As Congress prepares to determine whether the Bush Administration's surge policy in Iraq is working, it's a good time to look at Spain during the golden age of "Al-Andalus,'' the time in which Arabs ruled the southern half of the Iberian peninsula.
I mention this time in history -- roughly from 711 to 1492 -- because it marked a time in which Muslims, Jews and Christians could thrive on the same real estate. Like Iraq, Andalucia was a multi-cultural area that once was the seat of the caliphate -- the heir to Mohammed. Like the caliphate in Bagdad, the great cities of Cordoba, Seville, Toledo and Granada were centers of great learning, poetry, architecture, mathematics and astronomy. The Alhambra palace complex still stands as a reminder of what can happen when people of different cultures, languages, traditions and religions are left alone in an atmosphere of tolerance. Jewish and Arab translators took ancient Greek and Roman texts and made them available to a Europe mired in the dark ages.
Of course, I'm not going to put an idealistic gloss on the heyday of Andalucia. There were slaves, constant conflicts and the last sultan Boabdil was ousted from Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella. But over a 700-year stretch, it seemed that three religions could prosper in an arid region that was a cultural melting pot.
Which brings us to Iraq. If the U.S. government thinks it can impose its will to suddenly make democracy blossom in an area that wasn't even a country prior to World War I, it's fooling everyone. It just won't happen that way. What's more likely is a phased withdrawal where US and allied forces act as a policeman for decades. A more plausible outcome is the creation of autonomous cantons, much like modern Switzerland. There may be a relatively weak central government, perhaps to adminster aid, build infrastructure and dole out oil revenues evenly, but it may not even have a standing army.
In reconfiguring a peaceful Iraq, policy planners may even come to the conclusion that a decentralized government that represents tribal interests may be a better model. First there needs to be some consensus on how to keep warring factions from tearing each other apart in an endless civil war.
Once again, I suggest that the powers that be take a close look at what happened in Southern Spain and why it worked for so long. It's not a perfect example -- there really aren't any. But it would be a start in healing an area that has lost so much yet has so much to gain from a reasoned insight into history.