March 03, 2005

The Real Problem

In comments to this post, it was suggested that questions about whether or not Iraq could govern itself were racist. Considering that Bush's first idea about Iraq's next government was that it should be handed over to Ahmed Chalabi lock, stock and barrel, and that Ayatollah Sistani had to dig his heels in to get any sort of direct elections, maybe those allegations should be directed elsewhere.

I certainly never suggested that Iraq would best be governed by an CIA/Iranian double-agent whose free time is spent planning bank fraud. I think the Iraqis deserve way better than that.

But to flesh out a little of my response down below, I think there are issues with Iraqi self-governance that have nothing to do with race and everything to do with circumstance. First, consider a hypothetical situation:

Imagine, if you will, that a dictator rises up in the US and kills or exiles every single elected official, paid party apparatchik, and successful grassroots organizer in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Then this hypothetical dictator outlaws the Green and Libertarian parties, though they sort of limp along as loose affinity groups.

For 40 years, this hypothetical dictator puts their own people in power, demands loyalty to his own party to have any kind of civil job (which in Iraq's system of state-owned industry meant a huge chunk of the available jobs), and kills anyone thought to be in the business of political organizing. A few Democrats and Republicans made it to places like Mexico, Canada, Europe, and Australia but except for their former contacts in the US, most of them aren't well known and they haven't been sharing in the trials and tribulations of their stateside sympathizers.

Now imagine that our hypothetical dictator gets overthrown by a foreign power, the exiles come back, and elections are called. The many candidate slates are secret because their lives might be in danger if their names were known before they came into the police protection that accompanies being elected, and the 'campaign season' was conducted almost entirely by secret meetings and the power of gossip. You also have no way of knowing to what degree any of these slates of candidates are beholden to foreign powers, save for a few obvious cases.

Who do you vote for?

Now remember, you haven't seen a political brochure or any kind of political rally that wasn't in praise of our hypothetical dictator for 40 years. You have no reliable way of getting news about the state of the country because you only have power for 3 hours a day, so after the election, there's very little chance that you'll be able to hold your new government to account. Armed bandits, kidnappers, and insurgents rebelling against the troops that overthrew the dictator create havoc in the streets, and if your new government wants to stay in power it will probably end up making deals with some of these unsavory people.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. You, along with most of the people in your close family, have lost your job. Government pensions, which some of your family may have relied on, have all been cut off. And it's hard to find decent food at the market, even when you have money for it.

While none of these problems are insurmountable in the long run, you know that because much of the country's infrastructure was destroyed between the invasion and the election, these new officials have a steep hill to climb. Because none of the people you're voting for have been able to accumulate any experience in running a government for the last 40 years, you have no idea whether they're up to the challenge. If they aren't capable in this respect, they might never be able to quell the growing unrest, no matter how honorable their intentions.

I have great doubts as to whether or not any country can come out of so much destabilization and be well governed so soon afterwards. The Iraqis actually have a bit of a leg up over my hypothetical scenario in this respect because their religious social structure perpetuated some organization that existed aside from the Ba'ath party, and because they've maintained tribal affiliations. Both these religious and tribal structures in the area fulfill some caretaker and dispute resolution functions, which hold society together at the edges in the absence of central authority. Additionally, the Kurds have had a level of autonomy for several years now, and they have a strong group identity that helps them work together.

Iraqis also face what may be the urges of three distinct groups to variously break up the country or shut the others out of representation. There isn't a long history of power sharing, to say the least. Then considering that Iraq has only been Iraq since WWI, that it was thrown together by foreign fiat rather than at the insistence of its own populace, and that people there are still arguing over events that happened more than a millenia ago, there are further landmines on the road to peaceful self governance.

Now at this point, the Iraqis would probably be delighted if they got any type of homegrown government that would restore the utilities and stop people getting killed or abducted in the streets. But if another authoritarian regime springs up, the end result won't be that different than the beginning, though perhaps more friendly to the US.

A democracy needs accountability to the public, legal transparency, a rule of law which all are subject to, and freely available information that permits informed consent. Among other things.

I truly hope that the Iraqis are able to secure such a society for themselves if that is their wish. But every last scrap of the social machinery necessary to create it will have to be invented virtually from scratch, and those efforts will be hampered by the totally separate issue of how Iraqis feel about the American presence in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and catastrophic looting.

This would be a nontrivial task in every respect, an absolute miracle if it were to turn out well, no matter who it was handed to.

The fact that the Bush administration thought otherwise, that it would be rose petals and champagne all the way, means at best they were ignorant. At worst, it means they've been grossly negligent for not having the wit to realize things would be complicated and difficult. Just like when 'major combat operations' were declared over, Iraq's issues haven't been solved because an election took place.

Posted by natasha at March 3, 2005 09:16 PM | Iraq | Technorati links |