November 11, 2007
Iraq as Lebanon: the Syrian model
Abu Aardvark has recently hosted a discussion by Colin Kahl and Brian Katulis on Iraq policy, (see here, here, here and the Aardvark's response here). It seems as good a place as any to take off on the question of where the "Anbar Awakening" and current US policy in Iraq seems to be heading.
The Aardvark sums up the consensus of the current situation:
Before getting into the points of disagreement between Kahl and Katulis, it's important to see how much agreement there really is. Their understanding of the situation mirrors my experience at the DACOR conference last month: we all basically agree on where Iraq is heading - a highly decentralized state, without a formal or even semi-formal partition. where governance and security is increasingly devolving to localities. Whether this is “federalism” or a “warlord state” is what is in question; a strong central democratic state rooted in a general consensus on political identity and norms is off the table. Whether we state it or not, we all seem to expect that the formal Iraqi state will likely remain governed by the existing political rules, meaning a monopoly of the major Shia parties supported by a deal to leave the Kurds alone in exchange for their votes. We all agree that the situation in the Shia areas is beyond American control and likely to remain violent, fragmented and unstable. And none of us think that there will be any national level political accomodation. Never mind that the situation just described used to be defined as “failure” – the important issue here now, as Kahl and Katulis agree, is how to respond to this lousy scenario to best protect American (and Iraqi?) interests.
What interests me is the way US forces have created an indispensible role for themselves as go-betweens and as the force of final appeal in an Iraq with a deeply localized security apparatus. For some reason, nobody is saying where this model is familiar from: it's almost identical to Syria's model of governance in Lebanon. As Syria was able to demonstrate in the 80s and 90s, it doesn't really matter if the people all hate you, as long as you've got the leaders of all the different security forces on your payroll.
Consider this widely-linked Guardian profile of Abu Abed, one of the US's new clients in Iraq, a charming tale involving bs-swapping about assassination wars with Al Qaeda, an arrest on flimsy evidence of a local man for involvement with Al Q, a tense shouting match with the entourage of a national Iraqi politician, a raid by Abu Abed's forces on one of his suboordinates, on suspicion that said suboordinate was plotting with the aforementioned politician to undermine Abu Abed's local power base, and finally a visit from the US Army liaisons:
Back at Abu Abed's HQ, the men were put into cells. Men in US-supplied blue uniforms were being jailed by men in US-supplied green uniforms.
An American officer, Captain Cosper, visited Abu Abed that night. He sat in the office trying to make sense of what was going on. "They [the Concerned Citizens] are not allowed to detain people or conduct raids," he told me.
In a nearby room, two blindfolded men were being questioned by Abu Abed's men. An American soldier put his head inside, watched for a few seconds and left. "They won't do anything to them while we're here," he said.
When Capt Cosper had gone, the men were beaten up and taken to the cell.
It's not exactly cluelessness on display, but rather an inherent part of the bargain between America and its local proxies: the US provides the cash, and agrees not to inquire too closely into how local groups manage their affairs, and in return the local groups don't kick back up at the Americans. The American forces in this McClatchy report look more savvy, but the bargain is still there: "As soon as money goes away, this will all end,” one soldier is quoted in the report.
Judging from the Syrian experience in Lebanon, it's a balancing act that can be kept up for an arbitrary amount of time, dependent mainly on the intervening power's willingness to continue providing patronage; a strong intelligence operation keeping track of the different interests at stake (possibly America's Achilles heel in keeping this operation going); and ultimately, on whether a sufficiently strong coalition of Abu Abeds and Abu Steifs is able to find a better deal somewhere else. Regardless, it's not a role that will win America many friends, in the region or elsewhere.
Posted by tomscud at November 11, 2007 05:12 PM
Filed Under: Levant
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Of course it begs the question of what the hell the Americans' interests in Iraq are. Pissing away billions of dollars so a general can claim his methods reduce violence, to what end? At least the Syrians have huge interests in Lebanon. Iraq is just a farce.
Well, one missing ingredient in this is that Syrians at least knew the Lebanese, and could at speak with them without interpreters around, and they usually managed to avoid mixing up a maronite priest with a shiite imam.
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at November 14, 2007 08:42 AM
I was wondering if this Syrian method is to answer for the mercenary mentality of the Lebanese factions that aqoulites often speak of.
I don't think so, that's been going on in one form or another for much longer, since Ottoman days. It's what you get when all are weak enough to be conquered, but none is strong enough to conquer all -- foreign sponsorship becomes a survival strategy. But sure, the Syrian presence hardly helped either.
Posted by: alle at November 16, 2007 12:41 AM
John Waterbury used the segmentarity theory to explain this state of things in Morocco, with factionalism (though not confessional asin Lebanon). I suppose it could be applied to Lebanon, with France, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the US being the patrons of the local sects - and remember that much of the factionalism in Lebanon is within sects, not between them - Aoun vs. Ja'ja or Amal vs. Hezbollah (in the 80's) for example...
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at November 19, 2007 01:27 PM
Sic Semper Tyrannis: No. No civil war. Instead, look to see the further disintegration of civil society under the pressure of foreign political interventionism. The Lebanese like a good conspiracy so well that they are perpetually willing to divide themselves into factions and groupings of factions allied to foreign players. They really do not seem to know how to live without that kind of activity.
I often wonder how a country like Lebanon actually works, on a day-to-day basis. Who provides what services where? Tax, infrastructure, etc.
That quote is just a silly outside view that likes to sound "interesting". Most Lebanese would actually see it inverted: Outsiders are constantly meddling in Lebanese affairs & leave Lebanese groups no choice but to develop ties to (big) outside powers to maintain equilibrium.
But your quote is similar to those like "Germans just can't seem to live without racism, or Russians without a dictator, or Americans without guns." Whatever ...
Now, as for Lebanon's day-to-day life, it works mainly thus:
Individual taxes are hard to collect, so the government gets income from customs duties, VAT (now at 10%, but to rise in the coming years), and cell-phone contracts (Lebanon has the highest call-rates in the world).
Infrastructure is very localized/regionalized and done as kickback for political support - there is a reason why the roads into the Shuf (Jumblat's area) are perfect ...
The Shi'ite-controlled "Janub lil-Imaar" (South Construction) is doing a lot of infrastructure projects, even outside the actual South - it gets the contracts via Nabih Berri, head of Amal & Speaker of Parliament. This procedure is mirrored in Christian, Armenian, Sunni, etc. areas. But then, that's not so different from spoils-systems in Russia, the US, Italy, or most other places ...
Main services like trash collection (quite efficient), mail, etc. are done by government companies/agencies.
Right now, it's not really any different from many countries in Africa or Asia or Latin America ...
Posted by: MSK at November 24, 2007 05:41 AM