Recently, the distinction between Shiites and Sunnis has become more prominent in Bush administration rhetoric. Dr. Vali Nasr briefed Bush on the religious divide last year. He explains why Bush's newfound understanding of sectarianism may be too little, too late.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Remember this in last month's State of the Union Address?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by Al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. Contagion of violence could spill out across the country, and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict. BROOKE GLADSTONE: TV reporters and pundits noted that for the President, it was an unusually detailed summation, unusual, given that so much rhetoric about the war has ignored the Sunni/Shia divide.
For over a year, Jeff Stein, a national security reporter for The Congressional Quarterly, has added this final question to every interview he's conducted about Iraq with key politicians, intelligence officials and law enforcement - to wit – do you know the difference between Sunni and Shia? For instance, which is al Qaeda? According to Stein, the answers reveal that most officials, quote, "don't have a clue." Vali Nasr is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He briefed President Bush last summer on the Shia/Sunni divide in Iraq, and he says that the newfound interest in the subject is almost certainly too little, too late. VALI NASR: In the sense that the region understood Iraq very quickly, very differently than Washington did. I mean, for instance, no sooner had the regime fallen that the king of Jordan used the terminology "the Shia Crescent," which meant that he already, two years before Washington is now saying that there is an Iranian/Shia influence in this region, he already was seeing this over the horizon. We didn't realize the depth of the sectarian issue until the destruction of the Shia shrine in 2006. Up to that point, we treated the insurgency as merely resistors to democracy, foreign fighters and Baathist dead-enders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you've argued that this lack of knowledge has everything to do with how we've thought of Iraq thus far. So what do you mean?
VALI NASR: Well, we thought the issues in Iraq to be democracy versus dictatorship. We thought we were freeing Iraqis from the yoke of dictatorship, and that the only issues that were before us was getting rid of the Baathists and creating institutions of democracy. We never understood how divided that society was and that we couldn't fix that division in the short run; in fact, that that division would come to dominate everything that we were trying to do in Iraq. And not understanding that division very quickly began to doom our efforts in Iraq, and then not understanding how the division in Iraq tied to Arab/Iranian, Shia/Sunni divisions in the rest of the region also complicated the way in which we responded to Lebanon or responded to Iran. So ever since 2003, we've been playing catch-up with what sectarianism means in the region.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you briefed the President last summer on this very subject, and obviously his language has been far more specific in recent weeks, notably in the State of the Union address. Why do you think he's invoking this relationship now?
VALI NASR: Well, it is designed to underscore a shift in U.S. strategy of now focusing wholly on Iran and the Iranian problem, rather than on bringing stability to Iraq or dealing with other issues, like the Arab/Israeli issue or the Lebanon issue directly. And the shift in focus on Iran requires highlighting Iran's relations with the Shias in Iraq and its relations with Hezbollah. So the use of the language, the focus on the Shia/Sunni issue, the focus on Iran, is really designed to explain the new American approach. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you've been critical of the way the media up till now has framed the distinction between the Sunni and the Shia and their conflicting interests in the region. What have the media generally have been doing wrong?
VALI NASR: What I'm critical of is that the media essentially has lost sort of the perspective, along with the administration. When the administration shifted its focus from fighting the insurgency to focusing on the Shia militias in 2005, the media followed this in the same manner, essentially buying into the argument that the Shia militias were the biggest threat to the U.S. project in Iraq, which is not true. In reality, the most powerful military force, which is committed to the American failure in Iraq is not the Shia militias, it's the Sunni insurgency. And the United States really stopped fighting the insurgency very effectively when it decided to shift its focus to policing sectarianism in Baghdad and to go after the Shia militias. And the media has not really questioned the wisdom or the logic of abandoning the fight against insurgents. Essentially the media has followed the same line of argument that the administration's following, which is just to focus on security in Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what you're saying is, is you can't have a negotiation unless you know who's sitting on each side of the table. And the media has followed the government in not recognizing those sides.
VALI NASR: Well, there is no table, and there's nobody even sitting around it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
VALI NASR: And the media has essentially not focused on this issue. The administration set the goal, which is a correct goal, that there ought to be national unity in Iraq and there ought to be reconciliation. But goals are not a substitute for a diplomatic and a political process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's been a pleasure talking to you. Vali, thank you very much.
VALI NASR: Thank you very much for inviting me. Bye-bye. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Vali Nasr is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future.