August 9, 2007

The "Don't Make Waves!" Theory of Iraqi Politics

Hatched by Dafydd

Or, who needs a grand unified political "settlement" in Mess o' Potatoes anyway?

Congress, and even to a lesser extent the Bush administration, have recently begun demanding a written, codified political settlement of issues in Iraq -- enacted by the Iraqi parliament -- before they'll admit that we're winning the war. The demand is unreasonable; I have thought for some time that that's the wrong way to go about pacifying the country.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I believe the most important elements of the Iraq democracy project are military: denying the enemies of freedom and democracy the ability to enforce their ideology by gun and bomb. Political "reconciliation" is academically interesting but ultimately non-essential to our victory conditions... an Iraq that is no longer a threat to the United States, not a haven for terrorists, and more or less free and democratic, at least enough so that Iraqis feel themselves a part of society, not apart from society.

It doesn't matter whether the society to which they feel a sense of belonging is Iraq as a whole or just their region. In only matters that they realize that they must defend against invasion and infiltration in all parts of Iraq in order to safeguard their own, just as Texans would still fight against an invasion of New York, knowing that if NY fell, so eventually would Texas.

Thus, we must work closely with the Iraqi security forces (ISF) on security issues, defending against both al-Qaeda and affilliates in the Sunni areas and against Iranian-backed militias in the Shiite areas (and against Turkish incursion into Kurdistan, which means stopping Kurdish separatists operating out of that region to avoid giving provocation)... while at the same time, allow political "settlement" and "reconciliation" to spontaneously arise at the local level and percolate upwards from individual to tribe to province. Only then, years down the road, should we worry about parliamentary laws... if they're even needed.

One consequence of this new way of looking at Iraq -- I call it the "don't make waves" theory -- is that we shouldn't be that much concerned about intertribal warfare within a region; for example, we needn't care about various Shiites squabbling over who will control Basra after the Brits leave. Let 'em fight it out. [This paragraph and two others contain a correction; I wrote "Mosul" but mean "Basra." Hat tip to commenter Brian H!]

So long as all political parties reject Iranian sock puppetry (and fight against those militias that are Iranian puppets), it doesn't matter to us which tribe or group ultimately controls Basra. If they allow free transit out of the province for those who don't like it, that's democracy... in fact, it's federalism; and we should have more of it here, too!

Civilized countries with long histories of rule of law and reasonably honest federal administration often make the serious mistake of assuming that top-down enforcement of political rights should be the short-term goal of every country. But just because it works fairly well for us doesn't mean that's the ideal form of democracy for everyone else. When the long history is instead of centralized repression, tyranny, and corruption that would beggar the imagination of most Americans, the level of trust required for a top-down solution is simply unattainable, probably for decades to come.

In such countries and societies, trust resides much lower; in Iraq's case, trust resolves as low as the tribe: Most Iraqis primarily think of themselves as members of a tribe, and secondarily as Iraqis, distinct from other Arabs or Persians. Many people understand this much, but they don't take the next leap of logic: If that's where trust is found, then that's where solutions must be found as well.

This needn't be done, in fact shouldn't be done, by passing a law through the Iraqi parliament. The way to resolve outstanding problems, such as distribution of oil revenues, anti-de-Baathification, and sectarian violence, is to start at the tribal level and work upwards:

  • Provincial government authorities, even in Shiite territory, should start awarding oil-drilling and extraction contracts to local or nearby Sunni tribes, not just Shiite tribes; and Sunni governors could invite teams of American or British geologists to Sunni lands to hunt for oil, shale, and natural gas reserves: Having their own revenue stream is the greatest guarantee that Sunnis could have. Rather than verbal promises from the Shiite-controlled parliament, Sunnis would begin seeing actual cash money flowing into their communities.
  • Provincial governments, Sunni, Shia, and mixed, could simply start hiring ex-Baathists in defiance of the de-Baathification laws; if the federal government forbears prosecuting anyone, then you have de facto anti-de-Baathification.
  • If Shiite tribes began policing their own members, stopping the sectarian killing -- this can start with tribes that have both Sunni and Shia as members -- that would be more convincing than if parliament "passed a law" outlawing militias. A "Basra Salvation Council," patterned after the Anbar Salvation Council but aimed at Shiite terrorists, especially those controlled by Iran, would also encourage Sunni tribes to turn on al-Qaeda and other foreign Sunni terrorist groups... which in turn would make it easier to expand the anti-militia movement on the Shiite side.

