Getting Iraq Right…from Miami…in Ohio

Adeed Dawisha is an old friend with a new book: Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (Princeton University Press). It’s a searing indictment of Arab nationalism from an insider’s perspective. And it’s especially relevant now, for the reason I underline in my jacket endorsement of the book:

Why does the world need this eminently readable book? Because academe is awash with speculation about the emergence of a “new Arabism.” Dawisha’s point is that anyone who lived through Arabism’s heyday knows how disastrous it was, and that the new Arabist nostalgia ignores history.

A lot of that new nostalgia fixed itself upon Saddam Hussein, who has now ended up in the same dustbin with Nasser.

I and my colleagues at the Middle East Quarterly thought so much of Dawisha’s book that we published an excerpt, which will give you the flavor of his uncompromising style. The book has now received a favorable review from the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim in The Guardian. Shlaim stands very much on the other side of the fence from me, and since we would agree on little else, Dawisha’s book deserves to be described as transcendent.

Dawisha was born in Iraq, and it’s worth quoting a few things he said on the eve of the war, since they were very courageous and prescient. Dawisha, speaking two months ago:

In academia, the prevalent attitude is to be anti-war, anti-invasion. I am not. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein is a subject of much higher moral order than avoiding a war. It is a mystery to me how people in academia, who consider themselves liberal, don’t see that in terms of justice and moral responsibility of a civilized world, we need to rescue the Iraqi people from this nightmare.

“War is an evil,” he told an audience at the University of Michigan. “But sometimes, unfortunately, war is a necessary evil. And in this particular case, I think it is…War against Iraq in my opinion is not only permissible, in fact when I say this I shock a lot of people… to me it’s a moral obligation. Every person with an ounce of civility in him should recognize this fact.”

Dawisha also made right-on predictions of outcomes. On March 18, he predicted that Iraqi soldiers would “slip away from their units” and let the invasion succeed. They did. On March 20, he predicted that Saddam would only be supported in the fight by “eight or nine thousand men in his special Republican Guard…they’ll fight the Americans because if they don’t die at the hand of the Americans, they’ll die at the hand of the Iraqi people. Everybody else in Iraq detests Saddam.” And so it was. Some loyalists did fight, the rest filled the streets on arrival of the Americans and Brits to celebrate Saddam’s demise. Two months ago, Dawisha predicted that, “given America’s certain victory, and the Iraqis’ certain support, today’s nay-sayers will look pretty dumb tomorrow.” It looks like that prediction was on the mark, too.

So it pays to listen to Dawisha’s opinion on the day after. First, he argues that the United States alone must fashion Iraq’s political framework. Dawisha sees a possible role for the UN and other powers in the economic reconstruction of the country.

But I’m not very clear why they should be brought in, in the political reconstruction of Iraq….We want to put Iraq on a democratic path, whether this takes six months or a year or eighteen months, but we want to be there when we’re trying to orient the Iraqis towards democracy creating political institutions, writing a constitution. I’m not very clear [on] what the Chinese, for example, or the Russians have to add to this endeavor.

I’m not sure the French would have much to add, either. And Dawisha doesn’t favor the quick turnover to Iraqis now demanded by Arab “opinion” and panicky Arab leaders (who would be all too pleased to see the Baath creep back). He argues for a two-year period of political reconstruction: six months of stabilization, during which a constitution would be written; six months for the creation of political parties; and elections a year later. All sensible.

Dawisha has written an important book, made courageous moral arguments in the midst of a storm, ventured accurate predictions, and offered practical solutions. All of which probably explains why he teaches at a place called Miami University in Ohio, while mediocrity is celebrated and rewarded at places like Columbia and Stanford. Go figure.

CLARIFICATION: A few readers have written me, to attest to the virtues of Miami University in Ohio. I intended no slight to the university as a whole. But no one would go there specifically to study the Middle East, and it is not listed among the 120-plus colleges and universities in the United States that boast of having Middle East programs. On the other hand, many places that have large programs, some of them subsidized from Washington, have no one of Dawisha’s caliber. And that, as I wrote, is hard to figure.