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May 28, 2004

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I suspect you are right about "wallets and pocketbooks" ... or would be right for a while.

Please raise my taxes to accomplish these goals. Also, raise Iraqi taxes from the un-democratically imposed 15% flat tax to 16%. No taxes: no troops.

However, religion would eventually become the sticking point with any sort of occupation.

I suspect you are right about "wallets and pocketbooks" ... or would be right for a while.

Please raise my taxes to accomplish these goals. Also, raise Iraqi taxes from the un-democratically imposed 15% flat tax to 16%. No taxes: no troops.

However, religion would eventually become the sticking point with any sort of occupation.

Please excuse the double post.

Cogent and clear-headed as always, Von. Regardless of the initial issues of money and infrastructure damage, however, I think there would always be opportunistic theocratic groups seeking to build their following on resentment of the Crusaders - even if the initial resentment came from unemployment and the failure of the Baghdad power grid. Remember that some of the earliest protests in Iraq bore the motto "No to Saddam, No to Bush, Yes to Islam."

However, religion would eventually become the sticking point with any sort of occupation.

Remember that some of the earliest protests in Iraq bore the motto "No to Saddam, No to Bush, Yes to Islam."

Oh, absolutely. These kinds of negative forces would be minimized, however, and not find as much purchase among a more econmically sated population. Better imperfection, not perfection, is the goal.

Sweeping generalities about any group of human beings are error-prone. I won't let that stop me.

I wouldn't be surprised if 90% of the Iraqi people just want to go about their business or just don't care enough to fight. That would be a pretty human response. But that would still leave 250,000 people. Some of these might be bought off as von suggests. But if even 1% of the remaining are fanatical opponents whether religious or otherwise who can't be bought off or persuaded that's still 2,500 people. And they may be spread out through the entire population.

I've never been enthusiastic about the war in Iraq and one of the reasons is I've never believed we were tough enough to see it through. I don't mean militarily. I mean politically. Emotionally. Letting the army just recede into the population early on is one example. The recent handling of Fallujah and, possibly, Najaf are other examples.

2,500 people is enough for permanent civil disorder.

I agree completely. The thing we need to dig ourselves out of our six-foot deep hole is more of everything that dug it in the first place. It's not like more of everything wouldn't make our hole 12 feet deep. If we double everything we'll end up at ground level. That's truly....um, inspired.

And on the subject of whether more boots on the ground is what's necessary, I have no opinion—I'm no professional soldier. But I do know that if the professional soldiers don't tell you the truth about what's needed you've got the wrong professional soldiers. And if they do tell you the truth about what's needed and they're overruled for political reasons—as has been alleged—it's both a military and a political mistake.

The past is a good predictor of the future, and so even if Von's assesment is even remotely correct, our record of building democracy is pitifully poor even when we've had all the resources we need.

Also, this CIEP policy brief, Democratic Mirage in the Middle East is particularly relevant.

This really is the height of hubris to ignore our abysmal record here. As they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

(thanks to Tristero for the pointers)

The past is a good predictor of the future, and so even if Von's assesment is even remotely correct, our record of building democracy is pitifully poor even when we've had all the resources we need.

Wait. You have a bad assumption in there: "our record of building democracy is pitifully poor even when we've had all the resources we need."

We have never had "all the resources we need." Indeed, many times far fewer resources were devoted than are being devoted in Iraq. (Many of the linked article's examples from the early 20th century fit the bill.) Nor would I necessarily characterize many of the cited involvements as "nation building" (Cuba at the turn of the century, for instance.)

I don't mean to suggest that nation building is easy, or that past experiences are irrelevant: it's not and they are. But it is not nearly as dire as you argue, and the historical and situational differences beteen then and now are signficant. (In this regard, at least your first linked article is a superficial glossy, smoothing over important distinctions in pursuit of a preordained point.)

Wallets and pocketbooks, not religion, drive revolts.

If you include nationalist sentiment with religion as a more general "social distinctiveness" category, in contradistinction to your "economic" category, I think you can make a compelling case that the later colonial revolts (1850-1950, more or less) are as much "social distinctiveness" as they are "economic".

I'm braindead atm, but, flailing wildly: by way of illustration, British colonialism generally increased the standard of living on the subcontinent. It's true that income disparity between the locals and the expats was high, but that was always true for the poor versus the ruling class; indeed, it's quite possible that there was less income disparity under the British than in previous years, depending on how (and where) you measured it. Given the persistence of such income disparity and privation, the notion that economic matters are the pure engine driving revolt seems unlikely; otherwise everyone everywhere would have been in revolt, contrary to the historical record.

