A week ago, I was asked by the Shiny Sheet to cover a talk by Amatzia Baram, professor emeritus in the Department of Middle East History and director of the center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa. The gist of his talk: The United States needs to know what’s going on at the local level in the Middle East. I was limited in length, and there were other points he made that I found interesting, and I wanted to get them down. (The original story is cut and pasted at the end of this post.)
Baram said he knew who the key players were in the instances he brought up in the story below, because he had read their papers (He added that he knows how to read Arabic and Persian), and he understood that the Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim al-Khoei could have been our ally. Khoei was against the same things we were. We didn’t realize that, and when Khoei asked us for help, we chose not to. So, said Baram, we missed a big opportunity after the Gulf War to really contain Hussein and foster a real friend in Iraq — if we had helped Khoei then, we would have avoided all our recent troubles in Iraq.
Baram recounted this interesting story: Immediately after the Gulf War, Khoei, who had agreed to lead the revolutionaries against Hussein at that time, sent his eldest son, Majid, to ask the Americans to allow them to go behind American lines to gather up Hussein’s weapon caches. Easy for the U.S., but very dangerous for them…
Majid never got to discuss it with the Americans. The French didn’t know what to do with him. They shuffled him to the English, who sent him to London. And Majid got stuck there for years. The U.S. did not allow the revolutionaries to gather up the cache, and the rest is history — Hussein repressed the revolt, tens of thousands of people were killed and two million Iraqis fled for their lives.
Khoei was arrested by Hussein. He was eventually allowed to return to Najaf, but he was placed under house arrest, and died in 1992 — Baram said he thought he had been poisoned. Majid finally returned to Iraq in 2003, and was murdered shortly after.
Baram came up with two solutions that would help the U.S. gather information on a local level in Arab countries. He said that if the United States hired its young people and sent them to positions in the Middle East, they’d quickly understand what happens on the local level.
He also said it would be helpful if U.S. businesses set up in the Middle East. He recognized the fact that business owners are fearful, but, he said, that does not have to be. Employ locals, and train them to management positions within the company. No way, he said, would the powers that be on the local level let anything negative happen to those providing livelihood for their community members…
Following is the original story…
… It’s like an IED that is still exploding, and you have to be one step ahead, explained Baram.
IED. Here’s his translation: “Identity, Economy, Dignity.”
The United States, he says, faces a complicated situation in the Middle East and it is torn between its ideals and its core interests, which don’t always coincide. Nevertheless, it must make choices. And, in his opinion, although U.S. experts meet with political leaders and the military in Arab states, they often don’t understand what’s going on at the grass-root level.
The revolt in Egypt, he explains, is about the economy and dignity.
“An Egyptian worker works hard and is hardly paid enough. He knows those on top are skimming, and becoming super rich while he’s getting super poor and he can’t get out. He feels like he’s being squeezed like a lemon.”
It’s about identity in Iraq. “In 1991 — the first revolt — the major revolt against a dictator in the Arab world in our lifetime — rested 95 percent with identity. It was in Iraq in 1991. That was the Gulf War, and, of course, Kuwait should have been liberated, but after the war ended (February 1991), the guns fell silent.”
America better understands the identity issues in Iraq today, but it came with a cost, he says.
“Hussein’s army was destroyed in the Gulf War, but the United States didn’t know who was leading the revolt (against Hussein, which started one day after the Gulf War ceasefire). The Grand Ayatollah (Abul-Qassim al-Khoei) was your secret friend.”
He had been asked by the revolutionaries to be their leader, and had cautiously agreed. “He was anti-Saddam and his whole philosophy. He wanted very little from the Americans, but it was crucial that he get it. He wanted the Americans to allow his men to go behind the American lines and get Saddam’s weapon caches. And the Americans said no.”
That was a true tragedy and “it was because a lack of knowledge,” he says. “You must know more than you do about grass roots, and Who’s Who in every Arab country in the Arab world.
“If Iraq’s identity issues were understood at that time, America would have saved 4,500 (soldiers’) lives, a trillion dollars, and would have had Iraq as its friend.”
Fast forward, Syria. It’s about identity, and then, economy. “The Sunni are revolting against the Alawite tribes,” he says.
In Libya, it’s about identity and economy. “The United States didn’t know who were the revolutionaries against Gaddafi. Some are Al Quaida, and now, there’s talk of reintroducing sharia. As is Egypt.”
With growing frustration and no forward motion, identity becomes the issue and Islam wells up — from moderate to very radical Islam — because Islam looks like the solution, he says.
And this can be dangerous and lead to more instability in the Middle East. “America needs good judgment and to find a balance between its interests and democracy. This is a crucial time for American policy. My practical advice: America need to know more than it does.”