Don’t Expect Shi’ites to Toe American Line

In the spy business, “blowback” is a term used to describe unintended negative consequences of actions taken by intelligence agencies to advance national interests. The phrase was allegedly coined by spooks at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to refer to an agent, an operative, or an operation that turned on its creator.

Indeed, given prior U.S. support of the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan during the Cold War and purportedly also of Osama bin Laden, it could be argued that the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack was the most prominent contemporary example of blowback, since some contend that this U.S. backing actually helped build bin Laden and al-Qaeda as a geopolitical force.

Officials in the administrations that provided U.S. assistance to the Islamic guerillas fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan justified their policies by arguing that they helped force the Soviets out of that country and played a crucial role in the process that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and eventually to the end of the Cold War.

Negative Outcomes

In any case, only few analysts had foreseen that the anti-Communist jihadists who were allied with the Americans during the Cold War would turn on their promoters and form the most violent anti-American force in the world today. Is it possible that 10 years from now as Americans would recall the U.S. military in Iraq, the ousting of Saddam Hussein from power, and the first multiparty elections in that country in 50 years, they would be once again pondering the negative outcomes of the another U.S. policy that was supposed to rid Iraq of an evil dictator, to establish a democracy in Mesopotamia that would serve as a shining model to the entire Middle East, and in the process advance U.S. national interests and promote its values of liberty and freedom?

In retrospect, one didn’t have to be an expert on the Middle East and Islam to imagine that arming a multinational coalition of Islamic extremists in Afghanistan during the 1980s, well after the destruction of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut or the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, would eventually lead to the emergence of a powerful legion of terrorists and their brutal campaign against the U.S. and its allies among Arabs and Muslims worldwide.

After all, these jihadists were committed to an uncompromising agenda against everything that the West represents, including democracy, secularism, and women’s rights. In fact, the jihadists’ triumph over the powerful Soviet infidels only helped strengthen their resolve to challenge the American nonbelievers and their allies in the Middle East. The Islamic warriors didn’t perceive their victory in Afghanistan as a successful chapter in America’s struggle against communism or as a step on the road to American-style democracy.

In their eyes, the eviction of the Russians from Afghanistan was, on one level, another phase in the never ending tribal and ethnic wars in the country and, on another level, another sign that political Islam was on the march. Similarly, the members of the Arab-Shi’ite majority in Iraq have celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein and their expected victory in Sunday’s election not as highlights in the neoconservative-type narrative in which America leads the way in spreading liberty in the Middle East and around the world and a democratic Iraq would join the camp of freedom-loving nations that share U.S. interests and values.

For the Shi’ites, who were repressed by the ruling Arab Sunni minority since the creation of Iraq by the British, the fall of Saddam and their electoral victory marks their assertion to power as an ethnic and religious group that has been marginalized and despised not only by Saddam and his Ba’ath party, but also by other Arab-Sunni and pro-American regimes in the region.

From that perspective, American policy has helped make Iraq safe, not for liberal democracy and individual rights, but for religious and ethnic identity – strengthening the Shi’ites and the Kurds while radicalizing the Sunnis.

Moreover, even the most moderate elements in the Shi’ite leadership, reflecting the prevailing views in their community, are bound to adopt policies that would formalize their religion’s influence on public and private life, weakening protection for the rights of women and minorities.

Similarly, the empowerment of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority would encourage the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq and the region. It is a development that would energize Shi’ite groups in the Persian Gulf and the Levant most of whom, not unlike the Hizbollah in Lebanon, espouse a religious and political agenda that is antithetical to U.S. values and interests.

Engine for Change

So one doesn’t have to be a student of Shi’ite history to expect the rise to power of a government in Baghdad that would become an engine for change in the region in a way that would not necessarily accord with U.S. goals, including growing influence of Iran and radical Shi’ite movements in the region, not to mention the possibility of civil war in a disintegrating Iraq that would lead to intervention by the neighboring countries.

Even under the best case scenario – let us call it “Blowback Lite,” Americans should expect the rise to power of a Shi’ite regime that would be not be inclined to support U.S. policy. And as the only way to ensure that that blowback would, indeed, remain lite, American troops would have to remain in Iraq for many years to come.

Reprinted from the Singapore Business Times, reprinted with author’s permission. Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.