The virtue of each of these suggestions is that none requires either side to stand up in a national forum and loudly support the other side -- at the expense of the speaker's own. Instead, reforms can be carried out quietly, behind the scenes, and at a local enough level that everybody knows everybody else.

Demanding that the current crop of dunderheads in the Iraq parliament cobble together a grand unified theory of Iraqi constitutional law is at best shortsighted, at worst feeding the "fatal conceit" that in a tribal country like Iraq, decisions should nevertheless be made from the top down. Rather, democracy and freedom should begin from tribe to tribe, then spread to village, town, and city. It cannot be imposed from above when the only experience Iraqis have with top-down government is the crushing Baathist and Saddamite repression.

And for Allah's sake, can't we just stop yammering about "political progress?" The best way to talk about something when nobody agrees with anybody else -- is not to talk about it at all.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, August 9, 2007, at the time of 5:36 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Rovin

And for Allah's sake, can't we just stop yammering about "political progress?" The best way to talk about something when nobody agrees with anybody else -- is not to talk about it at all.

How on earth is our dear friends on the left supposed to have an argument if ("suddenly") our military is overwelming our enemies, (which according to the Dem leaders, we have already failed/lost to), and not allow them to holler that Boooosh is the reason for not advancing the political process to a conclusion?

Your not suggesting that goal-post can be moved?

Of course any "quagmire" will do.

The above hissed in response by: Rovin [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2007 8:02 PM

The following hissed in response by: Colin


Another thought on this subject that has been running through my head: Maybe the best thing for Iraq right now would be to see Maliki's government fall through a vote of no confidence, see a new election called, and see a new government voted in to power. I don't think that this would make all of the "top-down" problems of governance dissapear overnight, but I do think that, after witnessing the first peaceful transfer of power in the Arab middle east in history, that this developing "no political process" narrative will be rendered meaningless. I mean, what do oil laws matter if you see a peaceful transfer of power, the sine qua non of a liberal democracy? And anyway, purple fingers in the midst of our domestic turmoil have a tendency to quiet the critics fairly quickly.

The above hissed in response by: Colin [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2007 9:15 PM

The following hissed in response by: Terrye

When we look at our own history it not a simple task to bring together together the southern planter and the northern shopkeeper. First there was a failed government and then there was the long arduous process of ratification by the representatives of the colonies. I bet the British thought we would never get it together.

Bush made the remark that there is already revenue sharing without codification and I think that is a nod to the kind of realistic approach Dafydd is talking about here. I also think that the new approach used by the military commanders in the field of working with the local tribal leaders is a nod in that direction as well.

It could be that they need to try a new election, or that they need to try and bring in specific representatives from different regions and tribes rather than blocs, but I think that if people allow the political situation to work itself itself out some of these issues might well be resolved with time.

Watched pots and all that.

The above hissed in response by: Terrye [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 3:26 AM

The following hissed in response by: howardhughes

There has never been any doubt that the American Army could and would win any war fighting situation. The invasion of Iraq was accomplished rather easily in days or weeks. It was the occupation, a change from war fighting to policing, that stalled our efforts. The surge in progress stresses war fighting first, then holding,policing and construction and is working. But the end of the rainbow is still not guaranteed nor even in sight. When the Iraqis accept the baton from us, there is evidence a la Basra where the British are exiting, that rival factions of shias, non-sectarian groups, will fight each other for political power and influence. Maybe Sunnis too. Kurds are settled. One answer may be to ask our allies,particularly Germany, Japan and South Korea for military police (troops). Our leverage might be that we need to withdraw some of our forces from these countries to recharge our own forces. Withdrawals could be avoided by their contribution of police (troops).

The above hissed in response by: howardhughes [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 6:50 AM

The following hissed in response by: David M

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 08/10/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

The above hissed in response by: David M [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 7:51 AM

The following hissed in response by: k2aggie07

I have often thought about this myself Dafydd. The similarities throughout history of eventually unified nations that started off on very bad footing -- Germany, the UK, and the US being a few examples -- are staggering.

In fact, in the early days of the United States, Pennsylvania declared war against New York over land disputes...and we all know how well northern and southern colonial customs meshed.

There's no reason why what you say won't work, provided the Iraqi federal government is strong enough to put down insurrections when they start.

