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April 27, 2004
Cynicism In Search Of A Soapbox

Okay, so things aren't going well in Iraq. I think we're willing to admit that, no matter how passionately some of us supported the original invasion. No matter how thick your blinders, you can't help but see that "coalition" troops weren't greeted with the showers of flowers and thanks for deliverance that the Administration imagined.

So what precisely is the problem there?

Regardless of your position on the invasion, no one disputes that Saddam Hussein and his cohorts were authoritarian criminals who needed to be removed from power. No one the media has interviewed has announced they would rather have kept on living under the former, repressive, abusive regime.

And yet, barely weeks after the embarrassingly stagy toppling of the infamous statue, resistance to the occupation troops was rising and today there is little less than full-scale warfare in parts of the country.

What's up with that?

I've been pondering Fables of the Reconstruction at intervals over the weekend. Not only the article, but the original memo it references. And what I read in this article (yes, again) about the problems Latin America has encountered in trying to install healthy democracies.

(Obviously one of the major mind-boggling moments in reading the memo is the assertion that arresting the cleric responsible for the Fallujah uprising will create problems for only a few days. I don't agree with that assessment and that's kind of what got me started on this train of thought.)

First, let me just say that we handled Iraq wrong. Assuming our collective hearts were dead-set on invading the country (a big assumption, but I'm not here today to point out that we freaking told you so), we needed to do it…well, almost entirely differently.

The problem, as I see it, is that the Administration and those responsible for pushing us into the invasion weren't invading the right country.

I mean to say…I'm not sure they were invading the country they thought they were invading.

That might sound like a more polite way of saying they didn't know what in the hell they were getting into (and it is) but I mean it in a broader sense.

One presumes that our State Department, not to mention the CIA, has employees dotted here and there on the payroll whose job it is to understand the countries we're dealing with (or not dealing with, as the case may be).

(This may not be as true under the Bush Administration, she said, mindful of those reports that the Administration is considering government oversight of curriculums for foreign studies departments or something, leading one to believe that that current crop of politicos don't see anything wrong with viewing the world through eyes too glazed from over-consumption of Krispy Kremes and Big Macs to understand the importance of hummus to much of the world's population, but historically that's what one presumes has been taking place all these years.)

Anyhow. The point is that one presumes there were at least some government employees who understood the psychology and sociology of Iraq. It's rather a pity no one seems to have consulted them on this invasion thing.

There's a power vacuum in Iraq. The removal of an overwhelmingly dominant, even if unpopular, government is inevitably going to leave a power vacuum and the stronger the leader, the greater the vacuum.

Chalabi, in spite of his support among USofA Republicans, is not the man to fill it. (Even aside from the fact that he's a convicted criminal and a fugitive.) Let's be honest…no one chosen by the USofA is going to be acceptable to the Iraqi people at this point. Those who wanted Chalabi in power doomed him by supporting him publicly. What's left is the struggle over who among actual Iraqis over is going to take power, and the contenders are using the means they personally understand. (Not elections, campaign lies, ballot box stuffing, or outspending each other, no. This isn't the USofA, it's Iraq. They're using the pulpit and the people.)

The way I see it, each of those approximately 30 militia groups reported in Iraq is headed by a cleric whose actual goal is to replace Saddam Hussein.

I don't think they dream of reviving his repressive, authoritarian regime, but they do perceive that their country is in need of direction, of focus, and of leadership, and each of these clerics fancies himself as the man to do the job. (Also? It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to jump to the top of the heap. It's a mistake to discount simple ambition.)

These clerics mistrust the USofA and our brand of democracy, viewing it (rightly or wrongly) as anti-religion and specifically anti-Muslim. They fear that the installation of a secular, democratic government will lead to the development of an increasingly Westernized Iraq, effectively sounding the death-knell for their culture.

They fear being made irrelevant. Powerless. With a certain amount of mental effort, I can even believe some of them believe their scriptural texts and that they think they're saving the Iraqi people from hell or non-salvation or whatever it is that Muslims believe in for transgressors.

This doesn't apply to all Iraqis. It may not even apply to most of them. But it does apply to significant percentages of the religious sector and they have the ear of the most important demographic in the country…young men.

They must also fear being powerless, or even being perceived as powerless. Maybe they even fear being ridiculed because the Big, Bad Monster Hussein, the man they cowered before, ran like a frightened rabbit when the hated USofA came after him.

(The least the man could have done, after holding his entire country hostage to terror for decades, was not to have turned out to be such an abject coward. Dr. Jekyll was revealed as, not Mr. Hyde, but a quivering mass of Jell-O.)

Arab machismo isn't something you can't afford to overlook and I can't help but think it's been badly bruised. They're probably angry…even if they don't understand precisely why they're angry, it's understandable that they're angry. And, like all young men, they need a tangible target. They need someone to be angry at.

Enter occupying army, stage right.

While not downplaying my own anger at the stories of USofA soldiers committing crimes in Iraq, let's consider that there have been few such stories; compared to the number of soldiers we have on the ground. That's laudable. You can't do anything about the bad apples except weed them out…but you have to wait for them to appear first. Unfortunately this is not a situation where these few bad apples can be overlooked.

