There’s a certain narcissism in America’s habit of seeking out those in foreign countries we’re trying to change who remind us most of ourselves. More often than not, an Arab politician adept at playing Washington like a harp with talk of liberal values, rosy futures and love of Israel and apple pie is not representative of his own people. When Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress performed such a seduction to help enable the Iraq invasion, intelligence pros in Washington were joking that he was more influential along the Potomac than along the Tigris. Once Saddam was ousted, however, it turned out that Pentagon favorite Chalabi had precious little support. But Washington’s tendency to want to see its own priorities and outlook reflected in those it had “liberated” prompted it to radically underestimate — to its detriment — the influence of figures such as Shi’ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatullah Ali Sistani, and firebrand cleric and populist Moqtada al-Sadr. It was Sistani, who refused ever to meet a single U.S. official so as to avoid being seen to bless the American presence, that forced Bremer, under threat of mass protest, to back down from his plan for a three-year transition under a U.S.-appointed government, and agree to hold democratic elections. Those elections were won by the Shi’ite Islamist parties, who prevailed in the two subsequent polls, too (although in the most recent one, it took Iran’s intervention to persuade them to pool their combined vote).
And yes, they’re closer to Iran than they are to Washington, but that’s no reason to panic. Indeed, the U.S. ought to be accustomed to being disappointed by Arab election results by now: Islamists have won all three democratic elections in Iraq; Hamas won the last Palestinian elections (2006); the Ennahda Party won in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood looks set to prevail in Egypt. Perhaps that wouldn’t seem so scary with a more realistic assessment of the Arab political landscape.