2003 March 27 Thursday
Iraq Reconstruction, Neocolonialism, Political Beliefs

Writing in the Times of London Michael Binyon argues that the liberal secular forces in the Middle East blame the United States for the lack of democracy in the region.

Those Arab liberals who most want to rid the Middle East of Saddam, and the ugly image of repression, dictatorship and aggression that he spreads across all Arab politics, are often those who are most vociferous in condemning America. They complain that it is only thanks to US support that so many undemocratic regimes remain in place — largely because they have made their peace with Washington, which turns a blind eye to their human rights records. Liberals feel they are patronised by a West that does not see Arabs as capable of decent government.

The problem is that we are blamed as much for the status quo as we are for attempts to change the status quo. This can be used as an argument for imposing democracy on Middle Eastern countries. If we are going to be blamed anyhow then we might as well as at least try to do something that will improve matters. However, as we try to change Arab societies keep in mnd that for reasons inherent to Arab societies their democracies tend to fail. If we impose democracies and the democracies are corrupt, venal, and perhaps eventually overthrown many Arabs will still blame us for their failures. But at least a portion of the Middle Eastern people will figure out that they and their fellow countrymen are to blame (btw, I use "countrymen" rather than "citizens" because I think one needs a strong nationalism and a real nation-state in order to have real citizens).

Most of the Middle Eastern despots would not be overthrown if they totally lost all US support. After all, many regimes (e.g. in Syria, Iraq, Libya) are already not supported by the United States and yet their populations have not risen up and overthrown their governments - let alone put liberal democraies in their place. This reveals a flaw in the argument of the Middle Eastern liberals and assorted American and European critics who blame the US for the lack of democracy in the Middle East. They offer no explanation for why even the regimes that have never had close relations with the United States are oppressive, corrupt, and undemocratic.

It will take the actual conquest of Iraq to have even a chance of imposing a real liberal democracy there. Still, even if the conquest of Iraq is followed by a realistic plan to reform the nature of Iraqi society to make it more compatible with liberal democracy the odds would still be against a successful transformation. But those odds will be made far worse if the US and other interested parties pursue policies even more likely to fail in Iraq. For instance, currently Tony Blair is attempting to lobby George W. Bush and European government in order to get European and UN involvement in a post-war administration of Iraqi society.

"It is important that whatever administration takes over in Iraq has the authority of the U.N. behind it," Blair asserted, expressing a view widely held in Europe. "That is going to be important for the coalition forces, for the Iraqi people, for the international community," the prime minister said.

Tony Blair, still a believer in the United Nations and the European Union, is lobbying George Bush for a bigger role for the UN in the post-war administration of Iraq. Blair is probably not going to succeed in convincing Bush to allow the UN to appoint a post-war administrator and to bring in UN staff to run Iraq. While there are many in Washington DC and elsewhere arguing that it would look bad to have a US general as ruler of Iraq for two or three years the idea of putting the UN in charge is not going to appeal to the Bush Administration, especially not after the problems that the UN Security Council caused for US over Iraq.

Henry Kissinger was just on the Fox TV news show Hannity & Colmes tonight saying that at most the UN should have a role in delivering humanitarian aid to post-war Iraq. Kissinger also thought that a force to rule Iraq should be put together from those countries (the so-called "coalition of the willing") which actively supported the war effort. He mentioned Spain and Italy as examples. My guess is that Kissinger's thinking is not far from the internal thinking of the Bush Administration.

Blair isn't being helpful here. A bunch of UN bureaucrats would be subject to meddling by all the usual suspects such as France, Russia, China. These and other and governments would attempt to use the UN administration of Iraq to advance their own interests in Iraq at the expense of building democratic institutions. The development of an Iraqi administration by the "coalition of the willing" countries would have a much better chance of pursuing a liberal democratic agenda in Iraq.

Tony Blair does not have to fight for a British role in post-war Iraq. As this excellent (meaning you really should go read it) Heritage Foundation analysis by Nile Gardiner and John Hulsman argues British forces make an excellent choice for the leadership role for command of the security forces in post-war Iraq.