Every misdeed, every transgression, every crime committed against an Iraqi citizen (and I include soldiers carrying out short-sighted and unwise orders for massive "search-and-detain" operations) is going to be magnified in the eyes of the Iraqi people. Especially in the eyes of the, forgive a cliché if you can, Angry Young Men.

It's absolutely unsurprising to me that Iraq's rebellion against our occupation of their country is only increasing.

Yesterday I wrote this:

The real problem is the mindset that if you can just document, regulate, and oversee people closely enough, then all will be well. That's what can lead to an authoritarian regime.

At the time I was warning about what could happen in this country, but you can take a look at Bremer's administration of Iraq and see the same mentality at work.

They've centralized the government because it's easier for Bremer and the military authority to communicate with a centralized government and oversee what's happening, but the effect is to remove even more power from the hands of the people, including those Angry Young Men.

Outside of Baghdad, no one can be certain if their wishes are being properly considered or if or when their needs will be met. Is it any wonder, after months of little or no progress, they decide the interim government and the (already hated) "Americans" are not acting in good faith?

And what about corruption?

Corruption was a major feature in the article discussing why democracy in Latin America is failing. Corruption was rife in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. As in any such society, this corruption included a black market of patronage and products.

If the government can't insure that food supplies, fuel, and security are available…then the underground economy will. This reinforces the belief of those involved that corruption is the way to get things done and makes it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate such corruption.

I do not, by the way, fault the 'Coalition' for having dissolved the previous Iraq government structure. I actually do think it was a laudable attempt to wipe the slate clean. That it failed is regrettable and, I believe, another sign that the thought given to planning for post-invasion Iraq was completely and entirely inadequate.

Only a lunatic would…no. No, I refuse to get sidetracked….

Still. You can't deny that those previously involved in the underground economy are going to be the ones who know where to get what you want.

I don't doubt that whatever black market or smuggling pipelines there were before are still there today…and probably greatly expanded. (Nor do I doubt that some of those "private investors" applauded in the above-cited memo are, in fact, black marketers.)

The result of removing the previous government structure, with the responsibility of moving food, fuel, and medicine from Point A to Point B, is to empower this underground economy and entrench the accompanying corruption. Not to mention weakening the faith of the citizenry in organized government.

By trying to eliminate the problem of corruption with one move, the military authority has actually helped strengthen the hold it has on the average citizen.

As the first-mentioned article and memo made clear, power stations built with French, Russian, or German technology could have been repaired after our bombing by parts from French, Russian, or German companies, had the Bush Administration not spitefully refused companies from those countries permission to bid on reconstruction work. Ethnic differences were not given sufficient consideration (possibly because of a President who sees the world as, "Christian versus evil" but I'm trying to avoid that kind of ranting).

The Middle East as a whole should also have been considered. You can't go in and remark a single section of that part of the world in whatever image the Bush Administration finds most palatable. Arabs are entitled to an opinion. Unfortunately, our closest "ally" in the region is Saudi Arabia, hotbed of terrorist sympathizers and a country with its own problems. And what about Iran…openly discussed as a divisive and warlike influence in Iraq? Did we have any plans for dealing with the inevitability of this development?

I mentioned good faith, earlier. I think a lot of the problems we've run into in Iraq would be lessened if there was a belief that we're acting in good faith in the country, but I think Iraqis are looking at the behavior of the USofA-installed provisional government and they're seeing the confusion, corruption, and infighting and they're drawing obvious conclusions. The USofA is not acting in good faith, the men supposedly spearheading the installation of a democratically elected government aren't to be trusted, and if Iraqis want to control Iraq's destiny, they're going to have to step up to the plate now, and take control before it's too late.

I dunno. If a hostile foreign power invaded my country and made such a hash out of 'reforming' it, I think I'd feel the same way. Okay, I wouldn't shoot anyone, because generally I'm all about not killing people (although I'm willing to make exceptions), but I'd sure be agitating for said foreign power to pick itself up and get out.

It's a psychological problem that billboards, television commercials, and propaganda television stations aren't going to solve because the problem is not with the Iraqi people. Our current leadership is the problem.

Posted by AnneZook at 11:25 AM


The State Department put together a very realist post-war plan for Iraq that was approved by Jay Garner, the retired general who was the first leader of the reconstruction. He was replaced because he started talking reality and the job was given to Bremer.

Chalabi, who hadn't been in Iraq for decades was viewed as the 'expert' on Iraq and the current non-plan is the result.

If the uniformed military had actually been allowed to plan this operation, the language school would have been putting through the maximum number of Arabic linguists and the civil affairs, engineering types would have been the second wave. There would have been no looting tolerated, the weapons dumps would have been destroyed, and at a minimum the Iraqi army would have had to formally surrender.

Posted by: Bryan at April 27, 2004 07:16 PM

That's the kind of thing I find infuriating. Yes, of course there are people in Washington with the knowledge and the history to put something like this together, but it can't be done overnight (or even in a month) and they have to be given the power to do it, instead of being upstaged by late-comers.

Posted by: Anne at April 28, 2004 02:37 PM