There has been no lack of critical voices regarding the nomination of Chuck Hagel as US defence secretary. Protests against the nomination range from accusations of homophobia to suggestions he is “soft” on Iran and lacks “commitment” to Israel.
One argument against Hagel that is never going to be used in the hearings on Capitol Hill today but is nonetheless worth mentioning concerns his views on Iraq, particularly as expressed during the debate about the Bush policy of a “surge” of US forces in early 2007. Some will perhaps make use of those remarks to argue that Hagel was against the “successful” surge of US forces. That view to some extent exaggerates the significance of the surge as an independent factor behind the reasonable political climate that briefly prevailed in Iraq between April 2008 and April 2009, and is not really a meaningful argument against Hagel’s candidacy. But there is another, deeper argument relating to Hagel’s epistemology of Iraqi politics that came to the fore in those heated debates in early 2007. In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on 12 January 2007, Hagel contended that, “we are in a civil war. This is sectarian violence out of control, Iraqi on Iraqi. Worse, it is inter-sectarian [sic] violence, Shia killing Shia”.
Hagel probably said, or meant to say, “intra-sectarian”. In any case, his point was very clear: There is supposedly a natural state of affairs in Iraqi politics, consisting of endless sectarian conflict. Sunnis killing Shiites would have been “natural” to Hagel. When Shiites began killing Shiites, it meant the situation was “worse”, unnatural and out of control.
This little piece of simplistic Iraq epistemology may perhaps come across as innocuous to the majority of American commenters on Middle Eastern affairs. Indeed, there is nothing terribly unique in what Hagel says, even though he is pitching the message in a more clear-cut manner than most others. Many US analysts prefer to see Iraq as an eternal battleground of Shiites and Sunnis, supposedly going back many centuries in time.
And today, of course, some will no doubt claim that the current situation in Iraq and the region proves Hagel was right in 2007. Aren’t Shiites fighting Sunnis more than ever, aren’t Sunnis demanding their own federal region in Iraq, and isn’t there even a clear-cut regional dimension since Turkey (the successor to the Ottoman Empire) is sponsoring Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, and Iran (the successor to the Safavids) is doing the same with regard to Iraqi Shiites and Syrian Alawites?
The point is, though, that this situation today does not reflect a unilinear, steady deterioration of affairs in Iraq from the time Hagel made his statement in 2007 until today. Following that period, thanks both to the surge and the growing rejection by many Iraqi politicians of parts of the hastily crafted 2005 constitution, a more moderate political climate dominated in 2008 and during the 2009 local elections. Crucially, after a sectarian climate had prevailed during the civil-war like conditions of 2006 and 2007, the atmosphere of Iraqi politics improved sufficiently during 2008 to encourage Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to run on a separate electoral ticket in the local elections in January 2009, quite despite the expressed desire for Iran to see greater Shiite sectarian unity.
Prior to the parliamentary elections of 2010, Maliki tried the same thing. But when the new Obama administration initiated ouvertures to Iran in spring 2009, Iran reciprocated by asserting itself even more strongly in Iraqi politics, propelling de-Baathification to the top of the agenda and gradually focing Maliki back to sectarian unity. Symptomatically, in the upcoming Iraq local elections on 20 April 2013, unlike in 2009, Maliki will run a big Shiite sectarian coalition in most provinces and all-Shiite coalitions in areas with Shiite minorities, entirely in accordance with Iranian preferences for unified Shiite coalitions.
The Obama administration, with numerous people sharing Hagel’s epistemology, probably even didn’t see that sectarian turn as a true anomaly. This of course is not to suggest that US influence in Iraq before 2009 was singularly virtuous or that the micro-managing of the Bush administration rested upon superior epistemological bases. But it did mean a multipolar environment for the Iraqi Shiites which has virtually disappeared during the Obama administration. Today, Iran seems to be the only game in town – and Obama seems to think that is a natural state of affairs.
Perhaps Obama also sees some sort of potential in an Iran-dominated Iraq? It is very hard to avoid wondering whether the current acquiescence in face of rising sectarianism in Iraq actually constitutes something of a dangling carrot in front of Iran, not unlike the Arab-press conspiracy theory of concessions to Iran in Iraq in exchange for a deal on the Iranian nuclear file. These days, American oil in Iraq, including Chevron where Hagel serves happens to serve on the board of directors, seems to be migrating northwards to the Kurdish areas of Iraq that are under Turkish influence.
Obviously, rapprochement with Iran, with which Hagel is associated as part of a greater effort to disentangle the US from the Middle East, is in itself not a bad thing. But it should still be possible to criticize the precise nature of such movements. To use Iraq as a bargaining chip with Iran is simply just a lot more ahistorical than Obama realizes, and as a consequence, perhaps less sustainable over time. Historically, despite the cooperation between Iran and Iraqi Islamist parties since the 1980s, Iraqi Shiites have tended to resist Iranian domination. The difference is that whereas Hagel and his friends posit sectarianism as an eternally dominant theme of Iraqi politics, Iraqi history shows a far more spasmodic pattern in which the significance of sectarianism has often receded in the absence of foreign intervention or regional instabilities. There was not much in the way of sectarian violence during the several centuries of Ottoman rule, or during the Iraqi monarchy period.
Is it advisable to induce pan-Shiite tendencies in Iraq just for the sake of epistemological simplicity? So far, without moving on the nuclear issue, Iran has only taken the opportunity to strengthen its hold over Iraq and Syria. Approaching the Syrian crisis with Hagelian worldview, in turn, illustrates how the act of colouring whole areas and even countries sectarian inevitably means caving into the most radical sectarian forces in the region. Syria, in the eyes of Hagel, is presumably as “Sunni” as Iraq is “Shiite”. In this simplistic view, all Sunnis of Syria staunchly oppose Assad and only Alawites (and maybe Christians) support him. Of course, exactly like in Iraq, history is more complex. Anyone who is familiar with Syrian history knows that “Sunni” Aleppo may well have different dynamics from “Sunni” Damascus. In fact, if Syrian politics could be reduced to a sectarian battle, Damascus would probably have fallen long time ago.
It is simplistic approaches to Middle Eastern sectarian dynamics like those of Chuck Hagel that help bring about a situation where the West is fighting Al-Qaeda in Mali and is tacitly supporting them in Syria. And Hagel will join an increasing number of people with similar simplistic, easy-listening approaches to the Middle East in the Obama administration. Alongside Chuck “It Is Natural for Sunnis to Kill Shiites” Hagel at defence, we will have John “They Have Been Fighting Each Other for Centuries” Kerry as secretary of state, and Joe “My Guess Is It Will Be Three States” Biden as vice president. With policy-makers like these, there may unfortunately be a whole lot of Benghazis to come.