The newsflash of the day is the surprising strength of clerically-based Shi'a groups in Iraq. Perhaps 'surprising' should be placed in edgy quotation marks, since the articles and columns appearing in today's papers are based on the comments of those who aren't surprised at all -- namely folks at State, CIA, the broader intelligence community, and region experts generally. The argument behind these critiques is not that the problem is insurmountable but that the planners of the war seem to have given the issue so little attention.
Take a look at "U.S. Planners Surprised by Strength of Iraqi Shiites," which is above-the-fold in the Post. The Times has a complementary piece on Iran infiltrating agents into southern Iraq to organize the Shi'a along lines congenial to Iran's religious and geopolitical interests.
The most interesting piece may be the column in the Times by Dilip Hiro. He explores the longstanding and distressing pattern by which in situations of anarchy or delegitimized governments, it is often the clerics who have the sole remaining base of social and political authority, and are best able to provide some measure of security and essential services.
We're still in 'too-soon-to-tell' territory. But the democratizers in the DOD camp are concerned about the situation with the Shi'as and how ably the Iranians have been playing the situation. They do have on their side the fact that the most senior and revered Shi'a clerics are not fans of the Iranians' theocratic model. There's also the counterveiling force of Iraqi and, more broadly, Arab nationalism. But will these be enough?
I still want to say more about Newt Gingrich's cartoonish performance at AEI yesterday. But for the moment I just want to discuss an interchange which Charles Krauthammer, another of the members of the panel, had with one of the questioners. (One of the most entertaining parts of the panel was the time when Gingrich's clownish, grade-school rhetoric became too much for Krauthammer, and he felt the need to pipe in with some clarifications.) A key question today is what we would do if the Iraqis elected an Islamist government. When a questioner posed this question to Krauthammer, he as much as refused to entertain it. While granting that it was a possibility, he said it was extremely unlikely since people had never freely voted for what he called 'totalitarianism.' (I think he called it an 'extreme hypothetical' or perhaps a 'radical hypothetical' -- I'll check my recording later to verify.) People in the audience tossed out the examples of Iran and Nazi Germany, which are at best flawed examples, since in neither case did a majority of the population vote for the government that came to power. But it has happened, exactly this, as recently as 1992 in Algeria. The Islamist party, the FIS, was winning what no one doubted was a free election when the military stepped in and annulled the results of the election. (The one saving grace in Iraq may be the inability of Shi'a and Sunni Islamist to come together politically, let alone religiously.)
In its own way Krauthammer's comment was the most disturbing part of the presentation since it was an example of the one thing none of us can really afford: the temptation to cling to ideologically-driven assumptions over observed facts.
Next Up: the administration's get-out-quick camp's stated desire to avoid the appearance of being colonizers or occupiers and why this is the most ridiculous sort of cop-out.