Paul Wolfowitz: After Such Ignorance, What Forgiveness?

by Hugh Fitzgerald (May 2007)

         It is even more damaging for a minister to say foolish things than to do them. -- Cardinal De Retz

Paul Wolfowitz is in trouble, but for all the wrong reasons. Surely the main and overlooked aspect of the entire World Bank brouhaha is not any supposed “corruption” in the arrangements made for Shaha Ali Riza (the woman described sometimes demurely as his "girlfriend,” sometimes less primly as his "squeeze") or in Wolfowitz’s liberality in setting her salary and benefits, but her identity and role in his comprehension of, and decision-making about, both Islam and Iraq.

Shaha Riza was born in North Africa (some say in Libya, some say in Tunisia) but her origins are otherwise obscure. Is she from a Shi’a family? Sunni? Arab? Persian? She has lived in various parts of Dar al-Islam, including a stint, one has read, in Saudi Arabia, but not in Iraq. She is like so many who made friends in high places -- Ahmad Chalabi and Kanan Makiya and Rend al-Rahim come immediately to mind. Those friends in high places went on to do things based in not inconsequential part on what they learned or thought they learned from these “representative” most unrepresentative Iraqis and other Muslims.

If Wolfowitz is to be separated from his current princely allowance, it should not be because World Bank members are offended at his anti-corruption measures (measures not only not objectionable, but necessary), but because of his relationship with Shaha Riza -- a relationship that helped to cause the inexcusable mess of Tarbaby Iraq.

Wolfowitz was not the only one to favor this Light-Unto-the-Muslim-Nations scheme in Iraq. Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and hundreds of others -- none of them correctly identified the enemy. For them it really was a “war on terror” and not a war of self-defense against Jihad, worldwide, and against all the instruments of Jihad -- including the money weapon, Da’wa, and demographic conquest. And therefore they did not set the right goal, which ought to have been defined succinctly as follows: whatever helps to weaken the Camp of Islam and Jihad, and possibly at the same time instruct, and hearten, the Camp of the Infidels, is desirable. In Iraq, that weakening of the Camp of Islam and Jihad can only be achieved by an American withdrawal, instead of American forces remaining to achieve a goal which is exactly the wrong one (a united and stable Iraq) and in any case, cannot conceivably be achieved.

This is because the requisite willingness to engage in compromise with one’s enemies or rivals is absent from Islam. Islam inculcates aggression toward enemies, and sees only two possible outcomes: that of being the Victor, or that of being the Vanquished. That is how the Sunnis, who will never acquiesce in their new, subordinate status, see it. That is how the Shi’a Arabs see it also. They will never agree to truly share political and economic power with the Sunnis who have persecuted and even killed them, not only during Saddam Hussein’s regime, not only during the entire history of modern Iraq, but since the very first century of Islam. “Taqiyya” was a doctrine that originated in Shi’a Islam, and answered the felt need of those Shi’a who had to deny their faith in order to escape from death at the hands of Sunni Muslims, not from non-Muslims.

Wolfowitz knew none of that. Furthermore, like others, he failed to recognize that Bush would not listen to reason, and if one put him in the engine car and allowed the train to start, there would be no stopping him. The true scandal of Paul Wolfowitz will forever be the scandal of his own ignorance about Islam and Iraq. This is the result, one suspects, of the same involvement with Shaha Riza, and the favoring of her, that is the subject of the current discontent at the World Bank. For Shaha Riza was long ago chosen by Wolfowitz as his personal, pillow-talk guide to the Middle East, to Islam, to Iraq. And she turns out to be not a good guide, but very much parti pris in her vision, her hopes, her dreams. She had her own belief in the possibility of reform in Iraq and the likelihood of a reformed Iraq somehow being a model for the Sunni Arab states. How implausible, even impossible, that was, she did not recognize.

Shaha Riza is not an apostate. She does not identify Islam as the source of the political, economic, social, moral, and intellectual failures of Muslim states and Muslim societies and Muslim peoples. She can’t. She is one more example, in the wrong place, alas, at the wrong time, of charming, soft-spoken, westernized, secularized Muslims in the West. They have their own agendas and well-stocked agenda books. They are taken as “representative” when they are no such thing, and have had a dangerous influence in molding the minds of the powerful, at dinner parties, and over tennis games, which are also Washington corridors of power as much as any Old Executive Office Building, or the Pentagon or the State Department.