The above hissed in response by: k2aggie07 [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 8:26 AM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

Interesting post, Dafydd, as usual. Among the bloggers I read frequently you seem to be the one with whom I most reliably agree -- even when you skirt close to self-contradiction, as you have done in your last two postings.

I tend to hang with libertarians and I suppose I am one myself but I have do have this slight problem with absolutes. I have trouble seeing them. Where other libertarians see absolutes I often see conflicting values in tension where the optimal point is somewhere in between. If I were Steve Ditko I would have written a comic named Mr A Minus where the hero would announce himself with "My card is BLACK and WHITE ... on the ends (but it gets a bit gray in the middle) ... I try to keep the gray strip as narrow as I can."

Here are a few ideas suggested by your last two posts.

Today's Post: Much of the damage a government does to society stems from the fact that it distracts its citizens from solving their own problems. Time spent petitioning a distant government to act is time wasted that could have been more usefully spent in more-focused local action. This preference for Jeffersonian subordination (or Burke's "small brigades") is easiest to see in Iraq where the central government is nearly useless, but it applies everywhere.

Yesterday: The rampant mis-use of public funds on dubious spending projects harms the war effort by eroding overall public confidence in the government at a time when public support for the government's war policies is a key requirement for the war's successful conclusion. Any local benefits we might get from juicy gobbets of pork our representatives snag for us out of the barrel are outweighed by the damage done to our shared objectives in the process.

So yesterday confidence in a centralized government is a good thing to be protected and enhanced but today it is a chimera at best and possibly thing bad in itself. The two discussions were of very different governments and very different situations, to be sure, but the principles seem fairly universal. I'm not saying they conflict... but they do offer an interesting tension, don't you think?.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 9:41 AM

The following hissed in response by: Big D

I've always wondered about this.

Why do we measure success based on how Iraqi politicians solve problems? You have then delivered the ability to determine whether we stay or go into the hands of a minority of the Iraqi political establishment.

Establishing these types of hard political goals means they become footballs for everything else.

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 9:46 AM

The following hissed in response by: phil g

I think the Bush admin is partly to blaim for this problem when they over stated the case for Iraqi democracy and all that the word 'democracy' is loaded with.

The biggest issues I believe the Bush admin has struggled with through this war are:
1. lack of clear strategic direction and tactics that logically flow from that strategy
2. inadequate communication of those strategies and tactics to the public that were adopted, particularly this latest counter insurgency strategy. And particularly how Iraq fits into the bigger picture vis a vi Afganistan, Iran, Pakastan, Isreal, etc.

I agree with Dafydd and other commentors in that the strategic objective regarding Iraq should have been nothing more than an Iraq that is a non military/terrorist threat to U.S. interests with a military strong enough to withstand takeover by Iran. However the particular political details are worked out is not our business as long as those politics work to support the stated requirements: non threat to U.S. interests and not a subsidiary of Iran.

The above hissed in response by: phil g [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 11:31 AM

The following hissed in response by: TheHat

I think you are stretching the realm of possibility. Texans fighting to stop invaders form taking over New York. I'm from Pennsylvania and I have a hard time thinking about saving New York. Maybe I'll head into the battle after NYC goes down the drain. Then it's a win-win.

The above hissed in response by: TheHat [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 12:01 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Phil G, BigLeeH:

I agree with Dafydd and other commentors in that the strategic objective regarding Iraq should have been nothing more than an Iraq that is a non military/terrorist threat to U.S. interests with a military strong enough to withstand takeover by Iran.

I didn't say that and I don't believe it. I believe the strategic objective in Iraq -- and indeed, in the rest of the Middle East, in Africa, in Central and South America, and throughout Asia -- should be to move all failed states in the world from what Thomas P.M. Barnett in the Pentagon's New Map calls the Non-Integrating Gap to the Functioning Core.

Only then will we in America be secure from attack. (And the side benefit is that the world economy will skyrocket, led by our own.)

But I do not believe such a jump can be made by the national parliament in Iraq; so I disagree with the Bush tactic but not the strategic goal.

BigLeeH describes a "tension" between this post and a previous one: On the one hand, I argued that it is essential that Americans be able to trust the federal government; on the other hand, I argued in this post that Iraqis should pay little heed to their central government and solve problems from the bottom up.

The tension splits across the fault line of trust. We trust our government precisely because it is organic to the United States, not imposed from without. We created it ourselves, based upon our problems and our national culture, character, and psyche. In fact, it differs markedly from just about every other government on the planet.

