Thursday, October 13, 2005

Intrigue, Vectors and a Mosaic of Fault Lines

Vector Vexation

Since the punditocracy has shown a predilection for making comparisons between Iraq's struggle to forge a constitution with our own in the late 18th Century, I thought it would be worthwhile to inject the philosophical thesis of one of the framers, James Madison, into the mix. The always recommended Publius from Legal Fiction provides an insightful backdrop:

When Madison and others were arguing in favor of the large democratic republic now known as the U.S. of A., the conventional wisdom was not on their side. The prevailing view was that, in order to succeed, a republic had to be small and largely homogenous because "factions" would inevitably develop. The fear was either that diverse factions in a large republic would make it unstable, or that one faction would seize power and oppress the minority (or even the majority). The larger the republic became, the more likely it would be that these problems would arise - or so everyone thought.

In the Federalist Papers (#10), Madison - developing an idea of empiricist David Hume (one of my heroes) - turned that wisdom on its head. He argued that the best way to preserve stability and prevent tyranny of a majority or minority faction was to increase the size of the republic. This is an important contribution to political thought....Madison's argument was that by increasing the size of the country, you increase the diversity of interests and factions, which in turn makes it much more difficult for any one faction to seize power or act against the public interest. In other words, the bigger your group gets, the harder it becomes for any one faction to control it - and given the history of mankind, that's a good thing. Here's Madison in his own words:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.
What's really cool is that you can clearly see the influence of Newtonian physics (and Enlightenment rationalism more generally) at play in Federalist #10. The various factions are like vectors that will cancel each other out or push the governmental body towards the common good (or at least away from corruption and tyranny). It's all very logical.
One can immediately see how such a theory is relevant to the current dynamic in Iraq, with the various competing ethnic and religious factions, but Publius saves us some of the work by connecting the dots in a subsequent post.

The vectors are really the key to the theory of the big republic. The idea is that they become so diverse and overlapping in a large republic that they result in fluid coalitions that vary by issue. Because it's hard for any one faction (or interest group) to hold together on all issues, it's harder for that faction to maintain the power necessary to undermine the government.

At first glance, you would think that the theory of the big republic should give us hope for Iraq's future. After all, the great fear is that ethnic factionalism will rip the country apart - or that one faction will come to dominate the others. However, by creating a national republic of elected representatives, the factions would be multiplied. For instance, urban Shi'a would have common cause with urban Sunni on certain issues, and so on. The idea would be to drown the ethnic factions within a sea of Newtonian vectors and shifting coalitions.

It sounds nice, but I don't think it will work in Iraq. And here's why. I think the ethnic tensions run so deep and are so bitter that they will prevent new vectors from forming. In a sense, the tensions have formed impenetrable floodwalls around each ethnic group that prevent other common interests from "leaking through" to forge the shifting coalitions so essential to Madison's theory. Fellow urban-dwellers from rival ethnic camps who might otherwise have a common interest won't be able to get past the ethnic hatred. This centuries-old hatred will prevent the new urban coalition from forming.
Pat Lang offers a similar, though somewhat different, perspective (via praktike):

The Sunni Arabs are supporting the insurgencies because they are unwilling to accept the radical re-distribution of power and wealth on the basis of "one man, one vote" that we are sponsoring. Why are we doing that? It is because we believe, deeply, that justice in voting rights for INDIVIDUALS produces government that embodies a "National Compact" that is accepted by all. The Middle East is not like that. In the Middle East people self-identify in a number of ways, only one of which is at the level of the individual. More importantly, people there predominately see themselves as members of COMMUNITIES of various kinds whether they be ethno-religious, tribal, clan, regional or just plain family. A system that strips an individual's community of power and wealth is inevitably going to be seen as HOSTILE and to be defeated.
Despite the pessimism, I believe Publius (and maybe Lang as well) would agree that the value of Zal Khalilzad's nominal breakthrough with respect to the constitution was that it might buy time for the formation of cross-sectarian/ethnic "vectors" or "non-communitarian" enclaves. If the agreement to re-form a constitutional panel after the December elections can sap some of the support for, and participation in, the various insurgencies, then Zal will have created the requisite space to allow for the softening of ethnic/sectarian boundaries. Put off the inevitable day of reckoning as long as possible and hope that a renewed national entity can supersede the more communal impulses. Even if it is only enough to forestall the commencement of an all-out civil war, it might carve out the breathing room necessary to allow Iraqis to begin identifying along less rigid lines and to act on what are, underneath it all, vastly differing goals, aspirations and conceptions of what life should look like in the new Iraq that don't necessarily neatly form along strict ethnic/sectarian lines. Without the emergence of non-communal based vectors, Iraq's future is bleak.

Fault Lines and Tectonic Shifts

There is evidence that the political situation may, in fact, be more fluid than some have warned. The cross-ethnic alliance between the Kurds and Shiites is showing signs of fraying. Recently, there appeared to be a rift forming within this marriage of convenience, with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (a Kurdish leader) calling on Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (a Shiite and leader of the UIA) to resign his post over issues related to power sharing and the resettlement of the hotly contested city of Kirkuk. If the Kurds bolted the coalition, the UIA would have to look for another partner in order to maintain a majority in the assembly - no easy task in the current state of affairs. Of course, this could have been just one more example of Kurdish brinkmanship in order to get a better deal, and faster, on Kirkuk. Nevertheless, it is an indication of how fragile at least this alliance is.

