Years ago, I watched in horror as an arrogant and foolish administration came into office with the naive belief that a major threat was gone. One that honestly seemed to believe that not only was it gone, but it had never been a real threat or problem in the first place. An administration that was so focused on domestic issues that it never learned the cultural, social, or political mores of Russia and the (former) Soviet Union.
The net result was to poison the relationships with the various leaders extant and emerging in Russia, the loss of an opportunity to cultivate a potential new ally (or at least prevent the emergence of a new enemy), and to almost start a full-scale nuclear exchange because of the first two parts. And, yes, I suspect that the weather rocket incident was not the only time.
Today, I believe I am watching much the same thing unfold, but at an even higher level of “achievement” if you will. Leaving aside all discussion of how things started, we — the United States — had an obligation to see things through. This does not mean making Iraq an American fiefdom, rather, it means that we failed in our obligations as a “parent” to the Iraqi people.
In Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir, he writes about his belief that it was not our place to dictate their form of government, but to let them work it out and chose for themselves what would work for them. On this, I agree with him. Our role was not to dictate or create a puppet state as was tried (and failed) so many times by the Soviet Union and to some extent by China. It was not our place to dictate; but, it was our obligation to help them learn, grow, and develop for themselves, much as a good parent encourages their children to learn, grow, and create a life for themselves.
I am not calling the Iraqi’s children; rather, I am saying that they were and are inexperienced and in political terms just learning to walk. The area that is now Iraq was never a democracy, a republic, or anything even remotely close to the two. That area, and the modern nation that came from it, was first a collection of tribes/clans with nominal leadership of a ruler, then subject to one form or another of totalitarian rule. At no time have the people of Iraq been exposed to any significant degree to the notions of individual rights, individual liberty, individual responsibility, the social compact, or the rule of law as understood in the West.
The fact that these ideas were being presented (largely by the military, as State was unwilling and unable to step up to the plate, the subject of a much longer dissertation one day) was an anathema to Iraq, Syria, and frankly, to most of Iraq’s neighbors. They greatly feared what it could bring, and were and are right to do so. Again, the topic of a much longer dissertation later, along with the abject failure that is the result of the failed (derailed?) Arab Spring.
Again, understand, nothing I say is a slam of the Iraqi’s, nor is it intended to be insulting — it is simply a statement of fact. One of the things I enjoyed doing during my time in Iraq was in getting to talk with a number of citizens, from the low to the moderately high. Several took the time to talk with me at length, and I will share a distillation of some of that now to explain my thoughts.
When I talk about the rule of law and the individual, keep in mind that Iraq (and most of the region) is tribe/clan-based. The real government, law, etc. is in the hands of the sheiks at various levels, and that they represent family leadership rather than classical leadership of Western thought. For many reasons related to tribe/clan strength, growth, wealth, etc., the law as practiced in such a culture focuses not on individuals but on what is best for the tribe/clan.
For example, minor transgressions against another tribe/clan were and are dealt with via token payments or reparations by the family of the offender rather than the offender. This continues up to much more serious crimes (by our standards) including rape. If the crime is significant enough, the offender’s family will make more serious restitution and the offender will be marked for death. However, that offender can avoid the death by moving to another part of Iraq for a period of time, and if sufficient reparation is made, they can eventually come home again. Keep in mind, however, that such is often dealt with simply by payment of funds to the head of the wronged family, who will then distribute it within that tribe. The victim rarely is compensated, both by consideration of their worth (look up relative worth of women, children, and the infirm in agrarian and nomadic tribes, it is not pretty) and because they are often driven forth or killed for having been raped. If a death is required to atone for a crime, the tribe of the offender can either offer up someone in place of the offender — someone who is not a major asset to the tribe. In this way, “honor” is served and the offending tribe is out some deadwood.
Indeed, the way things operate within traditional society have many parallels with the Balkans. So much so, I asked one of the Iraqi’s I spoke to at length on the topic if they kept blood books as is done within Balkan families. He was not familiar, but I explained that some families kept books on slights/harm/etc. done them and would wait generations to get revenge. His response was that no, they didn’t, as such matters were settled within the generation. This was both for “honor” and I suspect it is a fairly pragmatic more to prevent “minor” feuds from creating larger problems and limiting options in the future.
Despite that, there are intense tribe/clan rivalries, and these are increased by religious differences. A Sunni I spoke to at length would admit that some individual Shia/Shi’ites were okay; but, was quick to say that no Shia could be trusted. You can pretty much reverse that to get a conversation with a Shia. Kurds, Christians, Sufi, and others in the area pretty much felt the same way.
I think that history will show that one of our largest successes, and most important roles, was in acting as the adults or umpires during the time of learning, trial, and growth. For all that was said in public about Iraq being its own and needing no help, I lost track of the number of times that some variant of “please don’t go we need you” was said in private.
No group, tribe, or person in Iraq is a neutral. We were the neutral party that all sides did trust (no matter what was said in public) to be fair and just. We were the ones they turned to for rulings, for guidance, and for making sure that everyone played by the rules and that the rules were indeed enforced equitably. Above that, we were the educators, both active and passive. On the active side, engagement teams brought forth concepts and changes in local operations that provided and/or allowed education. On the passive side, the cultural contamination that comes from an advanced (in terms of communications) party entering a less advanced area were huge and even today not fully appreciated. Males and females alike took to the internet with a passion, which was one reason a number of local leaders tried to block efforts to bring in electricity and other modern conveniences — the tenets of Wahhabism and other extreme forms of Islam can only thrive when there is nothing else to compare it to (see stone Buddahs in Afghanistan for but one example). One of the healthiest signs I saw while there was the amount of porn being viewed by regular people (I’m with Glenn Reynolds on that topic, see here and here).
Side note: I think there is an excellent thesis or dissertation out there on the role of NCOs and junior officers in explaining modern republican form of government and classical Western liberalism (not the progressive version of modern liberalism) to the local leadership and people of Iraq. From where I sat, they did an excellent job, and the fact that there was a real chain of command didn’t hurt.
The problem for us is as follows: No matter what was said in public, in private most Iraqis did not want us to leave yet. Think of it as getting a bunch of hormonal teenagers that don’t like each other in a room, giving them ammo, and walking out telling them to settle it on their own — with gang leaders (such as Iran) egging on some of them on the sly. Baaksheesh still rules the day, and the attacks between tribes/clans and groups are still fresh and unavenged/settled.
I don’t think I can say right now all that I would like to say. Suffice it to say that it is my opinion that we have abrogated our role as adult/umpire, and that we have poisoned the relationships that we were developing with the current and emerging leaders. We have indicated that we will not stay the course, as both enemies and friends have warned we will not. Just as we can still repair relations with Russia and the former satellites, we can go back and repair the damage being done in Iraq. However, it is always orders of magnitude more difficult and expensive to do so; and, at least with current generations, trust once lost is almost never regained.
I fear we will be back to Iraq, and that the price we pay will be far worse the next time. Honestly, I hope I am wrong.
Au revoir Iraq. I wish you the best, and have hope that despite all you can and will grow into something good with the strength to weather that which is to come. May we come again one day as friends, and not to solve a problem of our own making that could have been avoided.