There is a strong case to be made for Britain taking the command of the security element of a post-war force, under the overall command of General Tommy Franks. The British have a broad and highly successful record of non-combat operations in a number of theatres across the globe, including Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland, and would be ideally suited to running the highly complex post-war Iraq security operation. The British have an in-depth knowledge of Iraq and the region, and have close diplomatic and historical ties with much of the Arab world. A British-led military operation would be less likely to inflame tensions and complicate Bush Administration plans for democratization in the Middle East. In addition, it would allow the United States to free up much-needed resources to other parts of the world for the wider war against terrorism.

Tony Blair is reacting to reports such as the Wall Street Journal report Trent Telenko pointed to of Bush Administration plans to have US companies contracted to the US government to do all the post-war Iraq physical infrastructure reconstruction. The Bush Administration sees the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and the UN as meddlesome enemies who would slow reconstruction and take the credit for what will be done. Basically the Bush Administration sees UN and NGO involvement as a net liability. Better to build popularity with the Iraqi population by bringing an American can-do attitude and sending in large US engineering companies to do the work.

While the Bush Administration approach on physical reconstruction and humanitarian aid seems likely to succeed more rapidly and with more credit to America in the minds of the Iraqi people there is another part of the reconstruction and reformation of Iraq that is getting far less attention: the social and political transformation of Iraq into a society capable of supporting democracy.

One problem with the post-war Iraq reconstruction debate is that it has become dominated by a fight between factions in the West motivated by battles over the future of the West. The Iraq reconstruction debate is only too rarely about what it would take to transform Iraq into a sustainable uncorrupt liberal democracy. Debates rage about the power of the United States and the danger of US occupation of another country, the legitimacy and role of the United Nations, the political development of the European Union, the future of NATO, and assorted other Western disputes. I have opinions about all these debates within the West. For instance, its great that the US government will contract to US companies to do rebuilding as it will greatly accelerate rebuilding while also giving the US much more credit for the result. Also, the UN is a contemptible organization and I'd be happy to see the United States withdraw from it. Also, as Henry Kissinger has pointed out, with the French and Germans actively operating against the US on an issue as important as Iraq the future of NATO in its present form is questionable (and Michael Ledeen even lays blame on France and Germany for threatening to keep Turkey out of the EU if Turkey helped the US attack Iraq). Also, the European Union's further political integration may well make it into a bigger bloc that the Germans and French can use to force other countries in Europe to take anti-US stances.

These are all important topics. In the context of the Iraq reconstruction debate these topics are important because they are influencing what will be done with Iraq post-war. But we need to ask basic questions undistracted by these debates. We need to look at Iraq and ask ourselves what it would take to transform Iraqi society so that it provides a supportive environment for a uncorrupt liberal secular democracy. If we can come up with answers for how to transform Iraqi society we will be able to more wisely decide what positions to take on the struggles within the West over acceptable forms of involvement of various countries and transnational institutions in shaping the future of Iraq.

Some liberals and neoconservatives claim that democracy is so universally attractive that setting up a democracy in Iraq will not be especially difficult (one can call this line of argument the Fukuyama Manifest Destiny Theory Of Democracy). Others claim that the people of Iraq, having suffered a military defeat, will be shocked out of their historical patterns of thought and therefore will be amenable to and properly supportive of having a democratic form of government imposed upon them. Germany and Japan are cited as precedents. However, Stanley Kurtz has rather persuasively argued that Japan and Germany had more of the qualities needed for transformation into industrialized democracies.

There are a number of reasons why military defeat will not leave the populace of Iraq shocked into supporting a transformation of their society in a more Western direction. First of all, the Gulf War II looks to be far less traumatic to the people of Iraq than World War II was to Japan and Germany. Second, the Iraqi people do not as strongly identify with their governments (having loyalties to Islam and to tribe) as did the German and Japanese people of World War II and therefore will not feel as defeated personally. Since the first Gulf War the influence of tribes has been increasing. The influence of Islamism has been increasing as well. These are not exactly hopeful signs for the possibilities of a better post-war Iraq.

