Iraq: United, or Breaking into Pieces? 

Iraq: United, or Breaking into Pieces?

Michael Young has a nice piece on Slate, consistent with another piece of his a few days ago. (Link to WSJ via Hit and Run).

I would summarize part of it like this: the U.S. did not cause a civil war in Iraq where none existed before; at worst it destroyed the central government, and is having difficulty helping Iraqis build a new central government, all of which leaves the distinct parts of Iraq feeling their own way, trying to see what they can get for themselves.

To borrow from Locke: when an oppressed people rises up against a tyrant, they are not "re-belling," or bringing back a war; it is the tyrant who has done so by attacking them. Locke sharpens this point by suggesting people have a right to fight not only for their lives, as Hobbes insists, but for their property as well. If you are attacked by the government, instead of being protected by it, you have already been returned to a state of war in which you have a right to fight with all weapons at your command.

Of course, it's not clear to what extent "the Iraqi people" rose up against Saddam. But the main point still stands: no one thinks Saddam was anything other than a brutal dictator. He used brutal authoritarian means to suppress the powerful factions that he knew were present; we surely can't condemn the re-appearance of those factions, to the extent of wishing Saddam's regime or one like it were restored.

Young suggests that Arabs have used various "isms" to suppress and deny the powerful attraction of sects, national groupings and other factions, and at the same time to slow the progress of what we would recognize as modernization. Arab nationalism was one attempt, which was never really successful. And then:

As Arab nationalism endured one setback after another (the most injurious being the defeat by Israel in the June 1967 war), another absolutist notion reared its head and confronted nationalistic dictatorships: political Islam. The Islamists reasoned that Arab nationalism had failed not because there was no broad Arab identity one could conjure up, but because that identity had been defined in secular terms. Islamism posited not only a broad Arab identity, but a broad Muslim one, so that its benchmark was the community of believersóthe umma.


But, again, this proved too convenient: Tension, indeed outright enmity, increased between Sunni Islamists and what they called "heretical" Shiites, even as groups such as Hamas showed they could play the nationalist game better than the secular nationalists themselves. Nor did the Islamists explain what they would do with those irksome minoritiesóChristians, Kurds, Jews, but also secularistsówho had, at best, trivial parts in the Islamist narrative.


The default position to hold things together is authoritarian government--either explicitly tied to mullahs and religious fundamentalism, or corruptly in league with religious authorities; you run the madrasahs, and otherwise teach the young some combination of Islam and hatred, while we in government continue to make some effort to succeed in the modern world.

I guess we all need to focus on this bigger picture, instead of simply on the Bush administration, their blunders and shifting rationales (which do have some overlap with what Young is saying; the hopelessness of failed Arab states may breed terrorists).

Young's conclusion is ambiguous, but basically supportive of Bush:

As the Bush administration tries to get a handle on Iraq, what it agrees to there will be magnified in surrounding countries. In clinging to unitarian myths, many Arab societies and their regimes are utterly unprepared for the consequences of Iraq's demolition of the traditional framework for Arab politics. Many Americans, in itching to declare defeat in Iraq, should grasp that U.S. power still remains great in the region thanks to its control over the nature of the emerging Iraqi state, if only the administration has the nerve to ride the tiger a bit longer.


If there is not an effective Iraqi government, allowing for regional/ethnic/sectarian groupings and protecting individual rights, then there will probably be independent and potentially violent regional/national groupings. Young says: "Iraq's federal units will surely prove overbearing to their own minorities."

Woodrow Wilson inspired many peoples to seek their "self-determination" in the years of World War I and after; as one result, local majorities persecutied their neighbour minorities. Margaret McMillan, Paris 1919: "In Europe alone [after 1919], 30 million people were left in states where they were an ethnic minority, an object of suspicion at home and of desire from their co-nationals abroad." After World War II: "Some twelve million Gemans went westward and seven million Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Ukrainians were forced to return to what now became their native lands. Europe was left with only minuscule national minorities, less than 3 percent of its total population. Self-determination, that noble ideal, produced dreadful offspring when it was wedded to ethnic nationalism." (pp. 486-7)

UPDATE: Oops. I came close to leaving the impression that Iran is an Arab country.

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