Fatal Vision

Can we control the forces of religion unleashed by the war in Iraq?

My brother-in-law fought in Vietnam for the domino theory. His son fought in Iraq for a new domino theory—the notion that a U.S.-sponsored democracy there will release a democratic "tsunami" that will topple the authoritarian governments of the Arab world. Domino Theory One was based on a strategic misconception: that we were containing expansionist international communism in Vietnam instead of resisting a nationalist, albeit Leninist-led, revolution rooted in the struggle against French colonialism. Domino Two is based on the theory that the Arab "regimes" are our enemy in what James Woolsey, the former CIA chief and ubiquitous TV hawk, calls "World War Four"—because their domestic repression stokes Islamist terrorism, which the regimes then deflect toward the U.S. But Shiite anger at the U.S. and the baffled response it has met with from U.S. officials who expected our forces to be hailed as liberators suggest that religion may be to Domino Two what nationalism was to Domino One—its fatal blind spot. Isaiah Berlin captured the nature of religious-based resistance to foreign domination in his metaphor for the political dynamics of nationalist resistance that swept us out of Vietnam—"the bent twig," which snaps back harder the further it is pushed.

The paranoid logic of the Cold War rendered Domino One persuasive. To save San Francisco, we had to make a stand 12,000 miles away. Domino Two, however, has an a priori logical flaw that awaits merciless testing by experience. The democracy we prescribe for Iraq could be an iatrogenic cure. An Iraqi exile I talked to recently said that the scenario that moderate Shiites like his family fear most is that Iraq's first free elections will be its last—that the Shiite majority will come to power and install a theocratic state under the sway of Iran. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, U.S. policy in the Gulf has sought to prevent revolutionary Shiism from threatening the stability of the Gulf states and the U.S. national interest in a secure supply of oil. That is a domino theory that the neoconservatives driving Bush Administration policy seem to have forgotten in their fixation on the threat to those countries and resources posed by Saddam Hussein.

Monomania talks a good game. It comes to a premature and foreclosing clarity using self-reinforcing facts and arguments. It is bad thinking that sounds good. Practical men like Colin Powell are always at a disadvantage in rebutting idea-driven policies. They know the world resists mono-causal accounts of what's wrong with it and how to set it right, but their chattering-class opponents easily spin their skepticism as defeatism. In fact that skepticism represents what Sir Lewis Namier, the British historian, called the "crowning attainment of historical study ... an intuitive sense of how things do not happen."

A U.S.-imposed democratic revolution from above, the neoconservatives contend, will prove stronger than an Iran-sponsored Shiite revolution from below fed on a millennium of martyrdom and focusing popular resentments against a century of Western imperialism. But the historical precedents they cite—the guided democraticization of Germany and Japan after World War II—do not apply to Iraq, as historians like John Dower, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the U.S. effort in Japan, have argued. The differences between Iraq and Japan are fundamental. Japan is an island that could be sealed off from destabilizing foreign influences, and the Japanese possessed cultural and ethnic unity. Even so, reconstructing Japan and readying it for democratic self-rule took 250,000 U.S. servicemen and officials six years. And there was not a single act of terrorism committed against the American occupiers.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq has some commentators reaching for a more troubling model—the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon that began twenty years ago. Initially the Israelis were greeted as liberators by the Shiite majority for driving out the PLO "state within a state" that had tyrannized them for years. But the honeymoon soon ended. Israeli tanks entered a village in the midst of a religious ceremony honoring the foundational martyr of the sect. The Shiites blocked their way and tried to tip over their vehicles. The Israelis, defending themselves, fired on the crowd, igniting a guerrilla war that took hundreds of Israeli lives and finally drove the Israelis out of Lebanon altogether. That incident, one expert wrote in The Boston Globe, was a "tipping point" from welcome into violent rejection. In two incidents this week U.S. soldiers killed Iraqi demonstrators in Falluja, a Sunni city. Shooting into a Shiite crowd could have been—and could yet prove to be—a tipping point. In Lebanon the Shiites threw flowers at Israeli tanks, but in Iraq there were no flowers and there will be more incidents. We have won the war, but who will win the peace?