Another problem is that the US and its allies are far more reluctant to actively rule a conquered nation for years in order to reshape it. The time period quoted for US military rule of Iraq is widely quoted as being on the order of three to six months and even such a short time period elicits criticism in many circles. Our society does not have the confidence that the World War II generation had about the moral superiority of our society and the legitimacy of our rule to support extending it over a period of years. But another reason for the reticence is the view that US rule may motivate more Iraqis to embrace fundamentalist Islamism. The presence of a still powerful competing religious ideology is a distinguishing feature that separtes post-war Iraq from post-WWII Japan and Germany.

To have a chance of successfully transforming another society one needs a belief in the superiority of one's own society and culture combined with a strong set of ideas for what to change and how to change the other society. As Joe Katzman points out, some people have begun to put forward arguments to justify some form of neocolonialism. To make the argument one must possess the confidence that some societies embrace beliefs and values that are morally superior than those embraced in other societies. The Left in the West has been attacking the West over this belief for such a long time that the argument for colonial rule has been absent from mainstream discussion for decades. But the post-colonial period has run far enough with enough failures of governance in former colonies that can not be attributed to long-gone colonial rulers that the colonial era has begun to seem like a golden age of rule of law for many former colonies.

The bigger problem with most arguments for neocolonialism is that they still do not as yet articulate exactly how failed societies can be transformed. Are the failures due to a lack of history of rule of fairly consistent law? Therefore do the people in Iraq most need an extended period of rule of law? Is a single sect of Islam to blame or is Islam broadly incompatible with secular liberal democracy? Is the practice of consanguineous marriage a bigger problem than Islam? Should consanguinity be opposed with strong policies to discourage the practice? Do Iraqis need to develop a tradition of toleration for free-wheeling debate by having an extended period during which outsiders protect political speech no matter what its content? What beliefs most need changing in Iraq and how best can they be changed?

Of course, it is sometimes possible to fix a problem or at least make a problem less severe without knowing exactly what causes it. But a debate about the causes of brutal regimes, lack of freedom, and lack of respect for the rights of others would be helpful for coming up with ideas for how to try to change the Middle East to make it less of a threat to the West.

Suppose that neocolonialism grows in popularity and it becomes possible for Western nations to take over the administration of some failed states for some period of time. Could a transformation of an undemocratic illiberal repressive society somehow be done quickly? After all, satellites beam images around the world almost instantly and lots of Western cultural ideas are packaged in all sorts of appealing movies and songs. Can't Western culture somehow permeate into the Middle East and bring with it ideas that make people more supportive of the values and concepts that support a democracy? As appealing as this sounds as an easy fix it seems unlikely. The reason is simple: lots of changes in values and in behavior require a new generation to come along who aren't yet fixed in their beliefs who will absorb new ideas. People are far more amenable to radical changes in their values and beliefs when they are young.

Moral values and political beliefs are not the only beliefs that change mainly across new generations. Look at esthetic preferences in music. Parents were outraged by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and assorted other musicians who introduced types of music that were not like what they listened to when they were young. This pattern of outrage toward the new generation's music has even repeated in later generations. Also, someone raised listening to Country music is far more likely to prefer Country and someone raised listening to Rock is far more likely to like Rock. A lot of what people like is the result of their formative experiences. Some aspects of what people like in governments is similarly as much a result of their exposure as is their tastes in music.

Even in countries that have undergone major changes in their political cultures many elements are very enduring. For instance, does anyone doubt that Germans have greater respect for rules and laws than do Italians and that this difference is one of long duration and that it creates differences in the kinds of governments that the Italians and Germans have? Could it be that these sorts of attitudes toward government vary enough between cultures that there are cultures that have attitudes that would be very hard to change that do not provide enough support for a liberal democracy to function in them?

We need to start talking about practical ideas for transforming repressive illiberal undemocratic societies. See a previous post for some preliminary ideas on how to transform Iraqi society. Also see my general Reconstruction And Reformation archives.

