Monday, January 31, 2005

As Ye Sow

Mother Jones recently interviewed Noah Feldman, a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority and an Associate Professor of Law at New York University, about the ethics of nation-building and his experiences in Iraq. In it is the following exchange: As a follow-up, you wrote something really interesting in the book that builds off philosopher Robert Nozick's notion of "protective associations" in states of anarchy. You mention that, in the absence of security, Iraqis tend to revert to their pre-existing identities in order to find protection, which is a lot of Iraqis are now strongly identifying with Shi'ism, or Kurdish nationalism, or Arab tribal identities.

NF: I think that's a central piece of the story that's been largely overlooked in most of the thinking about the topic. What I did is I took from Robert Nozick's thought experiment about what people would do under conditions of anarchy. Now he noticed that under these conditions, you need someone to protect you, you need to join some sort of protective association. There's an analogy to being a kid in a bad neighborhood, where everyone else is joining a gang—you obviously have no choice but to join some gang, because otherwise you won't be able to protect yourself.

What I added to that was to observe that under conditions of anarchy, where everyone else is also looking for this sort of protective association, you're likely to look for the most salient marker of identity that you can find. It doesn't really matter that it be ethnicity or religion. It matters that it be an identity that other people will also be likely to rely on, since you're in a race with everyone else who's also trying to find some protective group.

So one of the reasons that we've seen such a strong focus on ethnic, tribal, denominational, other identities in Iraq, is that when the state collapsed, people had little choice but to find some marker of identity that they thought would have some chance of working for them. And these were the identities that were there. We didn't create these identities—they already existed—it's that we turned those identities into focal points for self-organization, by virtue of our failure to provide security. And we therefore made these identities—ethnic/denominational—much more important for Iraqi politics than they otherwise would have been.

It’s a point that merits restating. The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, tyrannical as it was, maintained the order. As dictatorships are wont to do, it, in fact, precluded or destroyed other forms of social control and order that generally tend to exist along side governments in, say, liberal democracies. The fall of the dictatorship predictably left chaos and anarchy in its wake. In the absence of other forms of social control, people seek protective alliances generally based on the most salient remaining social groups.

Also in Mother Jones, an interview with Christian Parenti, a journalist who actually traveled outside the “Green Zone”, reinforces this point.

CP: I think we forget about the other major war going on in Iraq, which is essentially an apolitical Hobbesian war of all against all. Total criminality and a massive crime wave: people constantly being carjacked, people constantly raiding each other’s houses, and countless scores being settled through murder. It is like an extreme version of the Wild West. There is a lot of drug use and prostitution. Drugs, especially Valium and other sedatives, are readily available throughout the urban centers. Prostitution is rampant because women are hungry, women are widowed, and there is a type of lawlessness that encourages it. Most of the prostitution caters to Iraqi men, but it also involves many U.S. soldiers. But much of this so-called underbelly exists in and around Baghdad. When you get into Iraq’s rural environment this form of disorder considerably decreases. As a result of all this, a lot of marriages fall apart in the immediate aftermath of war. It gets overlooked because it is somewhat mundane, but it is a major concern to soldiers because so many relationships fall apart.

The chaos and social disorder, the lawlessness created conditions in which it was necessary for people to create their own protective alliances, to make their own law. Muqtada al-Sadr’s appeal lies not in his radical anti-Americanism but in his ability to provide a degree of order.

In the immediate aftermath of the major combat in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld, who wanted to stay light and maneuverable, dismissed the looting and chaos with “Stuff happens.” This flippant response betrayed a complete lack of regard for the crucial need to restore order as soon as humanly possible following the fall of Hussein. As a result, preexisting ethnic and religious divisions were exasperated. These divisions strengthened the nascent insurgency and, along with the continuing lack of attention to and resources for the deteriorating security situation and reconstruction, helped to create a whole category of insurgents that did not need to come to be – pissed off Iraqis.

It remains to be seen if the Iraqis will still be able to salvage stability from the wreckage left behind by “shock and awe” bombing or the “liberation” of places like Fallujah, or if the country’s divisions will now deepen further into civil war.

If civil war does grow in Iraq, let us not forget who planted the seeds.

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