[One can also argue that the primary motivator for the American revolution was not economic -- contemporary propaganda notwithstanding -- but rather a nascent sense of nationalism. I'll leave that argument to those more familiar with the Revolutionary War, though.]

Similarly, anticolonial movements in the Philippines, Burma, Indochina, Indonesia (I'm less sure about this given the Dutch history there) derive their strength not so much from economic exploitation -- which were long-running features of those areas -- but from emergent nationalism. You might also be able to add China to that list, depending on how you interpret Sun Yat-Sen, and Japan, depending on how you interpret the rise of the military; and I've no doubt similar claims apply of certain African, Central American and South American colonies as well, though I'm much less familiar with their histories.

This isn't to say that economic factors can't drive a revolt; clearly they can, and I think you're right to note that Iraqis -- unlikely the rest of the Arab world -- were more disturbed by the destruction of their accustomed standard of living than occupation by a "Christian" force. [If I had to guess, I'd venture that this was the vestige of Saddam's ruthlessly-enforced secularism.] To cavalierly dismiss "religion" (and, by proxy in this instance, nationalism) as unimportant to the cause, though, strikes me as woefully neglecting one of the most important engines for revolt of the colonial era.

PS: If you really want an expert opinion on this matter, von, I'll try to get my dad's input on this subject; he's been teaching the history of colonialism and postcolonialism for over 20 years now.

We have never had "all the resources we need."

Well, we always failed. Ipso facto, we never had the resources we needed.

Besides being a twee counter-argument, though, I think the above shows that you both need to be a bit more careful in defining your terms.

Indeed, many times far fewer resources were devoted than are being devoted in Iraq.

That's implicitly assuming that the magnitude of the reconstruction efforts were comparable, which is a far greater assumption than Hal's, IMO. I'm not nearly familiar enough with the projects undertaken to gauge what kind of reconstruction effort was required to raise the "broken" nation to an acceptable level -- as defined, remember, at that point in history -- let alone how to measure the magnitude of such efforts in comparable units.

In order to make that argument stick then, beyond defining terms you'll need to come up with a way of measuring the proportion of "resources allotted" to "resourced required" (in some normed metric), and damned if I know how to even begin on that one.

And since I'm so bloody useless right now, I shall retire to a nice cool drink and the joys of cleaning my apartment. Catch y'all on the unflipped side :)

I think Anarch's point is well taken. But I disagree that, by definition, if we've failed it means that we didn't have enough resources. Framing this as a resource issue belies the fact that we still don't have a clue how to solve the ethnic and religious issues. A causual look around the world of today and the world of the past shows that resources aren't really the issue. Economics may help allieviate this, but since most of the world lives in poverty and the rich aren't going to let their money be redistributed, we're unlikely to find out if it would help solve the problem.

I'm certainly not trying to give the impression that I think it's a useless effort to try. However, I think hubris always goes before the fall. And thinking we can do it is part of the problem. Trying to do it with humility and care is still a worthy effort. But that track is quite a bit different than what we've taken.

Unless we're confident that we understand this a heck of a lot better than we do now, and start to show at least some track record of success, it would seem that all the resources in the world may not help us - even if we had them to give.

Anarch and Hal:

I think you're both verging off point, and not reading my piece in context.

To cavalierly dismiss "religion" (and, by proxy in this instance, nationalism) as unimportant to the cause, though, strikes me as woefully neglecting one of the most important engines for revolt of the colonial era.

First off, I did not dismiss (or intend to dismiss) religion as "unimportant" to the cause; I merely indicated that money, not belief, drives revolts. ("is the prime driver in revolts", I should write.)

More importantly, however, you're really arguing apples and oranges when you attempt to compare what drives revolts against "nation building" occupations and revolts against "colonial" occupations. The means and the ends of "nation building" and "colonial" occupations are radically different. Consequently, the "revolt-drivers" in each are radically different.

This is my fault: I made a sweeping statement, without noting that it's sweeping only insofar as it's applied to situations comparable to those we face in Iraq. I'm not laying down a first principle, IOW, and certainly not laying down a principle that is necessarily applicable to colonialism, wherever and whenever it is practiced (though economic drivers has a role to play there, as well).

