Were we wrong?



Aleppo, June 18, 2004


The American occupation of Iraq, now over a year long, has undeniably failed in providing security for the majority of Iraqis. Is that an indication of bad planning from the very start, or is it a sign that Iraq is a prototype of a country, among many others in the region, if not in west Asia and the rest of the Third World, whose “society” proves impossible to reform and change in the right direction—along that of a western liberal model, for instance, in its regional variations, such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or Israel?


The two sides of the question are undeniably related. It is obvious that the Bush administration has miscalculated Iraqi security problems. Had there been 300,000 to 400,000 troops deployed, instead of the now existing 150,000, security would have been better controlled from the very beginnings of the war. Moreover, a massive deployment on the Turkish-Iraqi border, as originally planned by General Tommy Franks and his staff at the Pentagon, would have robbed the opportunity from the paramilitary elements—whether tribal, urban, jihadic, or Baathist—to seek refuge in the central-north—since then referred to as the Sunni triangle—with their arms and ammunitions. As it turned out, the poorly equipped and badly trained half-million regular Iraqi army was not the big issue: its quick dissipation only showed that in such societies huge armies are not made for real combat with an external enemy, not even to protect and safeguard the dominant clan and its loyalists (a task relegated to special paramilitary groups like the republican guards), but to work out a sense of preliminary “cohesion” among the various groups in society. As the various state symbols quickly vanished, an orgy of looting and desecration of public buildings and institutions rapidly took pace, which soon spread to private property at large, leaving no one safe from the barbarism of local urban mobs. A more massive deployment and a firm response would have prevented such generalized looting and better protected state institutions and private property. It would have also more effectively located arm depots, and assured a better control of neighborhoods in all major cities, even smaller ones, creating difficulties for paramilitaries to consolidate. The idea here is that paramilitary groups excel best at protracted wars, which in our case here, and unlike the communists in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Korea, do not have a systematic plan for the takeover of the state, hence nothing is spared in their daily destructive tactics: civilians and military recruits alike, policemen, oilfields, state officials and institutions, and contractors and businessmen of all nationalities (even Arabs). Anything that spreads fear, destruction, and chaos, proves to be good tactics to such heterogeneous paramilitaries, and it doesn’t make much sense anymore to speculate on their identity, whether indigenous or foreign, as their sole aim is to destabilize and empty Iraq from its resources.


But, on the other hand, the gross failure of the Bush administration to foresee such protracted wars notwithstanding, the ease with which paramilitaries consolidated—and we’re constantly reminded that their numbers are not that large—should push us to think beyond the immediate security issues, into the complex structure of Iraqi society and its power relations. The littérature savante, whether journalistic, academic, or originating from the administration’s think tanks, has not addressed that issue properly, limiting itself mostly to generalities, such as describing the defunct Baathist ancien régime as “authoritarian.” But authoritarian in what way? And how does Baathist authoritarianism differ from its cohorts in the west, such as the fascist, Nazi, or communist? An easy way out was to conceptualize Baathist authoritarianism in terms of the classic division between state and society: the takeover of the state apparatus by a ruling minority—in this case, the Takriti Sunni Arab clan—and its control of “society” through a mixture of disciplinary techniques, fear and intimidation, and direct violence. In such a view, “régime change” would imply overthrowing the ruling minority, dismantle its institutions, and replace them by something more decently representative and democratic. “Society” would finally be set free, a “civil society” would emerge, and peace and prosperity would reign. What this past year has taught us, however, is that such views are hard to sustain: primo, the response of Iraqis to their liberation from a tyrannical rule was muted at best, showing no signs of great excitement towards change and a different kind of well being and prosperity; even if we assume that a “silent majority,” composed of decent middle-class professionals and citizens, does exist, it has been too silent to give it any credit; secundo, the tyrannical state-subdued society division fails to see the strong links between the two, and that in such countries, precisely because the state is unable to pose itself as an autonomous political and legal entity, it uses the weaknesses of “society” to consolidate its networks of power relations. In other words, rather than promoting civil peace, which it is unable to do, the ruling clan feeds itself from the protracted civil wars and feuds between groups.


