Monday, May 24, 2004

Zen and The Art Of Democracy Repair, Part I

Much of the blogosphere and related foreign policy circles are abuzz with talk about Iraqi elections scheduled to be held in just under two weeks - and to what degree those elections might impact the future of Iraq. Many Iraqis may not end up going to the polls on the 30th out of security concerns and/or disenchantment with the process, and still others may feel compelled to take part in elections that they perceive as somewhat tainted and illegitimate - not an altogether outlandish claim considering there is an occupying army in their midst. Further, it is unclear if the regime that emerges from this electoral exercise will enjoy the endorsement of enough of the Iraqi people to begin moving that country toward unity, stability, and sovereignty. Nevertheless, channeling our lexically enigmatic Secretary of Defense: these are the elections we have, if not the ones we wish we had, so it is in all of our best interest to insure that they are designed and carried out in a way that is most conducive to the formation of a stable, peaceful, and democratic Iraq.

As such, I thought it would be an ideal time to follow up on some themes I have been covering on
TIA, and to consider some of the lessons we have learned up until this point. An unvarnished appraisal of certain aspects of the past two years, and the relevant history, should help to inform some of the choices we can make vis a vis the elections and the resulting governing body, thereby increasing the prospects for success. The alternative to stability, a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, is so dire a scenario that prudence demands that all of us, even those among us who were opposed to this endeavor from the outset, should put our energies behind working for solutions. If it helps, imagine you are counseling President Kerry on what he might do had he inherited this labyrinth of Catch-22's from the Bush administration (one reason Kerry's loss had a silver lining of sorts).

Such a thought exercise has a way of demanding a certain level of intellectual discipline and seriousness, the lack of which
publius lamented yesterday. It is far easier to criticize than it is to propose alternatives, especially when you accurately predicted before the fact many of the problems currently plaguing our mission. But now is not the time for smugness or spite, no matter how tempting those thoughts are (and trust me, I am often tempted).

Democracy Now?

In order to try to formulate a winning strategy in this phase of the Iraq conflict, it is important to look at some of the historical precedents involved, and how these might impact our decisions. Before I begin, I want to preemptively strike down the claim that any discussion of the difficulties of democracy promotion through military invasion is tantamount to claiming that Muslims and/or Arabs are incapable of democracy. That is nonsense, but at the same time, there are very real cultural, historical, and political factors that could and should influence the manner in which we seek to help Muslims to attain democratic reform.

As an aside, I find it mildly amusing that the pro-war camp accuses the Left of racism in this manner when the pro-war camp itself so often takes such a hostile position regarding the Muslim world that they are allegedly trying to help - advocating genocide (Glenn Reynolds), the indiscriminate "nuking" of a Muslim city (Savage), the flattening of Fallujah, or downplaying the torture and abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib (who Army Intelligence and the ICRC say were 70-90% innocent). And of course, there is the prevalent meme that Muslims only understand force, not other forms of entreaty, or as Charles Krauthammer once said in a radio interview, if you want to win their hearts and minds, you have grab their balls and squeeze hard. Liberal hawk Fareed Zakaria made the following observation:

The Republican convention had two alternating approaches toward foreigners. On the one hand, it repeatedly ridiculed them. The cheapest applause lines in New York last week were ones that ended in "the French," "Paris" or, worst of all, "the United Nations," which was probably meant to conjure up images of envious Third Worlders plotting against America. On the other hand, Republicans constantly declared they were going to deliver the blessings of liberty to the far corners of the world. This is the party's dilemma -- it wishes to spread liberty to people whom it doesn't really like. [emphasis added]
The truth is, there is a lot of space along the spectrum of democracy promotion between apathy and military invasion, and advocating a position along this continuum is not the equivalent of an ethnic critique. First a perspective on nation building via military involvement from conservative historian Francis Fukuyama:

America has been involved in approximately 18 nation-building projects between its conquest of the Philippines in 1899 and the current occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the overall record is not a pretty one. The cases of unambiguous success-Germany, Japan, and South Korea-were all ones in which U.S. forces came and then stayed indefinitely. In the first two cases, we were not nation-building at all, but only re-legitimizing societies that had very powerful states. In all of the other cases, the U.S. either left nothing behind in terms of self-sustaining institutions, or else made things worse by creating, as in the case of Nicaragua, a modern army and police but no lasting rule of law.
From Fukuyama, and others, we see that America's record at nation building is not overly impressive. On top of that, Iraq itself presented many unique challenges and complications. Again, Fukuyama:

Though I, more than most people, am associated with the idea that history's arrow points to democracy, I have never believed that democracies can be created anywhere and everywhere through sheer political will. Prior to the Iraq War, there were many reasons for thinking that building a democratic Iraq was a task of a complexity that would be nearly unmanageable. Some reasons had to do with the nature of Iraqi society: the fact that it would be decompressing rapidly from totalitarianism, its ethnic divisions, the role of politicized religion, the society's propensity for violence, its tribal structure and the dominance of extended kin and patronage networks, and its susceptibility to influence from other parts of the Middle East that were passionately anti-American.
There is a good reason why many conservatives and liberals are somewhat averse to projects that seek to implant a democracy de novo in a given nation or region. Almost every democratic transition that has taken place in the world in the past two centuries has had nothing to do with foreign military intervention, military pressure, or an outside regime directing the process. While I believe, to some degree, in the inevitability of democratic change, I also appreciate that such changes require certain prerequisite financial conditions and other institutional development that is difficult to generate as an alien power on an ad hoc basis. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Edward Luttwak regrets the dearth of democrats in Iraq.

Of course, many Iraqis would deny the need for any such instruction, viewing democracy as a simple affair that any child can understand. That is certainly the opinion of the spokesmen of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, for example. They have insistently advocated early elections in Iraq, brushing aside the need for procedural and substantive preparations as basic as the compilation of voter rolls, and seeing no need to allow time for the gathering of consensus by structured political parties. However moderate he may be, the pronouncements attributed to Sistani reveal a confusion between democracy and the dictatorial rule of the majority, for they imply that whoever wins 50.01 percent of the vote should have all of the governing power. That much became clear when Sistani's spokesmen vehemently rejected Kurdish demands for constitutional guarantees of minority rights. Shiite majority rule could thus end up being as undemocratic as the traditional Sunni-Arab ascendancy was.
Credibility Gulch

I want to focus on the last item Fukuyama listed in his assessment of the challenges of nation building that are distinctly "Iraqi" in nature, because it is still bedeviling us today: anti-Americanism. It is no secret that the Muslim world has been a hotbed of virulent anti-Americanism for the better part of the past half-century. Understanding this phenomenon requires a, forgive the phrase, nuanced approach. At least a portion of this anti-Americanism is logically connected to American foreign policy initiatives in the region during the period in question. For much of the Cold War and beyond, for better and for worse, America has pursued a rugged form of realpolitik - charting a course that is designed to maintain a stable supply of affordable oil while countering incursions by the former U.S.S.R. and other regional foes. In the process, U.S. priorities have not always been consistent with democracy promotion, leading us to endorse, support, arm, and fund numerous brutal despots and fanatics (including Saddam, Osama, and the House of Saud to name a few).

Probably our most
egregious example of myopia came in 1953 when the CIA instigated and orchestrated a coup that toppled Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and replaced the nascent democracy with a dictatorship - headed by the oppressive Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (the Shah). The Islamic Revolution, spearheaded by the Ayatollah Khomeini, was strengthened and enlivened by anger at the heavy-handed tactics of the Shah. Many of our problems with Iran can be traced back to these events.

And of course no discussion of anti-Americanism in the Middle East would be complete without mentioning Israel. Since the Nixon administration, and before that time to a lesser extent, U.S. foreign policy has championed the Israeli government, no matter the ruling faction, with an almost unprecedented level of support. I am a firm believer in the alliance with Israel, but there are dimensions of the relationship that may be counterproductive. We have adopted a position by which the Israeli regime is above reproach, no matter their transgression, which in turn has led to a lack of concern for the plight of the Palestinian people. This double standard has not been lost on the Muslim population.

