How many times must the dominoes not fall before the metaphor is forever banned? The neoconservative plans for the pacification of the Middle East were hatched in right-wing think tanks of Washington. They sprang forth fully armed from the forehead of President George W. Bush's Administration in the form of the Iraqi invasion, once terrorism had delivered the blow of the Hephaestus' axe. The excuse of fighting terrorism was later replaced with that of searching for weapons of mass destruction but the logic of the grand plan remained the same: dominoes would fall.
Obviating former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would destabilize Iran and Syria, setting the stage for other invasions or else weaken the undesirable regimes and set them up for internal rebellions. At the very least, the invasion of Iraq would provide the hard-liners in these countries with an object lesson. The human face of the invasion was also forged in the crucible of the domino theories. One democracy would beget other moderate, secular and pro-Western democracies and a peace loving Middle East would seek the path of accommodation with Israel.
The serial invasions never came about. The Iranian hard-liners did learn an object lesson from the invasion of Iraq, but not the one intended by Washington's tough pedagogues. From the beginning of the Iraqi invasion it was plain to Iran's ruling mullahs that the US would not go for a second helping of hard-to-digest regional politics. Hence, the Iranian right-wingers quickened the pace of their subversion of the democratic elements of the Iranian polity. In implementing their slow motion coup d'etat the hard-liners relied on the inability and unwillingness of the US to intervene. More importantly, they banked on the public fear of the Iraqization of Iran.
Some reform analysts have suggested that the fear of foreign intervention was partly responsible for higher than expected voter participation in the recent parliamentary elections that had been openly rigged by the widely disliked right-wing. The emerging three headed hound of the neo-right-wing Iranian parliamentary majority is one of the unintended consequences of the Iraqi invasion. These days, the practical head of the beast chatters on about “Japanizing” Islamic Iran while the military and crony-capitalist heads pledge to roll back reforms and pursue an Islamist foreign policy.
Of course, not all dominoes fall the wrong way. It is undeniable that the invasion of Iraq, its costs to US taxpayers and national interests notwithstanding, did get rid of a hated tyrant. Despite its current doldrums, the post-Saddam Iraq faces new opportunities. A democratic Iraq has a chance to take stock of its collective interests, or at least try to establish the infrastructures necessary to forge a general will out of its multiple ethnic and religious communities. Yet, there was never any doubt (even in Washington) that the liberation of Iraq would raise new questions of stability and national integrity that were moot under Saddam's iron rule.
To take one case: it was inevitable that the Shiite majority, with its long history of resistance against occupiers, would ask for a larger share of the political power. Although the religious leadership of the Iraqi Shiites under Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani follows a traditional and quietist political philosophy (that does not allow the establishment of an Islamic state in absence of the occulted imam) the political circumstances might have already made an activist out of Sistani. The fact that some have started to bestow the title of “imam” on Sistani is an alarming development as the Shiite theology has traditionally reserved that title for the original imams: the 12 infallible ones. Before Sistani, only Musa Sadr of Lebanon and Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran had been given the title indicating an Islamist mutation of the Shiite theology.
In Iraq, as in Lebanon in the 1970s, the radicalization of the Shiites gathers pace with the increase of external threats. It is no secret that Al-Qaeda wishes to stoke the fires of an intra-religious holy war in Iraq to frustrate US attempts at state building in that country. Indeed, decades of Wahhabi propaganda against the “Shiite heresy” have created a fertile ground (both in Iraq and in neighboring Arab countries) for Al-Qaeda's atavistic (salafi) bid for a religious war against the Shiites. Suicide bombings at holy sites and threats against the life of Ayatollah Sistani are the opening salvoes in terrorists' war plan.
The realities of the occupation of Iraq do not lend themselves to simple and optimistic tropes. The suggestion that the invasion of Iraq made the US more vulnerable to the threat of Islamist terrorism is slowly entering the mainstream of American consciousness. The pleasant clatter of the falling dominoes in the wake of an Iraqi invasion is slowly drowning, among other things, in the recent testimonies in the congressional committee that is charged with investigating the US response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.