Fouad Ajami has a very interesting book review (subscription required) in the current issue of The New Republic. He reviews Ali A. Allawi's The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace. As Ajami explains, Allawi is quite qualified to explain the nuances of Iraq that still mystify American policymakers to this day:
Here, finally, is a man of Iraq who knows its history and its wounds. He can write with deep understanding about its poets, its intellectuals, its clerics. He thoroughly grasps its peculiar place in its neighborhood, caught as it has been for several centuries between an Arab sense of belonging and currents from the Persian state to its east. A man of the Shia aristocracy--a cousin of Ayad Allawi, and a maternal nephew of Ahmad Chalabi--and a man of Baghdad, Allawi was marked for exile. His father had been one of the country's most respected physicians, and had served as minister of health under the monarchy. His family left Iraq after the Revolution of 1958, when he was a boy of ten. He was sent to boarding school in "deepest Sussex," then to MIT and Harvard. He found a big world outside Iraq, and financial success. But his country would continue to tug at him.
Allawi returned to Iraq, "and has served, at one time or another, as minister of trade, defense, and finance, and as a member of parliament." From Ajami's review, Allawi's book appears to be a must-read book for anyone who wants to understand how Iraq became such a debacle. What is particularly interesting, from the point of view of this blog, is the subtle details about the Shia-Sunni conflict that were misunderstood by American policymakers. Here is only a sample:
After three decades--many lifetimes in a country that has been through what Iraq endured in wars and despotism and devastating economic sanctions--Allawi returned to a country altered beyond recognition. In our image of it, Iraq had been a Sunni dominion, but there always was a special place in it for the Shia aristocracy of Baghdad into which Allawi was born. There had been a pact that marked out the political life, which he ably describes:Essentially, it was based on the recognition by the Shi'a elite that they might have some share of central power, within limits that would satisfy the more ambitious of their leaders. But they should not aspire to control or run the state, even though their numbers might warrant this. At the same time, the state, dominated by the Sunni Arabs, would recognize and acknowledge the props of Shi'a identity, and would not move to alter or shrink them in any significant way. Essentially, the Sunni Arabs controlled the state, while the Shi'a were allowed to keep their civil, mercantile and religious traditions. It was a precarious balance, but it held the potential for improvement and progress towards a common sense of citizenship, duties and entitlements. Successive governments in the 1960s and 1970s, however, foolishly destroyed this. The state removed the elements that kept a vigorous Shi'a identity alive in parallel to a Sunni- dominated state. Nationalizations, emigration and expulsions destroyed the Shi'a mercantilist class; the state monopoly on education, publishing and the media removed the cultural underpinnings of Shi'a life; and the attack on Najaf and the religious hierarchy came close to completely eliminating the hawzas of Iraq. When the state embarked on the mass killings after the 1991 uprisings, Iraq became hopelessly compromised in the minds of most Shi'a.
The restraints of the ancien régime had given way. From afar, the exiles and the Anglo-American planners of the coming war talked of the modernism of Iraq and of the promise of its vast middle class. But the country of memory had ceased to exist.
There is much, much more in this very rich and detailed review. If you have any doubts about whether we ever (or do) understand Iraq, they will be dispelled by the review. Read it all.