He mastered the languages of "the East" to become the first Westerner granted access to Turkish archives. He predicted the storm brewing between "Christendom" and radical Islam, coining the phrase "clash of civilizations." Presidents and monarchs have sought the views of 90-year-old historian Bernard Lewis, and some claim he played a prominent role in inspiring the war in Iraq-a war he says should have been executed quite differently: "The entrance into Iraq was not ill conceived, but it was very poorly conducted," he told WORLD after a recent speaking engagement.
But for now the views of scholars and historians at this critical juncture are drowned out by months of deliberations and hype over what prescriptions for either a brilliant exit strategy or a magic cure to sectarian violence would come forth from the Iraq Study Group (ISG). On Dec. 6 it released its report and made public its recommendation: a stepped-up effort in U.S. training and advising of Iraqi police and military units; large-scale redeployments and a gradual reduction of forces from the current 140,000 to approximately half that amount (with no firm timetables); and a new phase of diplomatic initiatives in the region to engage other Middle East countries in stabilizing Iraq.
Although the Bush administration is under no obligation to adopt the recommendations of the 10-member bipartisan committee, mounting pressure at home and continued violence and strife in Iraq have led to expectations that the president will implement at least some of the long-awaited proposals.
October was the deadliest month for American troops this year, and November was bloody as well: Car bombs and missiles in Baghdad's Shiite sector of Sadr City on Nov. 24 left more than 200 Iraqis dead and residents fearing further reprisals. A day later 30 lawmakers and five cabinet members allied with Shiite cleric Mustaqa al-Sadr suspended their involvement in the government in protest of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's planned meeting with President Bush.
That's why two of the options circulating have not been proposed by the ISG, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton. An abrupt withdrawal from Iraq would likely leave the war-torn country in the hands of extremists, and dividing the country into three separate states-a notion Lewis is firmly against-would only further the sectarian strife and bloodshed.
Lewis says now that he favors a swift transfer of power to the Iraqis: "I think the sensible thing to do is to hand over to the Iraqi government an effective Iraqi government as quickly as possible. We could have done this right from the beginning."
But the urgency in his voice is not to be taken as despair over Iraq's current state. Instability and bloodshed may give the impression that pairing democracy and Islam is a hopeless endeavor, but Lewis is optimistic. After all, he has the historian's long view. Democracy comes gradually and in stages, he said during a Nov. 21 speaking engagement in Newport Beach, Calif., and it may ultimately take on a different shape than our own: "There is a tendency nowadays to assume that democracy means one thing-in other words, our form of government-and that departure from it is either a crime to be punished or a disease to be cured. I don't share this view."
Lewis, an emeritus Princeton University professor of Middle East history, has authored 24 books and is considered a bit of history himself. Yet his passion for connecting the past and the present, for paving new ground in historical research gains him friends, while his pointed analysis also attracts enemies.
In the 1990 essay "The Roots of Muslim Rage," he warned of a growing tempest in the Middle East and characterized the storm as an old struggle between Islam and Christendom. Americans have a limited grasp of history, but Muslims do not, he says.
Lewis echoed these sentiments during his recent lecture, but also emphasized that many Muslims-particularly in Iran-truly long for freedom. Outward appearances can be deceiving: "Generally, the more hostile the government, the more friendly the people. The more friendly the government, the more hostile the people."
Democracy, according to Lewis, is the best but most difficult form of government: "The prospect of creating a democracy in Iraq represents a mortal threat to all the tyrants of all the neighboring countries. It's very upsetting to them."
The Bush administration appeared open to at least a portion of the commission's recommendations after Baker briefed the president over lunch at the White House on Dec. 5. But do the recommendations have the potential to work?
Handing over military and security operations to Iraqis has always been the ultimate goal, and the ISG wants to do it faster. The Iraqi government currently has full control over two defense divisions, but eight more need to be transferred-a total of 140,000 Iraqi troops. American troops would gradually alter their role from combat to support as Iraqis take over the job of combating militias. Gaining control of western Iraq, an al-Qaeda stronghold, and Baghdad, the heart of militant Sunni and Shiite confrontations, would be crucial.
Some question the capability of Iraqi forces to bring stability to the country when U.S. troops have struggled toward that goal. With Maliki's dependence upon al-Sadr's Shiite base for political strength, doubts abound over his ability to crack down on the militia.
But the prime minister indicated during a Nov. 30 meeting with President Bush that his troops will be ready to take full control of security measures by June 2007, reassuring the president of "the government's resolve to impose the government's authority, bring stability, hold to account outlaws, and limit the possession of arms to the hands of the government."
President Bush affirmed his confidence in the leader and complimented his eagerness: "I appreciate his attitude. As opposed to saying, 'America, you go solve the problem,' we have a prime minister who's saying, 'Stop holding me back, I want to solve the problem.'"
The other major recommendation proposed by the ISG-developing an international conference to draw other Middle East countries into Iraqi peace initiatives-met with mixed reviews from Iraqi politicians. "We are an independent and a sovereign nation and it is we who decide the fate of the nation," President Jalal Talabani said.
An international gathering would likely include talks with Iran and Syria-long-time U.S. adversaries-and could deepen the power struggle between Hezbollah and its cronies vying for Shiite dominance and al-Qaeda and its connections pushing for Sunni control in Iraq.
The options being considered range from beefing up U.S. troops in the most war-ridden provinces to withdrawing completely from Iraq. Lewis refuses to deal in future scenarios. "I'm a historian. I deal with the past," he said with a smile.
As the Bush administration weighs the options presented by the ISG, the president also will hear from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the office of the secretary of defense, the State Department, and the National Security Council this month. But the president seems to have ruled out one option: "This business about a graceful exit simply has no realism to it at all."