will look back and remember the bad old days under Saddam, even if they don’t display public affection or gratitude to the US/UK?