Peacekeeping: August 11, 2003


Can Iraq be Saved from the Iraqis? American soldiers ran into some interesting culture shock in the weeks after the fall of the Saddam Hussein government last April. At first, there were cheering crowds, but that quickly changed into mobs of looters, and even louder demands that three decades of economic mismanagement by Saddam be fixed, now. Right now.

The troops could understand a little looting. After all, Saddam had killed, imprisoned or driven into exile millions of Iraqis. But the looting went on, and on. Along with the looting came the largest crime wave anyone had ever seen. That was followed by more angry speeches from Iraqis about how it was all the Americans fault, that Saddam was actually working for the CIA, had been bought off, and that the goggles soldiers wore contained an X-ray vision device that allowed them to see through women's clothing.

Many of the American troops were from the National Guard, and were accustomed to getting called out for natural disasters. Americans, they knew from experience, were far more likely to promptly pitch in and start rebuilding than join an orgy of looting. Americans, when the going gets tough, are more prone to cooperation and action, rather than confrontation and complaining. And the destruction of Iraq, by Iraqis in the last few months has been pretty impressive. So much electrical wire has been stripped from buildings and transmission systems, melted down and sold, that the world wide price of copper has declined. As a result of that, the task of rebuilding Iraq's electrical system, and much else, has been delayed, not to mention becoming a lot more expensive. Some of the "copper looters" have used guns to chase off anyone who tries to interfere with their depredations.

While the looting has been extensive, and has gotten a lot of media attention, there has been less headline hunting when it comes to the extensive efforts by many Iraqis to rebuild their towns and neighborhoods. The journalists know that bad news is much more likely to get shown than "feel good" stories about a Baghdad neighborhood coming together to chase away the gangsters and get their elementary school opened. But the rebuilding and cooperation tends to be strictly local. Everyone else in Iraq is seen as a potential enemy, or victim, and treated accordingly.

Peacekeepers have long noted the sometimes stark differences in how cultures react to stressful situations. The U.S. Marines noticed it during their three decades of peacekeeping in Latin America a century ago. The U.S. Army has noticed in over the last decade during peacekeeping stints in the Balkans and Africa. After World War II, each nation reacted differently to liberation (including Germany and Japan, that underwent years of military occupation.)

You've got to deal with it. Complaining that the Iraqis don't act like Americans and carry on like a bunch of losers will not make the situation better. 

This isn't the first time an Arab country trashed itself and had to be "liberated" by foreigners in order to quiet things down and allow rebuilding. The most recent example is Lebanon. Between 1975-90 the country tore itself to pieces with a civil war. Religion featured prominently, with Christians and Moslems going at each other (and Shia and Sunni Moslems sometimes fighting each other as well.) To further complicate matters, there was a large Palestinian population that preferred to fight Israelis, but would go after Lebanese if the situation presented itself. After fifteen years of bloodshed, a seeming deadlock and the threat of a Syrian invasion, peace returned. So did a Syrian army and Iranian paramilitary militias and terrorists. The Syrians kept the journalists out and any armed opposition dead. The Syrians wanted to keep the drug and smuggling operations going, and insure that they got their cut. The Iranians poured in lots of money, as long as the suicide squads kept going at the Israelis on a regular basis. 

Unfortunately, one cannot derive much useful from what happened in Lebanon. But there's also the Turkish and British experience. The Turks occupied Arab countries for centuries, the British for decades. Both found that what worked was to make deals with the local strongmen and look the other way as the strong Arabs exploited the weaker Arabs. The Turks eventually gave up Egypt. It was just too much trouble. And they found the rest of the Arab world (from Baghdad to Beirut) only tolerable because the disparate peoples within that area were more eager to fight each other than Turkish soldiers. By the middle of the 20th century, both Brits and Turks were glad to be done with any responsibility for what Arabs did or how they did it.

An increasing number of Arabs are also tired of these ancient customs of "plunder thy neighbor" and "it's not my fault, it's yours." Teaching self reliance isn't easy when you have hordes of NGOs ready to come in and make it all better, and the United Nations eager to blame all your woes on one international conspiracy or another. 

Unfortunately, more constructive attitudes in Arab nations are a coming trend, not an established attitude. So peacekeepers, or liberators, will have to expect ingratitude, inaction, violent opportunism, and rampant paranoia. Hiring lots of Arab-Americans has helped to inform Iraqis that there are better ways to cope. But there are so many Saddam wannabes still in Iraq, that it's hard for the voice of reason to be heard among all the shouting about hatred, revenge, theocracy, and the "good old days" of corruption and torture.

The solution to Iraq's woes is "civil society." This means that Iraqis have to accept the rule of law, and individual responsibility. There has been little of either for the past thirty years. You can't just ship in civil society. It comes from within, and until enough Iraqis believe in civil society, and practice it, they will continue to be the authors of their own misfortune, and the victims as well.




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