Entries from October 2005

Stop Coddling Iraq’s Sunnis

David Frum October 18th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Somewhere, T.E. Lawrence is smiling. The man now mythologized as “Lawrence of Arabia” was the British officer who helped recruit the sheiks of Arabia to the Allied side in the First World War. After the war, Lawrence accused the victorious British and French of breaking faith with the Arabs, shortchanging and cheating them.

Lawrence died in 1929, but his teachings prevailed. It didn’t hurt that those Sunni Arabs turned out to be parked atop the world’s largest oil reserves–or to harbor some of the world’s deadliest terror groups. Guilt, greed, and fear: These three emotions came together to infuse first British and then American elite opinion with vague but powerful feelings of special obligation to the Sunni Arabs of the Middle East and North Africa.

Those feelings of special obligation may explain much about Iraq–and this past weekend’s constitutional referendum.

The big idea behind both the constitution and the referendum was to find some way to entice Iraq’s Sunnis to accept the new regime.

As in Iran, a majority of Iraq’s population are Shiite Muslims. But most of Iraq’s insurgents are recruited from the minority Sunni population, and the towns that support the insurgency are Sunni-majority towns. The suicide bombers who do most of the killing of civilians are believed by U.S. intelligence to come mostly from outside Iraq–but they are Sunni Arabs too, and they are supported and aided by Sunni populations and Sunni-dominated governments throughout the region.

As the story is often told, these Sunni Arab groups have turned to violence because of their anger at foreign intervention in Iraq. But there’s another way to understand the situation in Iraq–a way that is both closer to the truth and more useful to discovering a solution.

The Sunni Arabs of the Middle East and North Africa inherit one of the world’s proudest traditions of conquest and dominance. An Israeli intelligence officer told me this story:

Many years ago, this officer had responsibility for a section of the West Bank. A dispute erupted between local Arabs and nearby Jewish settlers over access to a religious site in the area. He decided in favor of the Arabs and personally visited the local sheik to deliver the good news. He added: “I hope you will see this decision as proof of our good faith toward minority groups.” The sheik exploded: “How dare you call us a minority group–we belong to the ummah of Sunni Islam!”

Underneath that sheik’s anger lay a grand self-perception: He belongs in his mind to a vast global community (which is what the word ummah means) that possesses an inherent right to rule. Nor is this sheik’s perception unique: Half a century of war and violence throughout the Middle East can be traced to the adamant refusal of local Sunni Arab elites to accept the right of non-Sunni, non-Arab communities to exercise power even when they form a local majority: not in Lebanon, not in Israel, not in Kurdistan, and–now–not in Iraq.

Western governments and political elites have acceded to this presumption dangerously often. They are doing it again in Iraq.

After the end of apartheid in South Africa, nobody dared suggest that the country’s new constitution institutionalize special protections for the white minority. The South African constitution did not attempt to mollify whites by declaring South Africa part of a “global community of white nations.” Nor did anyone say that the new post-apartheid regime would be legitimate only if whites accepted it. The constitution protected property rights, civil rights, freedom of speech and religion–but did so equally for everybody. And if South African whites had responded to this new equality by launching a campaign of terrorist murder against the black majority, they would have found zero sympathy. Nobody would have called them “insurgents” or demanded endless rounds of new concessions to them.

But this is just the situation in Iraq.

Those Sunnis who support the insurgency fear, however, that they will lose the power and privilege they enjoyed under the former regime. The new constitution guarantees the Sunni minority a share in the country’s oil wealth. It grants the minority an effective right to veto this constitution and future constitutional changes. It declares that membership in Saddam Hussein’s Baath party will not disqualify Sunnis from holding office in the new government. In other words, the constitution as amended under U.S. pressure is the culmination of two years of attempted conciliation of the country’s former rulers.

If the Arab Sunnis vote to accept the constitution, and if terrorist violence then stops, this strategy of appeasement will at least be able to justify itself as effective. If not, it will be past time to consider a new approach. Until now, the communities that support the insurgency have been treated as constituencies to be wooed. If the constitution fails–or if the constitution succeeds but terrorist violence does not abate–the new Iraqi state will have no choice but to recognize those communities as enemies to be defeated.