Update: Stanley Kurtz has an important essay (which means: read it) in the April 2003 issue of Policy Review where he argues for elements of the British imperial rule of India as a model for how to develop democracy in Iraq. The essay is entitled Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint.

The lesson in all this is that a slow process of English-medium education in modern and liberal ideas has the potential to transform a traditional non-Western society into a modern democracy. (Because of its status as the world’s lingua franca, by the way, even Sweden now makes English a compulsory second language.) To work, such an education needs to be followed by actual experience in legal, administrative, and legislative institutions constructed along liberal lines. India’s English-speaking bureaucratic class made up only 1 or 2 percent of the population. Yet that class was sufficient to manage a modern democracy and slowly transmit modern and liberal ideas to the larger populace. So the route to modernization is not a direct transformation of the traditional social system, but an attempt to build up a new and reformist sector. Several problems with this scenario as a model for a postwar Iraq are immediately apparent. For one thing, it took just over 100 years to move from the establishment of English-language education in India to independence and democracy. We don’t have that kind of time in Iraq, where our purpose is to liberalize the culture quickly enough to undercut the growth of terrorism and anti-Western ideologies.

Further on in the essay there is a fascinating section where he describes land reform attempts that had been advocated by James Mills. In another example of how few ideas are truly original Kurtz mentions as an aside the parallel between these reform attempts and the ideas advocated by Hernando de Soto (see, for instance, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else). Kurtz sees a large web of beliefs and family and societal structures wielding a great deal of influence how a society will react to changes in land law and other property law.

The real barrier to modernity in the non-Western world lies in the pervasive and recalcitrant structures of everyday life — structures few Westerners understand. In India, the key barriers to modernization are the joint family system and caste. The counterparts in Iraq are the patriarchal family system, the bonds of lineage and tribe, and related conceptions of collective honor.3 Traditional social practices like these can sometimes adapt themselves to modernity. Yet a direct attempt to overthrow these structures is difficult to manage and unlikely to succeed.

Kurtz comments on his essay in a National Review blog post in The Corner.

The most important lesson of the British imperial experience for our own occupation of Iraq is that, while it is possible to bring democracy to non-Western societies, the process cannot be rushed. Building liberal institutions is the key. Elections must follow, not precede, that social groundwork.

Be sure to read Kurtz's essay. He reiterates that the problem is that people change slowly and that changes values and attitudes requires new generations to come along that have been trained in a different set of ideas than those characteristic of an undemocratic society.

The roles that Edmund Burke, James Mill, and his famous son John Stuart Mill played in early British colonial administration may come as a surprise. But they brought their views of political philosophy to the formulation of policies for the administration of British imperial India.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 March 27 03:16 AM  Reconstruction and Reformation

Tim Martin said at March 27, 2003 8:59 AM:

Perhaps the former USSR is an instructive place to look wrt the future of Iraq?
I think your point about the attitudes of people being somewhat fixed is a good one.
It's hard to imagine dramatic changes like that taking place within 6-12 months.

A future provisional government of Iraq by the coalition of the willing hardly seem more beneficial than a UN provisional government. I guess I'm not getting the point here. Yes it would advance purely US interests better. But the coalition has it own bias and interests that conflict with the administration of an effective transition gov't. British colonialism is dead for a reason. Perhaps you're suggesting an Iraqi commonwealth?

Randall Parker said at April 23, 2003 10:54 AM:

Tim, The former USSR features large organized crime gangs, extensive pervasive official corruption, political violence including the assassination of opposition leaders, and the lack of a civil society with large private groups of enlightened citizens pushing for liberal reforms. Yes, Iraq will have all of that plus anti-Enlightenment Islamic fundamentalism as a potent political force.

The transitional government has at least the potential to make wiser decisions to pursue the goal of creating a semi-liberal democracy. A UN government would not even want to try because the UN itself is dominated by illiberal governments.

Bradley Hale said at November 28, 2007 11:52 AM:

pretty good site

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