December 20, 2005
On Iraq, Elections, Spying and US Media Coverage
Being back in the land of tubby supersized people is reminding me what completely atrocious news coverage is available in the US broadcast media. The shrieking exageration that seems to be the baseline for any and all stories is painful to watch.
Truly painful. It doesn't seem particularly ideologically focused, despite the endless whinging I have read online in blogs and the like (which one may take, including I may add this one as mere navel gazing, and the pretension among some in the "blogosphere" that they are bringing new standards is absurd and laughable... although given broadcast media in the US of A....). Rather, it strikes me as simply bad professional practice.
This aside, I was amused by the breathless shock of much coverage I saw in regards to the Iraqi elections, with preliminary results showing the Shia religious leadership coming out strongly ahead of the "secularists."
The shock was, well ludicrous. These results were obvious and "written in stone" for a long time to be frank. Thinking the Chalabis and the Allaouis would come out ahead in more or less free-ish elections ignores the fact that secularism is a discredited thing in the Arab world. Of course most blithering fools commenting on the region and Iraq know nothing of the modern history of the region that frames ideas like secularism, etc.
There is merely a naive and simplistic desire that "they" look and seem to act just like "us" in superficial ways. A naive understanding (see Andrew Sullivan) also that somehow "secularism" will render the scary Arabs more pliant and more likely to agree with the West. Did not work during the height of the secularist period in the 1960s, no reason it should work now.
Nor does it really have anything to do with genuine State interest on the part of Europe or the United States. State interest in terms of Europe and the United States may be simply expressed in terms of it is best not to have openly hostile governments, and certainly it is better to have stable, reasonable governments. That they are "democratic" is perhaps nice, certainly for the longer term stability it is probably better, but the real key factor is whether the local population is getting its interests served, or is the government captured by rentier interests. In short first comes economic opportunity, then political, not the other way around. Else, mechanically, the "democratic" regime will become nothing more than the toy of the rentier class, a joke discrediting the very idea. That happened once in Latin America (although the 1990s may have seen the disease cured. May have), and certainly happened in the case of the "secular" and "revolutionary" "nationalist" regimes that emerged in the 1950s.
One has to understand where the real interests lie. Else one begins naive idiocy like the Yemani program described in the Washington Post. Sounds great, sounds nicely idealistic even as described. And those cynical politicos.... Well the reality is if the tribes unite, they probably will go after the central government, and a new tribal government takes Saleh's place. Unless one naively believes that a tribal sheikh grown up in a Hobbsian world of eye for eye conflict will not desire to take power if he can? Based on the old models?
Regardless, returning to Iraq, it really boils down to the issue of the genuine political dynamic in Iraq and the particular question as to whether clear leaders may emerge from the Sunni Arab side.
The fantasy that "secular" Shia Arabs were going to lead a government simply ignores where the Shia Arabs, in grosso modo, are right now. The secularists, for better or worse are contaminated with their association with the history of secularism in Iraq, its association with contempt for the population, imposition of values, and yes, the nastiness of big bad Sadaam. Of course the positive there is at least Sadaam had a reputation for competence.
When it comes down to it, all the drivers on the ground level are towards ethnic groups and sub-groups circling the wagons, and there are no real subsantive drivers in the other direction (other than wishful thinking).
Of course this is nothing new. It is simply amusing that still in the US media (and for those idiot bloggers who think they are different that the "main stream media" among them also), that so few can figure out that Iraq is not a little America. Even now.
Of course, the blithering on on the Left in the United States about pull-out and the like is as unhelpful as the Bolshy self deception on the Right about both the current American Administration (competence and the like) and what can be achieved in Iraq (downside management at best of course), as well as what real end results that can be expected (hint the messianic vision of little Americas across the MENA region is a crack induced delusion).
Of course I can not claim to have a brilliant idea on how to resolve Iraq. Certainly there is a good case to be made that current US military policy is counter-productive, and the idea that a civil war is going to be avoided is purely delusional denial (that is keeping troops there to prevent the inevitable is nonsense). At the same time my control rods analogy holds, in my mind. Pull out the (insufficient) rods and you may go critical, which is probably worse now than a slow melt. It is, nevertheless, useful to think about new ways to approach the issue. Certainly signals to Iraq that occupation is not permanent, etc. could be useful. The idea of Iraq as a future base of power projection strikes me as self-defeating.
But the cold calculation of what is useful (including cutting ones losses - rather than obsessing about childish concerns of 'losses') is running far second to political posturing for domestic purposes.
Now, further my general rant about the idiocy of coverage in the United States, the debate over the domestic spying strikes me as equally over-heated. Certainly a domestic intelligence agency is probably absolutely necessary - one utterly seperate from criminal investigation. It is sheer idiocy in my mind to make the US FBI do both jobs. A seperate agency for all domestic intelligence operations (as well as a vastly simplified overall structure) would serve the US well. Of course in today's Bolshy atmosphere the US Right is on a rampage against the CIA and I have read moronic calls to place intelligence under the US Dep. of Defense. An idiot idea, there is no other agency in the US Gov that I have less respect for than DoD (well that I have contact with, obv. there are domestic agencies that may well be far worse).
At the same time the behaviour of this US Administration continues to show a bizarre penchant for cutting corners for no real reason at all, for self destructive obsession with utterly unnecessary behaviour (e.g. torture).
I rather pine for Abu Bush and his team. Real talents there. This contemptible cretin is an extraordinarily incompetent fool.
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A most righteous rant. I believe it was the Poor Man who said that the bed cannot be unshat in Iraq ....
Posted by: praktike at December 21, 2005 02:43 PM
Re LatAm in the '90s, certainly some progress was made, in part due to the modernization of the old-style family capitalism by a successor generation that didn't see much future in continuing to dominate closed, slow-growing domestic markets. Opening up their economies meant some economic mobility and some opening up of their political systems. Though the Gini co-efficient is still bad pretty much everywhere, and demographics and urbanization isn't helping. The biggest problems, however, are where there wasn't a self-renewal of the rentier class -- Venezuela anyone?
I understand the theoretical preference for sequencing economics before democracy. But often that's not really an available option. Certainly in Iraq, Sistani wasn't going to allow things to proceed any further without elections that insured the transfer of power to the Shi'a -- IMHO the US should have recognized that from the outset and been far more active in encouraging participation, at least at the local/regional levels, much earlier. I'd also argue that in the post-Soviet transition economies, democratic institutions had to be fairly early on the agenda. The Soviet-style bureaucracies were not capable of self-reform a la the Chinese and for the most part had to be dismantled or rendered impotent to even begin the economic transition -- and that required political participation of the masses. And of course, eventually, even the economy-led systems confront the lack of political channels necessary for the modicum of accountability and redress needed to keep the masses in order -- usually sooner than the elites would like or anticipate (e.g. what's starting to bubble up in China).
Do the rentier classes (or rapacious insider elites, however defined) wind up as winners when political liberalization precedes economic? Sure. But that's usually true when the sequence is the reverse as well unless there's some sort of political openness or culture of government accountability (I'd put Pinochet's regime, despite its brutality, in that category, given Chile's long-standing democratic culture).
Shorter: Not very many places are Singapore. In each country, you work with what you have and try to move forward on both political and economic fronts as opportunities present themselves, watching to try to avoid the worst pitfalls.
Posted by: nadezhda at December 21, 2005 05:55 PM