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Chicago Sun Times

US Keeps Making Mistakes in Mideast

The collapse of the shah in Iran was the beginning of American troubles in the Middle East. The shah was "our guy," an absolute ruler who was secularizing the country and freeing his people from the shackles of religious superstition and obscurantism. It never occurred to our foreign policy thinkers and experts that the people of Iran wanted their obscurantism and old-fashioned religion. The American leadership did not see the ayatollah coming and was unprepared for the defeat of the shah. Educated as they were in the great secular universities, our foreign policy gurus did not have a clue about the importance of religion in Middle Eastern countries.

The same gurus or their successors have made the same mistake again. They expected the Iraqis to welcome our appearance on the horizon, like the 7th Cavalry riding to the rescue in the old Western movies. They expected the various factions in Iraq to band together in the formation of a stable democracy that would be a beacon of hope to the Middle East. As Paul Wolfowitz, the leader of the neocons, remarked, too much was made of the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

A few other scholars ominously predicted a civil war between these two largest religious factions. The Shiites were the majority but had been ruled for centuries by the minority Sunnis. Indeed, the avowed followers of Ali (the Prophet's son-in-law) and his grandson never ruled in any Arab country till the arrival of the Americans in 2003, when our leaders in the name of democracy in effect turned the country over to the Shiite majority. The Sunnis, followers of Saddam Hussein, who had kept them in charge, began the insurgency against Shiite rule.

The other Arab nations, with their own internal Shiite minorities, could not help but wonder why the United States was following such a stupid and dangerous policy. The Iranians, who are Persians, not Arabs and right next door to Iraq, rejoiced. It was natural for them to ally themselves secretly with their Shiite brothers across the border. They wondered why the United States was following such a foolish policy, yet were delighted that the Americans had eliminated the two most serious threats to Iranian security: Saddam on their western side and the Taliban on their eastern side.

The great victory for American democracy was in fact a great victory for Iran. Now the president and his babbling secretary of state are shocked that Iranian power has increased, apparently unaware that American foreign policy is responsible for that increase.


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The neocons are apparently gone from Washington, but there are still some of them around, still writing memos, and still influencing policy. The memos for the so-called surge came from William Kristol and Robert Kagan, lesser lights than I. Lewis Libby and Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, but still neocons. Despite all their mistakes in understanding the importance of religion in that part of the world, the president still is apparently willing to listen to them.

Now he is doing all he can to prepare the public for a shooting war with Iran. He certainly has no illusions about the 1st Cavalry riding into Tehran to a flower-tossing welcome while statues of the ayatollah are pulled down for American television. All he needs to build up his reputation for toughness and to restore some of his popularity among the nutmeg segment of the population is to "take out" a couple of Iranian bases. You can't believe he would be dumb enough to try that? He was dumb enough to get us into the Big Muddy in Iraq, wasn't he?

In the meantime, Iran, noting how reasonable the United States has been in its most recent conversations with North Korea, is sending out signals that it might be nice to sit and talk. The babbler-in-chief keeps telling us that the Iranians know what they have to do.

That's what passes for foreign policy in Washington these days. Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent protest against American unilateralism -- albeit a case of the pot calling the kettle black -- seems eminently reasonable.

Andrew Greeley

Andrew W. Greeley is a progressive Catholic priest, sociologist, journalist and popular novelist. He is of Irish decent and resides in Chicago.

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