But there is also another dimension to the anti-Americanism that runs rampant in the region, one that is wholly divorced from logic and reality. America has become the favored scapegoat for all manner of malady that plagues the denizens of this part of the globe - politician, theologian and businessman alike. Rumors and conspiracies abound, some contradictory in nature, and others so bizarre they go beyond science fiction. This is not accidental though. The regimes in the area, even allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, deflect their citizens' ire on to America in order to distract their respective populations from the inequities and injustices they propagate.

Regardless of the source of these hostilities and suspicions, they have greatly impacted our ability to promote the message and ideals of America in this part of the world. In many ways, this noxious blend of conspiratorial propaganda, scapegoating, and legitimate grievance have likely doomed our mission in Iraq from the outset, even if you assume that our intentions were noble and that democracy promotion was, and is, a central tenet of the operation. For example, today when ex-Baathist insurgents target Shiite moderates and those cooperating with the interim government, it is not uncommon to hear the local Shiites mischaracterize the car bombs used as missile attacks from the US (the two are hard to distinguish from a bystander's perceptive) - despite the lack of a cogent rationale for the US to attack those elements of Iraqi society most amenable to its presence.
Edward Luttwak provides some historical reference points.

The very word "guerrilla" acquired its present meaning from the ferocious insurgency of the illiterate Spanish poor against their would-be liberators under the leadership of their traditional oppressors. On July 6, 1808, King Joseph of Spain presented a draft constitution that for the first time in Spain's history offered an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and the abolition of the remaining feudal privileges of the aristocracy and the church. Ecclesiastical overlords still owned 3,148 towns and villages, which were inhabited by some of Europe's most wretched tenants. Yet the Spanish peasantry did not rise to demand the immediate implementation of the new constitution. Instead, they obeyed the priests, who summoned them to fight against the ungodly innovations of the foreign invader--for Joseph was the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and had been placed on the Spanish throne by French troops a month earlier. That was all that mattered for most Spaniards--not what was proposed, but who proposed it.

By then the French should have known better. In 1799 the same thing had happened in Naples, whose liberals, supported by the French, were massacred by the very peasants and plebeians they wanted to emancipate, mustered into a militia of the "Holy Faith" by Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo (the scion, coincidentally, of Calabria's most powerful landowning family). Ruffo easily persuaded his followers that all promises of merely material betterment were irrelevant, because the real aim of the French and the liberals was to destroy the Catholic religion in the service of Satan. Spain's clergy repeated Ruffo's ploy, and their illiterate followers could not know that the very first clause of Joseph's draft constitution had declared the Roman Apostolic Catholic church the only one allowed in Spain.

The same dynamic is playing itself out in Iraq now, down to the ineffectual enshrinement of Islam in the draft constitution and the emergence of truculent clerical warlords. Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, both Shiite and Sunni clerics have been repeating over and over again that the Americans and their mostly "Christian" allies are in Iraq to destroy Islam in its cultural heartland, as well as to steal the country's oil. The clerics dismiss all talk of democracy and human rights by the invaders as mere hypocrisy--except for women's rights, which are promoted in earnest, the clerics say, to induce Iraqi daughters and wives to dishonor their families by aping the shameless disobedience of Western women.
Carts, Horses and Windows

Luttwak offers a valuable insight: sometimes our intentions are not the determining factor in the outcome of our endeavors because perception of our motive can trump reality (perhaps an understatement). Some analysts and historians, like Fukuyama, noted that with this backdrop of anti-Americanism it was impossible to maintain the support of the people long enough, and to the degree needed to succeed. Others incorrectly argued that our invasion of Iraq would meet with the instant approval of the populous, and actually turn the tide of public opinion in our favor throughout the entire region - laying the groundwork for such far reaching and grandiose notions as peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. According to this camp, invading Iraq would endear us to the locals.
This marked a singular strategic error: We needed to first address some of the causes of anti-American vitriol before we attempted to insert ourselves so prominently in the region. In putting the cart before the horse, we have greatly undermined our efforts. According to
James Dobbins writing in Foreign Affairs:

In the eyes of the Iraqi people and of all the neighboring populations, the U.S. mission in Iraq lacks legitimacy and credibility. Only by dramatically recasting the American role in the region can such perceptions begin to be changed. Until then, U.S. military operations in Iraq will continue to inspire local resistance, radicalize neighboring populations, and discourage international cooperation....

