One of the most disturbing developments of late has been the extension of a most dangerous age-old practice from the halls of Washington to our broadcasters’ newsrooms. U.S. foreign policy, particularly with regards to the Middle East and the Muslim world, has fallen victim time and again to its own policy of willfully ignoring the most pertinent political, cultural and religious factors for the realization of those policies. So we find that rather than engaging with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential singular figure in Iraq, and the highest religious authority for the majority of the Iraqi peoples, the United States instead chose to conduct the thrust of its post-Saddam Hussein nation building endeavor in Iraq under the auspices of Ahmed Chalabi - a man who isn’t worth a sack of potatoes in the consciousness of the Iraqi people. You see, one of the most fascinating aspects of the developments in today’s Iraq has been the emergence of the reticent Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as the most powerful political player in Iraqi politics. As the utmost authority to Shiite Muslims the world over, there really never was any question about the measure of influence which Ayatollah Sistani would have over any outcome in Iraq - but what has awed many is how that influence has manifested itself. He has demonstrated to the world a master class in diplomacy and wisdom. And yet, he has been largely ignored by the United States, and by our oh-so-clueless media, in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq - and, woefully, even to this very day.
In a recent article in The New York Times by Fareed Zakaria titled “‘The Assassin’s Gate:’ Occupational Hazards,”  the current editor of Newsweek International and host of the PBS show “Foreign Exchange”, Zakaria writes, “The simplest proof of the myriad American errors is that, starting around May 2004, Washington began reversing course wholesale. Troop withdrawals were postponed. The decision to hold caucuses and delay elections was shelved. The American-appointed Governing Council was abolished. The hated United Nations was asked to come in and create and bless a new body. In recent months, the reversal is wholesale.”
Unfortunately, Zakaria seems to have his facts just a tad confused - something quite unacceptable for a person who is often considered to be something of the media guru on all things Middle Eastern and Islamic. It was not at all the United States that decided not to hold the caucuses and hold direct elections instead. Nor was it the United States that decided that it would approach the United Nations for assistance in the formation of the new Iraqi state.
In his recent book, “What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building,” New York University School of Law professor Noah Feldman recounts some of his experiences when he served as a constitutional advisor to the American occupation authorities in Iraq. Feldman was exceptionally well suited for the massive undertaking, by nature of the breadth of his knowledge in the areas most pertinent to the enterprise; he holds degrees in Near Eastern civilization and Languages and Islamic Thought and law degrees from Harvard University, the University of Oxford and Yale University, respectively. His accounts depict a very different reality from that portrayed by Zakaria. The episodes depicting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani are especially absorbing.
When, in the summer of 2003, Ayatollah Sistani was informed of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s plans to establish a constitutional assembly comprised of representatives selected by the constitutional authorities, rather than elected by the Iraqi people themselves, he issued a succinct fatwa (legal pronouncement) stating the following: “Those forces have no jurisdiction whatsoever to appoint members of the Constitution preparation assembly. Also there is no guarantee either that this assembly will prepare a constitution that serves the best interests of the Iraqi people or express their national identity, whose backbone is sound Islamic religion and noble social values. The said plan is unacceptable from the outset. First of all, there must be a general election so that every Iraqi citizen - who is eligible to vote - can choose someone to represent him in a foundational Constitution preparation assembly. Then, the drafted Constitution can be put to a referendum. All believers must insist on the accomplishment of this crucial matter and contribute to achieving it the best way possible.”
When the Iraqi Governing Council was appointed the task of having a constitutional preparatory committee begin work on the formulation of a constitution by the CPA, it was simply unable to do so as a result of the fatwa. The committee sought audience with Ayatollah Sistani but was rejected. It soon realized the utter futility of the whole enterprise and disbanded, without ever even reporting back to the Governing Council.
