Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

Foreign occupying soldiers fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing five. The soldiers are put on trial and a talented local lawyer steps forward to defend the men who had killed his compatriots. With skill and effort he wins acquittal for most of the accused. Twenty-seven years later he becomes the second president of his country.

The lawyer, of course, was John Adams, whose political career was launched in part by his defense of the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre in 1770. Later that same year he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and joined the Sons of Liberty. The contrast between those events and the legal drama playing out in Baghdad today could not be more stark. Some of the lawyers and judges involved in the trial of Saddam Hussein may someday rise to positions of great prominence in Iraq, but for now they must preoccupy themselves with a day-to-day struggle to survive. Three of the lawyers defending Hussein have already been killed.

The contrast between Boston 1770 and Baghdad 2006 exemplifies the profound systemic problems that militate against the formation of a stable, much less a democratic, order in Iraq. That John Adams was able to continue breathing after successfully defending the Boston Massacre culprits was not because colonial America lacked class, ethnic, gender, racial, or sectarian tension. Rather, it was because a long and sometimes violent complex of negotiations had created a cultural and institutional framework imbued with enough legitimacy to stave off anarchy even during times of revolutionary change. Iraqi society does not enjoy the benefit of any such history, it is an arbitrarily and inorganically formed community that has never come to terms with the destructive centrifugal forces that tear at its social fabric. This was true long before the Coalition invasion of 2003 and should have been the central guiding fact of US foreign policy toward Iraq.

Much ink has been spilled on the mistakes made by the Bush administration during the occupation of Iraq- too few troops were deployed, too little administrative talent was recruited, the UN was alienated, the Iraqi army disbanded, the nascent insurgency ignored, corrupt and inefficient contractors employed, strange laissez-faire economic policies pursued, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Yet however true this litany of mistakes may be, it should not create the false impression that "had things been done differently" this policy would have been a success. Had all the mistakes since 2003 been averted, had the US pursued the optimal policy within its power to execute, the Iraq mission would still most likely have gone awry. No invasion of Iraq could have succeeded without the Iraqis themselves cooperating in a revolution to form a newly stable and functional state, and counting on that contingency right now was like counting on snow in July.

This assertion is neither an indictment of the Iraqi people nor an impeachment of their desire to be free. As Michael Goldfarb's book, Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq demonstrates, Iraq does not lack its own Adamses or Jeffersons, yet in the current conditions of anarchy and strife no such person can give free rein to their talent and integrity and hope to survive. These conditions are not an index of the moral weakness of the Iraqi people, they are a product of historical circumstance. As rapidly and profoundly as John Adams' Boston was about to change circa 1770, it was a society that rested on foundations laid by centuries of revolution in the British metropole and adaptation on the American continent. Even after the movement of which Adams was a part won through to stability, the system he helped found was riven by violent conflicts and destined to experience cataclysmic schism and bloodshed.

The Iraqi revolution that the Bush administration imagined it could custodian was no less profound than that of 18th century America, yet it was attempted in a society that had none of the social and institutional assets that had made the latter revolution possible. The delusion that American military power could induce revolution was the gravest and most inexcusable mistake of the Bush White House, it expressed a scorn for the arduousness with which democratic institutions are established and a paternalistic disregard for the complex and dynamic humanity of the Iraqi people themselves.

As we run up to the mid term elections here in the US, the Bush White House has taken its usual offensive tack in addressing the issues that will register at the polls. Iraq weighs heavily on voters' minds, and President Bush has been relentless in broadcasting the message that Iraq is part of the "great ideological conflict of our time." This is simply not true. Great ecumenical conflicts are of little significance to the Iraqi people at this time, theirs now is a struggle to negotiate, under extremely difficult circumstances, a new and stable social contract between the diverse conflicting groups that are compelled to live together in Iraq. That was never a struggle over which the US could exercise much control or to which it could be much assistance. Though the negligence of the Bush regime has nullified what little influenced the US ever possessed in the evolution of Iraqi politics, even had they not done so the mission of the Coalition would most likely have proven impossible. The shame of the Bush regime's failing to realize this plain fact before lives were lost is now compounded by their insistence on feeding the American public self-interested rhetoric instead of pragmatic policy.

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