Beyond the Kurdish/Shiite sniping, there is an increased interest in the future of the UIA - which is by no means a settled question. Many are speculating that the UIA will splinter into several groups each with differing agendas, ahead of the December elections. The grand coalition of Shiite parties has, after all, always been a somewhat heterodox conglomeration of characters that are not all natural political allies outside of their common religious affiliation.

One of the main irritants in the UIA universe has always been the brash, though cunning, Moqtada al-Sadr. Throughout the occupation, Sadr has, with surprising skill, been cultivating a political niche for his faction, casting himself as the independent voice of the downtrodden (a natural fit for the heir to Sadr City), in opposition to the Americans and those that work with or for them. Rhetorically, he often heaps dispersions on the UIA leadership calling them corrupt, obsequious to the CPA and unable to deliver basic services to the people (thus capitalizing on what are grim realities of electricity shortages, unemployment, and other infrastructural decay). Sadr's independent streak even went as far as to lead him to take a hostile stance to the draft constitution - before he watered down his opposition in the face of mounting pressure.

There are indications that Sistani is taking this posturing by Sadr seriously by proceeding to distance himself from the current Iraqi government that has proven to be less than effective, and not entirely popular even amongst Iraq's Shiites. Just last week there was this statement from Sistani (via Swopa):
Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has told his closest followers not to run in December elections or support any candidates, aides said, suggesting no party stands to win his backing.

That could spell difficulties for the parties in the already much criticised government coalition, who profited in January's poll from a wide perception that they had Sistani's blessing.[...]

A statement from Sistani's office said any official of his clerical organisation who runs on a party list or openly supports candidates will "lose his status as a representative".

"Sayyid Sistani bans his representatives from nominating themselves in the next election after they proposed to run," said the statement.
In addition to Sistani cutting ties with the UIA to counter Sadr's advances, SCIRI's Badr Corp has had more than a few run-ins with Sadr's Mahdi militia . In other words, this is not one big happy family and each player is intent on jockeying for its own larger share of power. If the UIA dissolves, for lack of Sistani's blessing or otherwise, I predict we will see Iyad Allawi make a comeback for the December elections (to be held whether or not there is a "yes" or "no" vote on the constitutional referendum) in an effort to cobble together pieces of the various factions into something of a fourth way - distinct from ethnic/sectarian identification (in fact, Allawi will probably be on the scene in December regardless of the UIA's demise or continued existence - despite the fact that some 20 members of his cabinet were just indicted on corruption charges).

Allawi, or a politician in the same vein (the unsinkable Ahmed Chalabi?), will try to lure the more secular and/or disillusioned Shiites from the UIA bloc as well as Kurdish and Sunni groups willing to coalesce around a common political purpose. There certainly are numerous Sunni factions from which Allawi could seek to forge alliances, and the Sunnis are far from monolithic in their outlook for the future. Much will depend on the tack taken by Sunni voters in the December elections, and the extent to which the politicians they elect will feel constrained by communal demands ala Pat Lang above.

Similarly, the Kurds (though acting as one) are actually, at the very least, two competing groups so a fourth faction might be able to lure a few outliers away from the fold (though I imagine, as always, the level of autonomy and the status of Kirkuk will be the guiding principles of any Kurdish politician). The question remains, though, will Sistani give a group of secularists his blessing? Without it, could this fourth faction really garner enough electoral support to supplant the more religious parties, or even become a player in a future coalition? I think there is at least a possibility of the latter occuring. If successful, this could be the fruition of the Madisonian call for the formation of "vectors" - especially if it forces other groups to react in kind by reaching out across ethnic/sectarian lines. It will test whether there are indeed impenetrable boundaries around each faction that prevents inter-factional cooperation. Unfortunately, both Allawi and Chalabi are less than ideal choices to be the uniting force behind the movement to broach these divides. Each has more than enough baggage, dubious ethical character and a historical closeness to the Americans that will not help in establishing their legitimacy or appeal.

My guess is that Zal Khalilzad has been working to bolster the fourth faction (regardless of its figurehead) behind the scenes, while trying to plant the seeds of dissension amongst the competing members of the UIA - the better to counter the prospect of Iranian influence over Iraq should a unified UIA continue to dominate the Iraqi political landscape. But any attempt to encourage intra-communal fragmentation bears its own risks. As Anthony Shadid noted, there is a dark side to the stoking of internecine hostilities:
This question of civil war is really pressing, and I think it is actually important to say whether one is under way or not. I believe it is, but maybe not in the way we've fashioned it in the past: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. When I think of the civil war in Iraq, I'm struck by the fault lines that are getting less attention. There is the sometimes explosive rivalry between Hakim's Badr militia and the Sadr forces. We've seen time and again the flaring of differences in western Iraq between insurgent groups. (As far back as last year, I heard an Iraqi guerrilla from Fallujah, of the nationalist variety, vowing to shoot any Arab expat trying to give him orders.) We should be careful in not minimizing differences between the two Kurdish parties. Understandably our attention is focused on Zarqawi's threats to wage an unrelenting campaign against Shiites. But in the long run, it's the intra-communal battles that I think are more decisive and worrisome.
In Iraq, the political game is afoot. That in itself is worth noting. The stakes are monumental, and the question remains: will the intrigue end in tragedy, or are these just the growing pains of a society learning to adjust to the parameters of a Madisonian "big republic." The prospects for success are not aided by the fact that there are so many armed groups involved, and the associated violence that continues to ravage the nation. I'm not overly optimistic, but time will hopefully prove me wrong.

(cross posted at Belgravia Dispatch)

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