Iraq: political stasis and state erosion

The steady passage of time has now eaten up 25.8% of the time allowed in Paul Bremer’s dysfunctional “TAL” regime for Iraq’s elected leaders and Assembly to come to agreement on a new permanent Constitution for the country… And yet, because of the restrictive, anti-democratic government-formation rules also included in the TAL, the elected lists have still not been able even to form a Transitional Government.
Delay, delay, delay… We have had so many promises already that government formation was “on the point” of being completed and announced! The latest one was this AFP report, March 25 from Baghdad, which warned that the coalition talks could drag on for a further week.
Meanwhile, the NYT’s Ed Wong is reporting that: “The delay in forming a new government in Iraq has stalled important projects at ministries and is sowing confusion among current government workers about their duties… ”
Surprise, surprise, surprise.
It really does seem as if what is happening now is a resumption of the policy Bremer pursued during his roughly one year in charge in Baghdad, of in effect destroying the internal structure of the Iraqi state.
Destroying the existing structures of governance and economic organization is a classic strategy of colonial powers throughout history. In recent times we saw the campaign of actual, phsyical destruction that Ariel Sharon waged in spring 2002 against the facilities of the still-fetal Palestinian Authority. Throughout most of 2003, Iraq was ruled by Bremer with the same philosophy, though using slightly different means.
And now, it has resumed…
Yesterday, btw, I had the good fortune to attend part of an excellent one-day conference at the University of Virginia on the past, present, and prospects for democratization in the Middle East. The panel I went to had as the main presenters the Turkish scholar Soli Ozel and Saad Eddim Ibrahim, a dear old friend who is a pioneer of the democratization movement in Egypt and indeed has announced his candidacy in Egypt’s presidential election, if there is to be one. The commenters on the panel were UVA profs Bill Quandt and David Waldner.
The whole discussion was excellent– there, and at the Al Dente restaurant afterwards. But what was particularly à propos for the present post was an excellent point that David made, namely that for democratization to work, the democratically elected leaders actually have to have at their command existing and empowered state institutions through which they can implement their decisions.
It seems like a self-evident point, doesn’t it? But it is not, it seems, at all evident to the Bush administration supporters who keep on crowing about the great success of the Iraqi elections some eight weeks ago (which more or less, I grant), while also claiming that those elections actually constituted some form of a successful “democratization” of Iraq….
I don’t think we should grant that yet, at all.

6 thoughts on “Iraq: political stasis and state erosion”

  1. Thank you for this post.
    “… for democratization to work, the democratically elected leaders actually have to have at their command existing and empowered state institutions through which they can implement their decisions.”
    This was not unknown in Iraq in 2003/2004 (during which time I was a public administration advisor for 8-months) and the issue was raised repeatedly by some of the other experts on democratization and government reform working under a USAID contract at the time. Unfortunately, the amateurs really were running the show at the CPA. In retrospect, it was simply too awesome a challenge even for the mighty USA to rebuild the physical infrastructure, keep the peace, devolve political power to local jurisdictions, decentralize administrative authority, encourage local small scale democracy, and “reform” the economy all at the same time, never mind addressing the deficiencies in public, civic and community trust that had eroded to such an extent under the previous regime. And we (the United States) were trying to do it with B and C team players! Would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic.
    It’s very hard to get good information out of Iraq these days and there were never any really comprehensive assessments done, but I would charge that the state institutions have actually eroded further since our invasion and under our occupation. Whether the erosion is due to sinister intent, negligence or incompetence I do not know. But please do not underestimate the role of negligence at the leadership level and simple incompetence at the implementaion level.

  2. The problem IMO is that US invaded Iraq with the idea to redesign it from top to bottom, with he idea to design it like a little US. So they destroyed all the former Iraqi power structures : they sent the army back, they indulged in intense debaathifications, sending home most of leading professionals and they tried to replace a downed state economy with the most neo-liberal market economy, without allowing the economy to recover first, in clear breach of the Geneva Conventions (which state that occupiers can’t change the laws of an occupied country, neither its economic system) and without the agreement of the main concerned, the Iraqis.
    Where was it written that the US should face all these self assigned “challenges” at the same time ?

  3. Welcome to our “mystery” commenter here. (If you’d like to use a nom-de-plume, as several others do, then at least it would be easier to have a longer discussion here or on another Comments board on the blog… )
    I would love to hear more of your assessment of what you saw happening during your time in the CPA. I always thought that the vast majority of the people there had excellent intentions… But the big-picture policy was so deeply problematic. And also, as Christiane noted, actually illegal under international law.
    The commenting guidelines here call for commenters to try to keep their comments brief. If you’d like to write something at greater length, I think other JWN readers would welcome seeing it here. (Or, I could consider making you into a “guest poster” on the main blog.)