And because of that, and because our national character is good, we created a good government, one we can trust. Therefore, government at all levels is -- and should remain -- a tool in our hands that we use to resolve problems, rather than an overlord we must obey. Naturally, one selects the correct tool; and it's good practice to select the smallest and most familiar tool that will fix what needs fixing... you don't go get the sledge hammer to hang a painting, and a surgeon doesn't use a chain saw to perform a triple bypass.

But in Iraq, the form of government was indeed thrust upon them, and they had no history of it or anything similar. In time, they will take it over, remake it, and make it their own. But that very movement must also arise from the bottom up, as it did here... else how will they know what to change and what to keep?

So for now, they should leave only the most "national" decisions in the hands of the national government, and try to resolve everything else at the individual, transactional, tribal, or provincial level (in that order) before turning to the federal, having exhausted all other avenues.

I say that "Dr. Bush" has correctly diagnosed Iraq's problems, and he knows what a healthy Iraq should look like and exactly the operation they need to get there. But he's gone and gotten the jerry-rigged chain-saw (the Iraqi parliament); and now he's impatient that it's unable to do the job.

Time to step back and let the Iraqi people resolve their own problems the way they're more comfortable doing, while we keep them headed in more or less the direction of the Functioning Core.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 2:12 PM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

...because our national character is good, we created a good government, one we can trust.

I have a bit too much of the anarchist in me to have been altogether comfortable writing that sentence. But, like I said. I quite agree... more or less.

Note to self: save that quote forever to use against him.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 8:52 PM

The following hissed in response by: soccerdad

This is an interesting thought.
Prior to the intifada starting in late 1987 there were growing commercial ties between Palestinians and Israelis. These ties might have led to some sort of workable arrangment. The result of the intifada, though, was to convince policy makers that the situation was untenable so they rehabilitated and brought in Arafat and attempted to bring about peace from the top-down! We see how well that worked.

The above hissed in response by: soccerdad [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 15, 2007 8:02 AM

The following hissed in response by: Brian H

Yeah, I pretty much go along with this, but with some corrections and caveats:

the Brits are abandoning, not Mosul. And Basrah is THE port that Iraq depends on for imports and oil exports. And that province has much or most of the South's oil. And Iran is cheek-by-jowl with it, and is meddling as hard as it can, hoping for a dependent puppet province.
Anbar (Sunni) province was known by SH to have HUGE oil deposits, as has now been revealed: a 'string of pearls' totalling about 100 bn bbl. Making the western Sunni about 3X as oil-rich per capita as the ROI. So the wealth-sharing problem is basically a non-issue.

The caveat: tribal society is hereditary and reactionary. Just to take one issue: there is almost a 1-to-1 relationship between societies that grant women's rights and prosperity and development. And tribal, especially Islamic, societies are not anywhere on that list. And don't give me Saudi Arabia, Oman, etc. Their per-capita GDP sucks, and the whole mess of them total about the same as Spain + Portugal, poor men of Europe, neither of which has drop one of oil.

So Brenner was right, insofar as it's a fact that Iraq is going to have to outgrow tribalism ASAP. As many urban Iraqi bloggers have noted, their "tribal" connections are about as strong as our Xmas family get-togethers; many don't even know or care what tribe they belong to, especially as in many cases the linkage has long been totally muddled by sectarian intermarriage, etc. Some have, e.g., Sunni given names and Shia family names, or vice versa. Tribalism is, to a large extent, being forcibly reintroduced to the cities, and many hate the thought and the process, and would and will deep-six it in a New York minute given the chance.

The above hissed in response by: Brian H [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 18, 2007 9:07 PM

The following hissed in response by: Brian H

About the oil: Iraq's largest known natural gas field has also just been revealed, spanning the entire west from Mosul to Saudi Arabia. The Sunni are rolling in it.

All of which makes Iraq's most important danger the prospect of sickening from too much of the "Devil's excrement". Oil rental income has killed the initiative and prosperity of virtually every nation that has it. Previously developed ones like Norway and Canada are the only exceptions. Russia probably is not.

Would you prefer to live in a) Japan or Israel? Or b) Nigeria or Saudi Arabia?

Hint: a) have lots of brains. b) have lots of oil.

The above hissed in response by: Brian H [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 18, 2007 9:13 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Brian H.

Thanks for spotting the error anent Mosul-Basra. I was thinking Basra, but somehow it came out Mosul...!

I made the correction.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 19, 2007 2:21 AM

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