What efforts the Bush administration has made to forge regional and international cooperation have centered on democratization and counterterrorism. Both campaigns have considerable merit and potentially broad appeal; regimes in the region fear terrorism, and their people desire more democracy. Unfortunately, both projects have been irredeemably compromised in the eyes of Arab constituencies because the United States has chosen occupied Arab lands on which to test them. Whatever the logic of trying to sow democracy in Palestine and Iraq first, the United States' attempts to do so have largely undermined its broader efforts. Until Washington's democratization campaign can be purged of its association with pre-emption and occupation, it will have little resonance in the region....

Peace in Iraq and peace in the broader Middle East should be pursued on their own merits, but they cannot be entirely divorced. To the Arab people, the United States' resort to pre-emption, occupation, and aggressive counterterrorism, with its high collateral damage and numerous civilian casualties, is barely distinguishable from Israeli practices. Israel may have given up on winning over the Palestinian people long ago, but the United States cannot afford to do the same in Iraq or elsewhere in the region. One crucial way the United States can demonstrate its sincerity toward the Arab world is to reengage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the United States will have little success in enlisting the Iraqi population, neighboring governments, and the international community to bring peace to Iraq if it cannot reposition itself as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. However dim the prospects for quick progress in settling the issues of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, Washington must be seen as giving them its highest attention.
At the very least, the Bush administration needed to seize on the very narrow window of opportunity that existed immediately after the fall of Saddam in order to win over the support of the Iraqi population through the provision of security and other diplomatic efforts. Unfortunately, security was not established and, consequently, the CPA failed to actively engage an Iraqi population already predisposed to mistrust. As a result of this, and also stemming from unrealistic expectations on the part of Iraqis regarding America's ability to rebuild their country, the U.S. has assumed the familiar role of conspiratorial target and object of blame for all afflictions.

Of course, it didn't help matters that the CPA seemed more interested in recruiting loyalists than in enlisting the aid of experts, and in pursuing right-wing
economic theories at the expense of other civic minded endeavors. The war's supporters are quick to point to the examples of Germany and Japan as an indicator of the time required and commitment needed to muddle through as a response to these critiques. Perhaps a lesson can be drawn from the German and Japanese experiences, according to Luttwak:

The mass instruction of Germans and Japanese about the norms and modes of democratic governance, already much facilitated by pre-existing if imperfect democratic institutions, was advanced by mass media of all kinds as well as by countless educational efforts. The work was done by local teachers, preachers, journalists, and publicists who adopted as their own the democratic values proclaimed by the occupiers. But the locals were recruited, instructed, motivated, and guided by occupation political officers, whose own cultural understanding was enhanced by much communing with ordinary Germans and Japanese. In Iraq, by contrast, none of this has occurred. An already difficult task has been made altogether impossible by the refusal of Iraqi teachers, journalists, and publicists--let alone preachers--to be instructed and to instruct others in democratic ways. In any case, unlike Germany or Japan after 1945, Iraq after 2003 never became secure enough for occupation personnel to operate effectively, let alone to carry out mass political education in every city and town, as was done in Germany and Japan.
So we find ourselves at the present juncture: with an insurgency raging through large swathes of the country, and an election that threatens to exclude entire demographic groups from the process. The Sunni regions of the country are in near open revolt, moderate Shiites, under the guidance of Sistani, seem to be just barely tolerating our presence and biding their time until the elections are over (although radicals like al-Sadr have been more confrontational), and the Kurds are nervous spectators trying to restrain their urge to divorce themselves from this less than attractive union.

With the future of Iraq teetering on a precipice, the United States can ill afford to abandon this nation to the whims of its more extreme elements. We must look for a way to pry open the window again, and get Iraq back on track toward some fruitful resolution. In some ways, the secret to saving Iraq may lie in a bit of pop-Buddhist thought: let it go. I will attempt to explain how in Part II.

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