Regarding the United States’ approach to the United Nations, Feldman elucidates how this resulted from a statement issued by Ayatollah Sistani against the establishment of a transitional governing body voted in by way of caucuses, rather than by way of direct elections. In Ayatollah Sistani’s statement, he mentions the election date set by the U.S. officials could only be implemented if reviewed and approved by the secretary general of the United Nations. Thus, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III and nine members of the Governing Council were forced to meet with Kofi Annan,for assistance in the formation of the new Iraqi state. As Feldman states, “Ayatollah Sistani had done what Tony Blair could not: he had brought the United States to the United Nations, hat in hand, seeking its involvement in nation building in Iraq.”
Unfortunately, Zakaria - and the United States and Western media in general - have been too far removed from the realities in Iraq, busying themselves instead by sharing what occurs inside their heads each time they open the morning papers.
The United States has historically dealt with and continues to deal only with those with whom it shares overlapping political and economic interests, often to the massive disadvantage of the masses in the regions in question. Curiously, the United States has chosen to negotiate and engage with its own handpicked, self-styled ‘representatives’ from the Middle East and the Muslim world, with total disregard for popular sentiments or the political realities present. Thus, one will find that many critical variables - be they political, cultural or religious - simply go unaccounted for in the United States’ foreign relations outlook, resulting in a fundamentally flawed calculus that simply refuses to acknowledge variables of the highest and greatest import.
What results is a continuation and aggravation of the frightening fountainhead of resentment in the Muslim world, as the United States conducts mock negotiations and relations with self-selected political elites with whom entire populations share absolutely no political, economic or other interests. No meaningful negotiations have taken place, as a direct result of this approach to the governments of the Middle East. What has instead resulted has been the growth of deeply rooted resentments within the Middle East and Muslim world, as grievances go unaddressed. Middle Easterners find themselves harboring tremendous rage towards political deliberations taken on their behalf but without their consent or the participation of leaders of their choosing. They find themselves furious with their own exploitative political elites, who remain in power for decades on end, in exchange for their compliance with a foreign unipower espousing democracy, freedom, liberty and just about every glittering generality imaginable. The United States’ supposed shift in policy - to never again tolerate authoritarian regimes, whose abusiveness fuel the growing support for groups unhesitant to employ political violence upon innocent civilian populations - has unfortunately found no corollary with images of a president exchanging kisses with the king of Saudi Arabia.
Interestingly, the United States has recognized this failure to engage the masses, as result of its relations with unpopular, abusive regimes who are all too rife in the Middle East today. Unfortunately, its response has been shockingly inadequate - and insulting to those suffering under the very powers ruling over them, largely because of the proximity of their interests to those of the United States, rather than to their own peoples’. Rather than suspending relations with those regimes, or placing them under severe economic strain by suspending economic aid and business relations until governments form that do in fact represent the very people whom they represent, the United States has embarked upon a hyper-publicized and massively funded effort to engage in “public diplomacy” - to engage and shape the opinions of the peoples whom their governments fail to represent but who shall remain to maintain our energy and geo-strategic interests. The effort is meant to counter the less-than-favorable regard with which the United States is held throughout the Middle East and Muslim world and to counter the gravitation of public opinion toward Osama bin Laden and company. Unfortunately, what this approach fails to recognize is that the emergence of political violence and terrorism throughout the region is entirely due to the absence of avenues for political expression in Arab countries. Thus, bin Laden retorts to accusations that he just blindly hates the West by stating, while he does not attack Sweden, he does attack those who are responsible for propping up the extraneously imposed regimes in the Middle East. His message is blatantly political but - as we tragically witness day after day - becomes explosive and potent once presented in religious terms, regardless of how unequivocal the statements issued by authoritative religious scholarship declaring that the terrorists’ use of such terms divorce them of their of meaning.
The most basic aspect of the democratic life is the notion that one must honor other and opposing views. Unfortunately, this notion has not been applied or tolerated by the United States in its dealings with the Middle East; instead, what has dominated is a politics of protecting energy and strategic interests, regardless and irrespective of popular sentiments. Stability is valued over genuine peace; oppression is ignored, so long as immediate interests are preserved. Rather than the immutable values this great nation was founded upon, our highest ideals have instead become our economic interests.
Ibrahim Mansour is a Rutgers College sophomore majoring in political science. His column, Uberhim, runs alternate Fridays in the Daily Targum at http://www.dailytargum.com/home/