In one of the most nonsensical sentences published in the Washington Post since the US invasion of Iraq, and perhaps ever, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice writes in a November 23 op-ed: “Today’s Karl Marx is Iran.”
The lead-in to this astonishing assertion is that the author of the Communist Manifesto called upon the “workers of the world” to unite against the “‘false consciousness’ of national identity.” In a remarkable feat of revisionism, Rice invites contemporary American readers to imagine that Marx and the Islamic Republic share a certainty that — unlike nationalism — ethno-sectarian identities in general and Shi‘i affinities in particular are somehow authentic, natural and catalytic. As if Marx never called religion “the opiate of the masses”…but the unstated element of Rice’s comparison seems to be that working-class solidarity is not just a “special interest,” but a subnational loyalty as corrosive as sectarianism. It’s quite an interesting embellishment upon the “47 percent” thesis.
Anyway, in Rice’s mind, Iran envisages a pan-Shi‘i theocracy that will wreak havoc upon national boundaries. Iran, she implies, threatens the sacrosanct integrity of “artificial” multi-ethnic nation-states in the Middle East, like Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria.
The US, by contrast, says the diehard defender of imperial intervention, favors “the Middle East as we know it,” the post-Ottoman nation-state system. “In Iraq,” she writes, “after overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the United States hoped that a fledgling multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democracy could…give all of these groups a stake in a common future.” To an extent, she boasts, the US invasion and its aftermath gave Iraq “elections repeatedly producing inclusive governments.”
Never mind the purblind revisionism, whereby the US occupation was a force battling against sectarianism in Iraq, rather than a force enshrining it at the very center of Iraqi politics.
What a low bar Rice sets. If elections in Iraq (two rounds in 2005, more in 2009 and 2010) produced a parliament demographically or geographically if not proportionally representing Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shi‘i Islamist partisans — shall we call that a multi-confessional accomplishment? Even if a robust gender quota put no women in top decision-making posts, and old communist and nationalist sentiments were sidelined, the government does not govern and Iraqis are not safe — shall we call that “inclusive”?
Moving back to the present, Rice tells us that the crisis in Syria is not merely “humanitarian.” It’s not just that people are dying. Instead, she worries that “artificial states could fly apart” if Washington fails to act decisively to keep them together.
Syrians, Iraqis, others in the Middle East and progressive scholars abroad are contemplating prospects for humane, possible and/or optimal external interventions to mitigate the Syrian tragedy. MERIP writers and readers have grappled with these issues of humanitarian intervention in the past — after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia, and elsewhere at other times. We didn’t and won’t find easy answers for the twenty-first century in Marxism-Leninism, international human rights conventions, faith-based peacemaking or Arab nationalism. As we struggle for insights, however, let’s not be distracted either by the outlandishly Orientalist shibboleths of identity politics or by imperial fantasies of post-colonial Westphalian order. If there are reasons for intervention in the Syrian conflict — by arming the opposition, imposing no-fly zones or other means — let us not count “preserving the status quo ante” among them.