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Expecting the Unexpected

You can never be sure what to expect next in the Middle East, but one thing is certain: It’s never going to be what you expected. Those who march in with the surest sense that they know what they’re doing are the ones most likely to be surprised, usually unpleasantly.

Case in point: the unexpected outpouring of Shi’ite Muslim fervor in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala this week, challenging America’s assumptions about a quick democratization of our new protectorate. About three-fifths of Iraq’s population consists of Shi’ites, most of them poor, deeply devout and highly devoted to their religious leaders. Those leaders, in turn, tend to be pro-Iranian and none too friendly toward America. As their followers massed in Karbala this week a million strong, the mullahs began laying out their vision of what Iraqis want: not Jeffersonian democracy but an Islamic state. It’s not clear what made the Bush administration’s policy makers think they could march into that thicket and slap together a market democracy, but whatever it was, it had more to do with self-confidence and ideological conviction than with hard information, which was available but was ignored.

The folks making policy in Washington these days like to boast of their unabashed patriotism and ideological support for the military. Unfortunately, as events keep reminding us, being an ideological supporter of the military is not the same thing as being of the military. Soldiers have to live in the real world, where life and death decisions must be based on hard facts and intelligence. Ideologues live in a world of ideas and visions, where facts don’t always matter.

In Karbala, reality bit back this week. The ideologues were waiting for Iraq to rise up in gratitude. The intelligence community had been warning that it wouldn’t happen, but the ideologues weren’t listening.

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