The Tribal Layer

Rich Lowry, NRO (National Review Online) editor, criticizes the Bush administration’s democratizing policy in Iraq in telling fashion in this piece entitled The Revenge of the Tribes. It is short and well written so – by all means – read the whole thing.

Note: The article contains an unusual statement requireing permision to even excerpt it – so I’ll honor that and paraphrase it.

The point that Lowry makes that particularly interests me is that the current success in Iraq is not because the Iraqis have warmed to the idea of democracy but that our military has won the backing of the tribes through persistent bottom up counterinsurgency work, greatly aided by al Qaeda’s barbarism. I would add in passing that tribal unity is one of the basic social strategies used to mitigate barbarism although the overly civilized often confuse the two. Lowry goes on to point out that President Bush still doesn’t appear to understand the difference between the tribal mentality and that of modern Westerners and therefore doesn’t see that the tribal freedom desired by the Iraqis is not same as the freedom to pursue Western style democracy.

In that light, the Kurds and their economic success in Northern Iraq can be seen more as tribal or more broadly ethnic progress, rather than democratic progress. Democracy and prosperity are not absolutely linked – Chinese totalitarianism and capitalist success give a clear example that the even though prosperity and democracy have developed together prosperity does not absolutely require democracy. Prosperity does, however, require security which has been lacking in Iraq outside Kurdistan – chiefly in the Sunni areas and Baghdad. Michael J Totten in a recent report quoted an Iraqi translator’s view of the effects on the mentality of Iraqis that the lack of security has had:

Giving them electricity would reduce violence. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what would happen to this Army base if the power was cut off forever and the soldiers had to spend the rest of their lives in Iraq. Do think think these soldiers would still behave normally?

Iraqis are paid to set up IEDs. They do it so they can buy gas for their generator and cool off their house or leave the country. Their hands do this, not their minds.

TV is the most interesting thing to Iraqis. They learn everything from the TV. Right now they only have one hour of electricity every day. Do you know what they watch? Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera pushes them to fight. If they got TV the whole day they would watch many things. Their minds would be influenced by something other than terrorist propaganda.

Right now they have no electricity. They have no dreams. Nothing. And Saddam messed with their minds. For more than 30 years he poisoned their minds.

You can’t understand Iraq because you can’t get inside their mind. When you get inside their mind…it is a crazy mind.

People who have been systematically murdered and abused for decades do not suddenly become peaceful citizens. It will take more than electricity to slake the thirst for vengeance and the habit and madness of perpetual violence. It will take security and time. The Kurds have had a decade head start. The Sunni are swinging sharply toward securing their own cities and towns for themselves. The Shiites are still very much divided. Sadr and his Iranian backers would impose a Shiite totalitarianism. Sistani and the Najaf school of Shia Islam present some cause for hope that there can be home grown Islamic separation of church and state which may, over time, greatly contribute to a working relationship among the three sectarian groups. Cool relations between the Maliki regime and Iran along with Sadr’s repeated need to ‘vacation’ in Iran offer some evidence that the Iraqi Shiites may be moving toward some kind of political modus vivendi with the rest of Iraq. It is important to remember that the the Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, while Iranian Shiites are largely Farsi speaking Persians.

I didn’t anticipate the Sunni insurgency in 2003 any more than the Bush administration did. It appears in retrospect to have been planned by Saddam and taken advantage of by al Qaeda. It isn’t over yet. But the Shiites have always been the central problem and the importance of their tribal and ethnic unity reinforced by long persecution well known. Bush senior refrained from toppling Saddam and left the Shiites to their fate in 1991 at a minimum because empowering the Shiites would have risked great instability and been anathema to our Sunni allies. That genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back, and consequently the future must be built on the fact of an empowered Shiite majority in Iraq. Currently the Sunni Awakening and the surge hold out some hope for reducing the insecurity and chaos. So far, al Qaeda has been unable to slaughter a spectacular number of Shiites to further provoke the situation and spoil General Petraeus’ September report. Instead of simply reporting the recent attack on the Yezidis as more uncontrollable slaughter the press have also been reporting Petraeus’ statement that the attack is an obvious attempt to discredit his efforts. That in itself represents spectacular progress in the information war.


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