OxBlog

Sunday, July 20, 2003

# Posted 1:13 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

QUAGMIRE! QUAGMIRE! QUAGMIRE! The NYT isn't letting up. Today's Week in Review section features a lengthy essay comparing the failures of the American occupation to the failures of its British predecessor 80 years ago.

The most glaring oversight in the NYT essay is its willful blindness on the question of democratization. The essay notes that in response to a violent rebellion in 1920, the British held a rigged plebiscite in which King Faisal got 96% of the votes. Impressive, huh? Just 4% short of Saddam's total in the most recent Iraqi election.

Unsurprisingly, the Iraqis didn't take well to the rigged plebiscite. Thus,
In response, the British turned to technology, with their air force commander, Arthur (Bomber) Harris, boasting that his biplanes had taught Iraqis that "within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or wounded."
Hmmm. Carpet bombing of innocent civilians. That does remind me of American strategy in a certain war. Could it be...could it be...could it be...VIETNAM?

Now, if you're looking for realistic commentary on the situation in Iraq, the WaPo Outlook section has an excellent forum on the subject. First off, retired Army officer Ralph Peters reminds us that the situation in Germany in July 1945 was far worse that the situation in Iraq in July 2003. Peters then goes on to blast press coverage of the occupation, writing that
the breathless media reporting of each American casualty in Iraq implies that the occupation has failed.
Sounds like someone has been reading OxBlog...

But let's get off our high-horse for a moment. As one of my friends in the military shot back when I criticized the media's coverage of the occupation, the fact that Iraq isn't Vietnam hardly makes Iraq a success. Point taken. So what next for the occupation? Tom Carothers that the US has to keep hammering away at the restoration of basic services and the augmentation of state administrative capacity. Otherwise, elections will only raise expectations while providing a government incapable of meeting them. In short, "The engine of democracy is useless without the chassis of the state to put it in."

While Carothers is absolutely right, it is worth keeping in mind that Paul Bremer will get hit hard regardless of whether he speeds up or slows down the transition. I put the problem this way in a forthcoming report for OxDem:
Conflicting pressures to both accelerate and decelerate the transition to an elected government illustrate the fundamental paradox of occupation: satisfying immediate demands for autonomy may threaten the prospects for democratization in the long-term, while a refusal to satisfy such demands may provoke an immediate backlash against the democratization process. The best illustration of this paradox is the way in which Bremer initially suspended the transition process in response to widespread criticism of his predecessor’s efforts to rush it forward. After winning initial praise, Bremer came under fire for not pushing the process forward fast enough. And now that he has responded to that sort criticism by appointing a Governing Council, experts such as Carothers are dissatisfied with his efforts to rush the process too much.

In the short-term, the untying of this Gordian knot may depend on the occupation forces’ ability to ensure a rapid increase in the Iraqi standard of living, since material advances tend to increase public patience with the gradual pace of political reform. And given enough time, the new Iraqi state may be able to take advantage of its most important asset in the democratization process: the desire of its people to ensure that they will never suffer again as they once did under Saddam Hussein.
As such, it isn't particularly helpful when Kofi Annan demands a timetable for the American withdrawal. If the guerrilla war gets worse and fundamentalist Shi'ites show little respect for democratic norms, will Annan still insist on meeting the timetable's objectives? (Don't answer that question.)

Moving on, the last two articles in the WaPo forum each make one solid point and then take it to ridiculous extremes. Historian Niall Fergusion writes that American underfunding of the reconstruction effort is extremely perilous, because
Without jobs and wages, many of the young men of Iraq will find the temptations of violent crime and guerrilla warfare impossible to resist.
Mind you, Ferguson knows from personal experience that money talks. After all, that's why he left Oxford for NYU. But would Fergusion have become an academic guerrilla if he were unemployed? That, of course, it is an absurd question. But how much more likely is it that all Iraqi youths -- especially Shi'ites and Kurds -- will join the Ba'thist guerrillas is they lose their jobs? Still, crime is a serious problem, along with the general dicontent that comes with poverty. Ferguson is right that the US has to spend more and not wait for the Europeans to get on board.

Finally, we come to Lesley Abdela passionate argument that having just three women on Iraq's Interim Governing Council will help perpetuate the brutal variant of sexism that has already taken hold in Iraq. Abdela writes that
As someone who has worked with Kosovo Albanians, Sierra Leonians and Afghans in rebuilding democratic institutions after devastating wars, I have heard local men and the international community alike excuse the exclusion of women from political power with weak arguments about "cultural sensitivities" and "custom and tradition." And yet, the introduction of pluralistic democracy itself is a clear break with the past -- a break from systems in which rights over others are based on gender, class, tribal affiliation or heredity.
Exactly. Exactly. But does that mean that there should be 14 women on the Governing Council instead of 3, as Abdela suggests? I don't know. It was hard enough to find three prominent women in a male-dominated society. Seems to me the real issue is to ensure that the men in charge are sensitive to women's rights and concerns.

So, leaving all the rhetoric aside, where are we know? I have to admit that I just don't know. While things certainly are not as bad as the media make it seem, their misguided reporting has made it all but impossible to know what is actually happening on the ground.
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