Home/Daniel Larison/Historical Simpletons and Utopianism

Historical Simpletons and Utopianism

And yet, it is precisely the utopianism of this interventionist project, whether defined in Richard Holbrooke’s terms or Paul Wolfowitz’s, that has led me at least to a re-education in realism. These doubts have two sources: the actual degree of success the U.S. has attained in Iraq and in the Middle East, and, far more importantly, the wisdom of such engagements, whether or not they succeed.

First, a little proportion about Iraq. Even those who view the country’s progress from the most optimistic perspective tend to unite in crediting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shiites, with having held the country together and used his commanding authority to legitimize January’s democratic elections. Ayatollah Sistani’s own medieval views on subjects ranging from Sharia law to the status of women are presented as being of little concern. “You can’t get to Thomas Jefferson without first having Martin Luther,” is the way the conservative Middle Eastern specialist, Reuel Marc Gerecht, once put it to me.

Historical analogies (and their 300-year lag times) aside, there is at least as compelling an alternate scenario: That what Ayatollah Sistani has done is used the democratic process to secure power for the Shiite community. In other words, that it is less that he and his fellow ayatollahs in Najaf share Washington’s project of democratizing the Middle East so much as the Bush administration’s commitment to initiate the vast project of a social transformation of a whole region by force of arms happened to dovetail with Shiite political ambitions and that the moment these interests no longer dovetail, it will become clear what kind of Iraqi society American blood and treasure has really brought into being. And that is assuming the war against the insurgency really is being won: The fact that two years after Saddam Hussein’s fall the road to the Baghdad airport is still not fully controlled by U.S. forces and Iraq is still importing oil suggests that the outcome is still very much in doubt. ~David Rieff, OpinionJournal.com

Hat tip to Michael Dougherty.

Being pressed for time today, I will have to be relatively brief. First, if Reuel Marc Gerecht is the sort of person in our country who qualifies as a Middle East specialist, our Middle Eastern policies are doomed to fail. Second, we had better hope that Mr. Gerecht specialises in Middle Eastern affairs, as his knowledge of our own history is simplistic at best. This is Mr. Gerecht’s insightful comment: “You can get to Thomas Jefferson without first having Martin Luther.” Let me say right off that this is something of an insult to Luther, who may have been a rather confrontational and ill-tempered monk but was still a man of serious and broad learning in patristics and the humanities–that he used that learning to little good end is not the point–and the Ayatollah has no such claim to our tradition or any comparable tradition of humane learning. I would add a last note: on the road from Luther to Jefferson Christendom had to destroy itself in disastrous internecine wars, almost succumb to the Ayatollah’s co-religionists and ultimately abandon much of the ancestral Faith to the ravages of rationalism, so if anything good will come from this the region would have to pass through a century of nightmarish violence first.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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