  4. Very well. I’m a bit hesitant to offer opinions too freely in this forum because, while I have learned quite a bit in the short time that I worked in Iraq, I am by no means a Middle East specialist. For context, I left Iraq in early April 2004, during the big spike in violence targeting westerners. I did not work for the CPA, but rather closely (daily) with the CPA in one of the Governorate capitals in Southern Iraq, where I was assigned as part of a large USAID project to assist local government institutions, both political and administrative. I have no firsthand knowledge of what was going on in CPA Baghdad (thank goodness), but I did have a front row seat on-the-ground and could fairly well infer and deduce the difficulties that plagued the occupation management in Bagdhad.
    It was a messy, confusing time. And I would agree with you, Helena, that the big picture policy was and still is deeply problematic. For what it’s worth, the reconstruction and democratization policy decisions made more sense to me when viewed through a narrow Washington DC national security lens. Not complete sense, but more sense because the welfare of Iraqis is not a primary objective.
    As far as overall assessment, there are too many dimensions to address and I wouldn’t know where to begin. As a general indicator, I have declined to return to resume work because I do not see the enabling conditions being in place for substantive reform to take hold. I also value my own safety more now that I have experienced the risks in reality. I did see rays of hope in summer/fall 2003 and the window of opportunity existed as late as January 2003. But it closed.
    Some of my former colleagues are in the process of returning so perhaps they see something that I do not see.

  5. Hi Michael. Thanks for coming back. I’m sorry it’s taken me a couple of days to get back to this discussion.
    I find your observation that the US policy decisions re Iraq seem to make MORE sense, when viewed through a narrow Washington DC national security lens… because [presumably, viewed in Washington] the welfare of Iraqis is not a primary objective to be very informative.
    I guess it’s been such a long time– in US polimakers’ terms!– since the US actually did run a fairly well-organized military occupation that a lot of the “lessons learned” from those earlier experiences have long since fallen by the wayside. I’m referring to post-WW2 Germany and Japan. The key to the relative “success” of those two occupations was precisely the fact that the US and its Allies did realize that the “welfare” (rather broadly conceived; maybe “wellbeing” gets us more in the right realm) of the populations of those occupied areas was of very high importance.
    Those folks (Sec of War Stimson, Gen. MacArthur, etc etc) didn’t have to be rocket scientists to understand that– because the memory of what had gone so disastrously wrong in the post-WW1 settlement was still so very vivid for them. (Also, they had an admirable lack of hubris about “the end of history”, their ability to completely remake the world however they wanted, etc etc.)
    In addition to the many strongly realist reasons for putting a high value on (essentially) the rehabilitation of the conquered population along with a few, very necessary and closely targeted reforms, there are certainly also firm legal obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to do so. remember that the GC’s were compiled and adopted in 1949– exactly at the time when the mistakes (and worse) that many, many parties had made in the 1919-1945 era in the running of military occupations was still fresh news.
    Of course, the GCs were another instrument of international law that the Bushies were happy to flout as they set about governing Iraq…
    Well, I’ve exceeded the length guidelines here, too. (But I own them!) But if you have any further thoughts or insights you’d like to share I’d love to hear them. I’d also love it if you could share any really intriguing or thought-provoking details about what it was you experienced in-country that caused you to start re-thinking your attitudes toward the whole big project.
    Btw, have you ever read George Orwell’s “Burmese Days”? That’s a great, slightly fictionalized account of his time in the British colonial administration in Burma in the late 1920s, and events there that caused him to quit the service in disgust … It’s an important genre of writing!

  6. Note to the reader – running statistic – in my 11 posts here, twice my IP address has been banned without explanation, 7 posts have been censored without due explanation, and 4 posts have been allowed. This post is a repeat of deleted material.
    Tony – This has got to be the funniest, most eager nonsense I’ve read since Juan Cole’s famous “transcendent nationalism” in reference to Muqtada’s ill-fated and ill-conceived campaign back in 2003 (see his remarkably silly Le Monde Diplomatique piece at the time). You’ve just repeated that laughable line. Please get over yourself and your ideological premises (and all the [arab] nationalist mixed with Third Worldist undertones). It’s quite the silly spectacle.
    Beautifully said Tony.
    The problem that the nihilists and leftist-fascists have in their analysis of Iraq is that they deny that Iraqis (and by extension human beings) have aspirations besides power grabbing, ideological and opportunistic ruling on others, and cheap false nationalism (nationalism is better described as social egotism).
    For Helena, Iraqis or the socially conscious layers of their society have no desire to bring about civil society and inter-sectarian justice. History is simplisticially reduced down to grab for oil, cheap nationalism, anti-Americanism, and 3rd worldism.
    The progress the Iraqis are making in bringing about civil society must be condemened by the Cole-Cobban axis, as it eats away right at their ideological upbringing and biases, and also livelihoods and Entitle VIs. If there are no blood conflicts in Iraq, then who needs these “scholars”?
    For them, a thug carrying an AK-47 is a far more romantic and vivid expression of social justice, than all the liberties, elections, parliaments, constitutions, laws and institutions that an Iraqi civil society may ever achieve or require.
    Unlike what the piece implies, inter-sectarian political rivalries, in a civil setting, is the only way for Iraqis to reckon with their identity. This sad piece reflects – as us middle easterners like to say – “the camel who dreams of cotton seeds”. A lot of wishful thinking about religious, fascist, and opportunistic thugs to come together and rule over the civil and conscious segments of Iraqi society.
    Iraqis have made a conscious choice through their participation in the election that they prefer construction of a civil society over cheap cries of “gut independence”.
    Posted by Razavipour3 at 10. apr

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