Picking Sides in a Religious War

One of the notions I keep hearing pop up from time to time regarding the clusterfuck that we’ve made of Iraq is that the Bushies, desperate for a way to pull out of Iraq and declare victory, will just pick a side in the civil war and go with it. As the Washington Post recently wrote :

The Bush administration is deliberating whether to abandon U.S. reconciliation efforts with Sunni insurgents and instead give priority to Shiites and Kurds, who won elections and now dominate the government, according to U.S. officials.

The proposal, put forward by the State Department as part of a crash White House review of Iraq policy, follows an assessment that the ambitious U.S. outreach to Sunni dissidents has failed. U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that their reconciliation efforts may even have backfired, alienating the Shiite majority and leaving the United States vulnerable to having no allies in Iraq, according to sources familiar with the State Department proposal.
. . .
A second danger is that the United States could appear to be taking sides in the escalating sectarian strife. The proposal would encourage Iraqis to continue reconciliation efforts. But without U.S. urging, outreach could easily stall or even atrophy, deepening sectarian tensions, U.S. sources say.

Of course, the term “sectarian strife” glosses over the most troublesome aspect of this scenario. If the United States abandons the goal of reconciliation in Iraq, we will appear to the Arab world to have picked sides in a thousand-year-old religious war. To the Islamic world (who actually know the difference between Shi’a and Sunni), this would be seen as American endorsement of the idea that the early Islamic leadership should have gone to Muhammad’s cousin Ali rather than the three caliphs who succeded Muhammad. To Western ears that may seem like not that big a deal, but this is roughly equivalent to taking an official stance on whether Catholics or Protestants are the true inheritors of Jesus’ legacy. Not only does favoring one religious sect over another seem to clash with the establishment clause of the Constitution (not that the Bush Administration gives a damn about Constitutional protections), but it puts us at odds with the vast majority of the Islamic world.

Then again, maybe American endorsement of Shi’a Islam will help calm down the tensions with Iran.