The Miers Revolution

David Frum October 11th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

“It’s not a rebellion, sire: It’s a revolution.” With those words, the duke of La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt broke the news to Louis XVI that the Bastille had fallen. Looking back on the events of the past eight days, I wonder whether the Bush White House does not feel the same way.

The President’s decision to replace retiring Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor with his White House counsel and former personal attorney, the underwhelming Harriet Miers, has detonated an uprising within the President’s own party.

Conservative commentators Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Patrick Buchanan, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Michelle Malkin and many, many others have condemned the choice.

Washington’s tight-knit and usually close-mouthed network of conservative jurists and lawyers is dismayed by Miers’ thin record and weak abilities. One Republican lawyer told me of a briefing session to prepare Miers to enter into her duties as White House Counsel a year ago. A panel of lawyers who had served in past Republican White Houses was gathered together. After a couple of hours of questions and answers, Miers left to return to the office. There was a silence. Then somebody hopefully piped up: “Maybe if we can find her a really strong deputy …”

The anger of conservative legalists and opinion leaders is echoed by rank-and-file Republicans. Last week, I asked readers of the conservative National Review Online Web site to tell me how they would vote on the nomination as U.S. senators: They voted 5-1 to reject the nomination. And while the aye votes were usually expressed in cautious and uncertain terms (“I think we just have to trust the President”), the nays were furious (“not just no–hell no!”)

These impressions are confirmed by opinion polls. A CBS poll conducted last week found that the Miers nomination was the most unpopular since Robert Bork’s in 1987. Gallup found that while 77% of self-identified conservatives had supported the Roberts’ choice, only 58% supported Miers. Both those polls were taken before at the very beginning of last week’s spasm of negative media commentary.

CBS last week also released new presidential approval numbers, based on a survey conducted October 3-5. Bush is down to 37%, the lowest presidential approval rating since the Carter years. That number is buoyed, though, by the President’s continued high approval rating among conservatives: 80%.

But Oct. 3 was the date that the Miers nomination was announced. As conservatives digest their disappointment and betrayal, their approval of the President is likely to decline. It’s hard to say how powerful this effect will be overall, but here’s one clue: A poll Monday of 200 right-of-centre bloggers by the RightWingNews.com Web site found that 49% regarded the appointment as a “bad or terrible” decision. Only 9% rated it “good or excellent.” And while 4% of the bloggers said that the decision raised their opinion of President Bush, 53% made them view the President less favourably.

While it would seem unlikely that conservatives overall would react as strongly as these intensely political bloggers, the trend and tendency are both clear.

The problem is made worse by the White House’s publicity campaign in defense of Miers. Advocates of the appointment have accused critics of “sexism” and “elitism”–charges that have been echoed by left-wing Democrats like Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski. There are probably few tactics less likely to impress a conservative audience–or more likely to convince that audience that Miers is indeed the unqualified crony her critics say she is.

The only thing worse may be the White House’s second talking point: emphasizing Miers’ personal qualities. Former White House aide David Kuo tells this story in an op-ed posted on the beliefnet.com Web site:

“Harriet used to keep a humidor full of M&Ms in her West Wing office. It wasn’t a huge secret. She’d stash some boxes of the coveted red, white, and blue M&Ms in specially made boxes bearing George W. Bush’s reprinted signature. Her door was always open and the M&Ms were always available. I dared ask one time why they were there. Her answer: ‘I like M&Ms and I like sharing.’”

This anecdote almost invites the retort: Well why don’t we go all the way and put Barney the purple dinosaur on the court?

More seriously, it disregards and insults the seriousness with which conservatives have worked for three decades to bring change to America’s high-handed courts. There is no domestic issue that conservatives care about more, nothing for which individual conservatives have made greater personal sacrifices than to get ready for the day when a conservative president and a Republican Senate would at last hold the power to fill that crucial swing seat on the court.

President Bush’s decision to award that seat to his personal attorney in thanks for her years of service to himself personally has enraged his political base. Ann Coulter expressed that rage in her inimitably astringent way two days after the nomination was announced: “Being on the Supreme Court isn’t like winning a ‘Best Employee of the Month’ award. However nice, helpful, prompt and tidy she is, Harriet Miers isn’t qualified to play a Supreme Court justice on The West Wing, let alone to be a real one.”

Offending your supporters has real-world consequences. With one grave misjudgment, George W. Bush has shattered the coalition that brought and returned him to power in 2000 and 2004.