Ahmad Chalabi was so determinedly friendly with Bernard Lewis, knowing full well how influential Lewis had become as virtually the sole dispenser of wisdom on Islam to Cheney, and with his acolytes well-placed in the Pentagon. Kanan Makiya eagerly looked forward to moving back to Iraq, such was his own delusion about that place, about its people and rulers, and about the influence of Islam. Kanan Makiya is safely back in his Cambridge apartment, still pondering what he must have misunderstood. These advanced, westernized, secularized Muslims cannot identify the Arab problem as coming from Islam itself, so intertwined with Arab identity. Out of embarrassment, filial piety, or fear of what such a move might mean for their own careers or physical safety, they cannot bring themselves to admit that the source of the political despotism, economic backwardness, social injustice, intellectual triviality of the Muslim and Arab world is a direct result of Islam itself. They keep seeking other answers, other ways out. In Iraq they thought, or rather allowed themselves to believe -- and convinced such naifs as Wolfowitz -- that if only Saddam Hussein’s regime were to be removed, all manner of things would be well, in Iraq and in the larger Arab and Muslim world.

It was a crazed idea. These chalabis and makiyas and rend al-rahims (who was just on O’Reilly the other night, unapologetically insisting that the Americans remain in Iraq -- in order to help, after more than four years of helping, the Iraqis who of course will never make the compromises necessary for a unified polity – Islam gets in the way) all forgot, in their long Western exile (Ahmad Chalabi had been out of Iraq since 1958, the others for only two or three decades), what the primitive masses of Iraq, both Sunni and Shi’a, were like. They forgot what the leaders were like. Al-Sistani is not quite the saint he is made out to be. See his website, see his reported fury when learning that Noah Feldman, “a Jew,” had participated in the writing of the Iraqi Constitution. Moqtada al-Sadr is deeply representative of the Shi’a underclass. For every Mithal al-Alusi (a secular Sunni, or rather an undeclared apostate of Sunni background, who received 4,500 votes when he ran), there were a thousand Sunnis who favored attacks on Americans and on those “Rafidite dogs” who had the gall to inherit the power that by right belonged forever to the Sunni Arabs.

These Shaha-Riza brigades believed deeply that they, and people like them, could inherit Iraq. But it could never have been: not if the Administration had done everything, even by its own lights, correctly. Not if Bremer had not dissolved the army, not if de-Ba’athification had been less extreme. There was never a chance, in a society suffused with Islam, for the spirit of true political compromise, or for the letter of a western legal system un-subservient to the principles of Islam, to be exhibited. This is why those who intelligently analyze the ignorance of the Bush Administration, and its “failures” in Iraq -- such as Ali Allawi -- still miss the point. The point is that once Saddam Hussein and his disguised Sunni despotism was removed, power would inevitably be transferred, elections or no elections, from the Sunni Arabs -- who constitute only 19% of the population -- to the Shi’a Arabs, who make up 65% of the Iraqi population, and who will not give up the political and economic power they now possess.

What did Paul Wolfowitz know about Iraq, or about Islam? What training in history, or in the exercise of the imagination (without which it becomes hard for Infidels to “imagine” the Muslim mind) had he had before 2001, or after 2001, or in the years since the Iraq fiasco, which he had such a hand in promoting, has come about? How many books has he read? How often has he, in the silence of study or of bed, realized how little he knew, and how wrong he was to put his faith not in princes, but in the Muslim princess who has been his guide, and more than his guide, for all of this time? What did or what does Wolfowitz know about the doctrines of Islam? Do you think, in the last few years, he has studied, or even read and re-read, with intelligent commentaries and guides, the Qur’an? How many of the thousands of the Hadith in the collections of Bukhari and Muslim has he read, taken in, made sense of? For every day he spent in the company of Shaha Riza, how many minutes did he devote to reading about Muhammad, for Muslims the Model of the Perfect Man (uswa hasana, al-insan al-kamil)? What did he read, what does he know? About Iraq, did he read Philip Ireland, whose 1939 book still stands up (for J. B. Kelly, it remains one of the surest guide to Iraq)? What, even today, has Wolfowitz chosen to find out about Iraq in the pages of Elie Kedourie -- the dry, unsurpassed Kedourie, who describes the history of modern Iraq in his own review of Majid Khadduri’s misleading history, “Independent Iraq.” This is how Kedourie deals devastatingly in “The Chatham House Version” with Kadduri’s description of “the wise leadership of [King]Faisal, who inspired public spirit in every department of government”:

If this [Khadduri's description of Faisal] were in any way true, there would be no accounting for the degraded and murderous politics of Iraq from the end of the mandate to the end of the monarchy.” [i.e., from 1932 to 1958, when first Qassem, and then the Ba'athists, took over, and things became even more degraded and much, much more murderous]. The fact is, of course, that this kind of language is most inappropriate to Iraq under the monarchy or afterwards. Lack of scruple greater or lesser, cupidity more or less unrestrained, ability to plot more or less consummate, bloodlust more or less obsessive: these rather are the terms which the historian must use who surveys this unfortunate polity [modern Iraq] and those into whose power it was delivered.