We therefore have to think in terms of an intricate culture of power relations, which minimizes the personal initiative of individuals, replacing them by customary routines of decision making, whose prime sources are the elderly, tribal chiefs, fatherly figures, the clan, family, and networks that connect groups together. What emerges on the top is an ineffective paralyzed bureaucracy and state institutions, based on archaic schemes of decision making whose logic is the group rather than the individual. Because in such societies it is harder for the individual “self” to dissociate itself from the group at large, modes of domination that one observes “at the top” are not that different from the ones that predominate among individuals, families, and groups, to the point that it indeed becomes difficult for an external observer to separate between various levels of domination. The cruel domination of the ruling group through its various paramilitary organizations, secret services, and heavily sanctified military and bureaucracy, could ambiguously become a source of national pride, and foster images of might and power. More importantly, routines of corruption, domination, and lack of personal and collective initiative, are instituted as the common norm. We need refined sociological and anthropological tools to see how the “self” is constructed in such societies, in particular among the young who, on the one hand, seem to play well their familial modes of domination, but who, on the other, look for exit solutions in mass media idols, immigration, religious affiliations and jihadic groups, drugs and gang violence, and the like. The juxtaposition of incompatible and self-serving modes of representation in an individual self tends to be much stronger in such societies than in western ones.


The state is therefore no state at all. Once the Anglo-Americans reached Baghdad they found no army to confront in a decent battle, no state either to capitulate and declare peace with the occupying enemy: the whole state apparatus was suddenly reduced to a deck of playing cards, whose cohort of celebrities had to be seized or killed one by one. Society, which could only be controlled by a state apparatus without, however, being objectified through its institutions, was now at bay in its various ethnic and religious groups. The war that the Anglo-Americans never fought with the regular army, had now been delegated to the civil forces on the ground. You’re now into a catch-22 situation where you’re trying to convince the protagonists and their supporters on the ground, who never declare themselves, and whose faces you never get to see, that it’s worth giving up their arms and destructive actions, join the new Iraqi army, and work for a more democratic state. But those same protagonists have modes of domination and power relations of their own from which extrication is impossible because of built-in illogical rules and regulations, incompatible for the most part with a modern state and society. Those paramilitaries can therefore only be subdued by force, as no free Iraqi government could possibly handle them.


The Kurdish success in the north should not be taken for granted, as it can point to the roots of an experience that was crafted outside the modes of domination of mainstream Iraqi society. The mutual suspicions that were harbored by Kurds and Arabs towards one another for centuries, not to mention Kurdish hatred towards the Turks, have pushed the Kurds towards power-relations at the margins of Baathist state and society. Casual journalistic observations, as well as more in-depth research by scholars, have pointed to a more informal power structure, even though all these ethnic groups, whether Arab, Kurdish, Turkish, or Indo-European, are anthropologically closely modeled after one another. At about the mid-1990s, and after decades of internal feuds and guerilla wars with neighboring states, which never fully stopped, northern Kurdistan, on whatever territory it declared as its own, was able to consolidate a semi-liberal social and economic infrastructure, along the lines of countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which in the final analysis tilted it in another direction from the destructive wave of the bulk of Middle Eastern countries.


The most worrying trend for all those Middle Eastern countries is a tendency towards self-destruction, which reflects in an inability to move with the rest of the world and accept capitalist modernity and its empowerment of individualistic values. We need not get here into the pseudo-academic debates of whether such values are universal or not. Suffice it say that no culture adapts to capitalism in the same way, and that cultures of selfhood and individualism are nurtured very differently from Japan, South Korea, to the Philippines and Indonesia.




copyright © 2004, zouhair ghazzal