Shakh Mat

Chess came to Europe through Persia. The pieces were re-configured, the moves changed, from the Indian original. Europeans also inherited the phrase, check mate, from the Persian phrase ‘the shah is dead’ – Shakh mat.

LI has no inside information, but we believe that Sistani, at one time, must have been a hell of a chess player.

After reading our last post, a friend asked us what analogy we were drawing between the Pazzi conspiracy and Iraq.

We cited Machiavelli because, a., the events he records in the History of Florence – the shifting combinations that play across the Florentine political landscape and that involve self organising norms rather than set principles – are broadly similar to the shifting combinations in Iraq; and b., the spirit of Machiavelli – his ability to perceive that history – was an act of imaginative virtue. That is, he considered the combination by considering the perspectives of the players and leaving a large space open for sheer collision – for the accidents of fortune that emerge to shape, obviate, or unexpectedly advance the progress of a project.

It’s only by using that same imaginative virtue that one understands the game Sistani has played, and its brilliance.

After the fall of Baghdad last year, Sistani faced several unknowns. On the one hand, the Ba’athist structure as Saddam had built it was in ruins. On the other hand, the Americans were an unknown force. Were they serious? Would they leave right away? Would they govern?

Sistani’s response to these variables was to wait. What he saw unfold helped him decide about the Americans. They seemed unaware that the Ba’athist structure, while in ruins, was by no means harmless. Allowing the looting to go on – allowing, as Sistani must have known, arms depots throughout the country to be raided, as well as allowing electric power plants to be stripped of their equipment, etc – while guarding the Oil Ministry with comic opera seriousness must have given him a vivid sense of American limits.

As a rule of thumb, if you are dealing with the Americans in a third world country, it is always good to remember that eventually, they will go home. Third world leaders, however, never quite grasp the dimensions of American indifference. While this is a country that jolts enjoyably from moral panic to moral panic, it is also strangely indifferent to the moral panics of the past. At the moment, for instance, hundreds of thousands of Americans debate Iraqi democracy. As soon as the last American soldiers depart from the country, however, the interest will as completely evaporate as, for instance, the interest in a democratic Kuwait that animated Americans in 1991. Since the end of the first Gulf war, approximately .0000000002% of American media attention has been directed to an issue that, at one time, American soldiers were supposedly dying for. LI, for instance, had to look up whether women could vote in Kuwait on Google yesterday, since we had no vague notion from newspapers or radio or Internet. It is a dead issue. Women, by the way, can’t vote. Do you care?

This combination of heated passion and cold indifference is what makes Americans such interesting players.

Sistani’s patience was soon rewarded by the attacks on Americans. The second phase of the war was beginning, and the winning side in the first phase didn’t even know it.

The attacks came from no friends of Sistani’s. However, at that point, friendship was a matter of cancellation – the enemy of my enemy – rather than of affirmation. The Americans were still floating the trial balloon of rule by exile militias, such as Chalabi’s, without seeming to realize that there were much tougher militias out there, trained in Iran. And so the board soon became dotted with different squares.

Sistani’s patience obviously left a gap in the struggle for power. It was here that Sadr made a series of moves that, while seemingly putting Sistani more and more on the spot, actually benefitted him. Sadr attracted the American enmity that Sistani was able to avoid, even as Sistani avoided siding with the Americans. This is why Sistani’s original call for elections, in the summer of 03, increased his stature with its every reiteration.

We think the turning point in Iraq came this spring, when the Americans moved against Sadr in Najaf. If you will remember, the battle against Sadr evoked calls of solidarity from the Sunni groups arrayed against the Americans, while Sistani checked out of the country. But only until Najaf had been trashed by both sides to the extent that he felt he could end his wait. He did this by marching into Najaf – or leading a sort of peace convoy into Najaf. In that one stroke, we think he began the process of making the Americans irrelevant in Iraq.

It isn’t that they don’t have the largest force in the country. And they certainly make up laws and then have their president pass them. What the Americans don’t see, however, is that they have been subsumed, by circumstances, into the tool, rather than the puppet master, of various factions in Iraq. The strongest of which, by virtue of what he did in Najaf (driving the Americans out of a major urban center without firing a shot), has coalesced around Sistani’s plans for Shi’ite rule.

The next play on the board was, truly, a chess play. The taking of Fallujah was motivated by a combination of several fantasies. One fantasy comes out of the deep wellsprings of American military culture, which has considered winning a war, since 1865, to be the equivalent of taking Richmond. They are always, in other words, looking for Dr. Evil’s hideout. This is a good strategy for, say, winning World War II, and a bad one for winning a guerilla war. Another fantasy came out of the American political advisors. This is a pure Bush campaign fantasy. The way to win hearts and minds is to target an enemy and stomp on it. The idea here is that Allawi, who the Americans were dimly aware was leaking popularity (even the American’s own IRI poll showed him neck and neck with Sadr), needed to be washed in some Sunni blood. The third fantasy was the insurgents’. This is much harder to penetrate. One of the great triumphs of the war against the insurgency, actually, has been to wed the Ba’athist remnant to the qaeda-ist violence of Zarqawi types. Nothing, we think, has more alienated a population that might be inclined to revolt, for nationalistic reasons, but that is repulsed by the attempt to reproduce Saudi cultural norms among the alien fields of Mesopotamia. Qaeda-ists have a blow them up strategy, and would be quite willing to sacrifice the citizens of Fallujah en masse to achieve that orgasm a la plastique by which they imagine they will be enfolded in the bosom of providence.

But one fantasy was absent, here. It soon became clear that this attack on Fallujah was different from the assault in the spring, or the assault on Najaf, in that there wasn’t an echo of support in the Shiite community. Even from Sadr. This is a measure of the disaster enacted in the alliance between a qaedist group that is oriented towards anti-Shiite pograms and a cynical Ba'athist group that is oriented towards retaking power -- and restoring an economic order that, after all, benefited a large class of Sunnis.

The Americans were probably pleased by the lack of Shi’ite support – but it did rather doom their program of cleansing Allawi in the blood of the Sunni. Allawi still bears the mark of collaboration and the mark of weakness. Tyranny is a harsh master -- just as God spews the lukewarm out of his mouth, tyranny makes a similar demand on its potential incarnations. Allawi is in the excrutiating process of being spewed out of the mouth. This will last for some time.

Great rulers are rarely great chess players – but they are often good ones. Sadr, we imagine, is a terrible chess player. The limits of Sistani’s play are coming up. Assuming a Dawa led coalition comes into power in January, the question of how to get rid of the Americans and the insurgents will take on a new twist. Simply having the Americans go is unacceptable – it would replay the stupidity of Bremer’s unilateral disbanding of the Iraqi army. It is, at the present, to the advantage of all players that the Americans have no recognition of their objective irrelevance in Iraq – in this, they have become perfect tools. But tools of force in Middle Eastern history have a latent dangerousness.

It is as difficult to see these things, sitting here in America, as it would be to make a map of New York city from watching repeats of Law and Order on A and E. The American press is fixated solely on the American p.o.v. in Iraq. But one thing that the Americans are structurally unable to consider is that they might have become irrelevant in Iraq. Such is the national vanity, such is the manic wavering between passion and indifference.