This Iraq, the Iraq described so dryly by Kedourie, was, and is, the true Iraq. But neither Kanan Makiya, nor Ahmad Chalabi, nor Rend al-Rahim [Francke], nor, alas, Wolfowitz’s good and great friend (as TIME magazine used to put it) Shaha Riza, were able to recognize that. They had their own hopes and their own dreams for Iraq and for the Dar al-Islam. And other Muslims who wish for some amelioration in their own countries share their hopes and their dreams. Not incidentally, they often wish that they themselves might be the new bearers and enforcers of such amelioration, along with the attendant wealth and power such positions would inevitably bring.

But we Infidels, even if we find this or that Muslim charmer charming, should not ever again make the mistake of confusing our interests -- which is to constrain Islam’s supremacist impulse, constrain its power, constrain or undo its instruments of Jihad (the money weapon, Da’wa, demographic conquest). The best means to do this is to divide and demoralize the Camp of Islamic Jihad, not through the baseless notion, promoted by some, that “moderate Muslims are the solution” (those who at this point keep up this mantra will find themselves cutting off the limb they have climbed out on, though no doubt the government and foundation grant money, and lecture fees, will still flow in), but by exploiting the fissures, ethnic, sectarian, and economic, that are there, waiting to be exploited, if only they can be recognized and appreciated.

What do we know about Wolfowitz? That he was a weapons systems analyst. That he was a Good Boy, and remains a Good Boy still. He wants Only the Best for everyone, and that includes Muslims. He does not see, he cannot see, the full menace of Islam’s supremacism, and therefore of the need to weaken the Camp of Islam. It doesn’t go with his mental or emotional makeup, that of the earnest good man, wishing only earnestly good things for others, and disinclined to see the need for ruthlessness or cunning. He’s exactly the wrong man at exactly the wrong time in history.

What did he know about Islam? Nothing, except what Shaha Riza and possibly Bernard Lewis told him. He was summed up by Professor Richard Pipes in a November 2, 2003 interview in The Boston Sunday Globe:

It is all the more remarkable, then, that [Richard] Pipes has some misgivings about the most recent application, in Iraq, of the approach he helped formulate. "I think the war was correct -- destroying this invasive evil. But beyond this I think they're too ambitious," he says.

He bluntly dismisses the promise of a democratic Iraq -- "impossible, a fantasy" -- citing obstacles similar to Russia's. "Democracy requires, among other things, individualism -- the breakdown of old clannish, tribal organizations, the individual standing face-to-face with the state. You don't have that in the Middle East. Iraq is tribally run."

What about the constitution soon to be written in Baghdad? Pipes laughs. "Stalin had a wonderful constitution, the most perfect constitution in the world. There's a lot of naiveté in that. I should think we'd be satisfied with some kind of stability, preventing Saddam Hussein from coming back. It's fantastic that we haven't caught this man. He sits there somewhere."

It is not lost on Pipes that his criticism goes directly to the judgment of the Bush team, conservatives like himself, in some cases former colleagues, most prominently Team B's own Wolfowitz. "Paul didn't have much education in history," Pipes says. "It's not his field. He was educated as a military specialist, a nuclear weapons specialist.”

 

“Paul didn’t have much education in history. It’s not his field.”

And that was from someone who, ideologically, shares so much with Wolfowitz -- but has, as well, an experience of life, and a familiarity with history, and an understanding of the need to know history, that Wolfowitz did not, and could not have, in his sheltered and limited existence.

But, someone will say, wasn’t Paul Wolfowitz the ambassador to a Muslim country? And didn’t that make him aware of Islam and of what societies suffused with Islam are all about? No. Wolfowitz, as the cosseted ambassador in Jakarta, did not “see” Indonesia. Even though he famously made those trips outside the Embassy compound, he did not do what he should have done, which was to spend his free moments reading Snouck Hurgronje on Islam in the Dutch East Indies. It would have taught him far more about Islam, even the Islam in such an atypical place -- non-Arab, still with a syncretistic and easygoing admixture from its Buddhist and Hindu population and background -- than visiting some school or public works project. And didn’t Paul Wolfowitz have the wit to understand that if Indonesians, knowing perfectly well he was not only the American ambassador to Indonesia but the “Jewish” American ambassador, would be falling all over themselves telling him what they though such a person would want to hear, all about how they were looking forward to establishing relations with Israel and all the rest of it? None of it. He learned nothing about Islam, the real Islam. And what is worse, he thinks that in his golden cage he actually did.

And what about Iraq? Wolfowitz said in 2002 that “Iraq has no history of ethnic conflict.” Really? No history of anything going on between, say, the Kurds and the Arabs, as far back as the 1920s? So what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds was, in Wolfowitz’s view, simply unprecedented. Wolfowitz had, and may still have, no idea of the Arab view of non-Arabs, including non-Arab Muslims. And he certainly has not made any connections between the long history of Arab supremacism and Islam itself, the supremacism shown by the murder of the Kurds, by the denial of cultural and linguistic rights to the Berbers in Algeria. One wonders if Shaha Ali Riza introduced Wolfowitz to the works of the Berber writer Kateb Yacine? Somehow I doubt it.

And about the Sunnis and the Shi’a? Who told Wolfowitz that this was a short-term business, and that after Saddam Hussein was removed, all manner of things would be well? Who led him to believe that “Iraq has no history of ethnic conflict”? Who prevented Paul Wolfowitz from finding out for himself, by reading a bit of recent history, how false that was?

What, for example, would Paul Wolfowitz have made of this?

1. Gertrude Bell, 1920: “In the light of the events of the last two months there's no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anything that I or anyone else suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed and what that may mean exactly I don't know. I suppose we have underestimated the fact that this country is really an inchoate mass of tribes which can't as yet be reduced to any system. The Turks didn't govern and we have tried to govern - and failed. I personally thought we tried to govern too much, but I hoped that things would hold out till Sir Percy came back and that the transition from British to native rule might be made peacefully, in which case much of what we have done might have been made use of. Now I fear that that will be impossible.” [Source: Lady Gertrude Bell, 1920, The Letters of Gertrude Bell.]

Or this?

#2. Gertrude Bell, 1920: “We as outsiders can't differentiate between Sunni and Shi'ah, but leave it to them and they'll get over the difficulty by some kind of hanky panky, just as the Turks did, and for the present it's the only way of getting over it. I don't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority; otherwise you will have a mujtahid-run, theocratic state, which is the very devil.” [Source: Lady Gertrude Bell, 1920, The Letters of Gertrude Bell.]

Or this?

#3. King Faisal of Iraq, 1933: "Regrettably, I can say there is no Iraqi people yet, but only deluded human groups void of any national idea. Iraqis are not only disunited but evil-motivated, anarchy prone and always ready to prey on their government." -- King Faisal I, writing in his memoirs shortly before he died in 1933.

Or, above all, this?

#4. “There are only two political parties in Iraq: the Sunni party and the Shia party.” -- Tawfiq Al-Suwaidi, Iraqi Prime Minister, 1929, 1930, 1946, 1950.

But of course Wolfowitz has not been alone in his incredible misunderstanding. There are the Senators, such as those who think we shouldn’t “cut and run” and have no idea what the main instruments of Jihad are, or how best to exploit the situation in Iraq:

"It's hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what's wrong with these people," he said. "Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion? Why do they hate the Israelis and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me." -- Senator Trent Lott in Sept. 2006

And then there is the President himself:

"I thought they were all Muslims". --President Bush when asked about the Sunni-Shi'a split in Iraq in 2004

And then there is Condoleeza Rice, who said of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict that “They’re going to have to overcome that.”

Paul Wolfowitz because of his relationship with Shaha Riza, was not only ignorant, but remained ignorant -- because he trusted what he learned from this westernized, secularized native informant, instead of finding out his own, from Gertrude Bell and Elie Kedourie and from Western students of Islam, and from the facts of Iraq itself (see those quotes given just above, especially that of Tawfiq al-Suwaidi), how wrong his dreamy assumptions would turn out to be.

He is not the only one so charged. There are many others. And there are the cheerleaders and loyalists who did not make the policy, but think that they must stick by it, coute que coute, lest they inadvertently give aid and comfort to the cindy sheehans of this world. Meanwhile, Tarbaby Iraq is still there, and the squandering goes on, and the waste, and the inability to turn the situation in Iraq to our advantage, by leaving, still is evident.

For Wolfowitz, as for the others, one must ask: After such ignorance, what forgiveness?

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Hugh Fitzgerald contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.

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