Hope this helps.

von, in semi-haste:

I understand where you're coming from now, but I still have two problems with your claims. First, I'm still not convinced that this statement (with implicit qualifier made explicit for safety's sake)...

I merely indicated that money, not belief, drives revolts [against nation-building powers]

...is universally true, although I find it much more plausible than the unqualified statement. The American "liberation" of the Philippines and their resultant resistance, for example, strikes me as a potential counter-example; as do both Bosnia and Kosovo to some extent. If you've the time, I'd like to hear some more exposition on the subject.

The other problem is that you're presuming that the bright-line distinction between "nation-building" and "colonial" occupations -- namely, the intent of the occupier -- is also reflected in the perceptions of the occupied. That instinctively strikes me as false or at least unsupported; it's perfectly plausible (and indeed, we're seeing something like it in Iraq) for an occupation to be regarded as nation-building by the occupier and colonialism by the occupied. In that case it's no longer clear which mechanism would drive the revolts; material needs would be the more immediate trigger but I'd guess "social differences" would be stronger over the long term.

[Less abstractly, I'm not at all convinced that the Iraqis would not have tried to oust us even if we had satiated their material needs in the summer of 2003. Nationalism is an incredibly potent force, and I think people are underestimating the maneuvering that would have been required to appease Iraqi pride during the creation of the new polity.]

Before we go any further in this discussion, though, it would probably be useful to have a benchmark case-list of attempted nation-building over the past century or so. Does anyone know where such a list, including all attempts and not merely the American ones, might be found, or should we try to compile it ourselves?

It doesn't seem like we need to go by a list of all nation building attempts, but the table here is at least an academically produced piece o' data.

The reason why I don't think it's necessary is because of several points that have already been brought up, and seem to be universals in whatever particular case of nation building one is talking about.

The first is that there is one, primary, abstract cause for the success or failure. One thing we know about complicated systems is that you cannot simply do just "one thing" to them.

In Iraq's case, the decades of brutal dictatorship was something we wanted to remove. I believe the phrase all the rage a the time was "a steel beam under pressure". If the pressure is removed, significantly non-linear things happen. Likewise in Iraq. Saddam's brutal regime suppressed the ethnic and religious differences within the country. Remove the brutal regime and viola, things that weren't a problem before are now an issue.

In simple systems, I think we can make such broad statements as "economics drives revolts". But we don't ever get to deal with simple systems in the real world. Blood feuds may be something that we cannot comprehend (as a society), but the rest of the world (and even our own history) seems to be in love with the concept.

It could well be that with enough money, one can solve these problems. I, myself, have often made the suggestion that we would have been better off taking the 150+ billion we spent in Iraq and distributed evenly to the population of Afghanistan. Myself, I've never understood why bringing liberal democracy to Afghanistan wouldn't have been just a big a coup as bringing it to Iraq. And we stood a better chance, too.

But as people are wont to point out, dropping that much money on people would lead to extreme economic conditions that the humans could simply not adjust to. So if "economics" is what drives revolts, then we should also discuss whether it is possible to inject enough money fast enough to stem the tide of all the other things driving revolts. Like extracting oil, the limiting factor is usually how fast you can inject or extract cash - i.e. the rate.

But even with a high enough rate, it doesn't seem likely that we're smart enough to structure things such that the whole economy doesn't swing out of control with hyper inflation and other aberrations that those smarter in the subject of economics than I could better speak to.

Any complex system is going to react in remarkably unpredictable ways. So if we can solve the economic issues which drive revolts, we may just end up unearthing other issues which were kept in check by economic which will still screw us over in the end.

Sorry for the long comment.

If we had more than 135,000 but less than 450,000 soldiers...
If we had realized the essential issue is money, not religion...
If we had a better occupation plan...
If we will only accept the absolute necessity of buying expensive Iraqi oil rather than cheap Saudi oil...
If...
If...
If...

Sorry, Von. Too many ifs. And y'know what? There will always be too many ifs. Why? Because contemporary foreign affairs is a classic non-linear system in which even the most carefully measured inputs - troop strength, gdp, yadda, yadda - cannot reliably predict precise outputs, especially during war. (Aron knew this even before the technical notion of "chaos" was quantified (not that anyone's reading Aron these days, although they should.) )

And since the Bush/Iraq war failed miserably to adhere to the neocon's game plan - and will continue to do so long into the future* -, the onus is on they, not those of us who saw disaster coming a year plus before the war, to give a single example of a situation remotely parallel to Iraq in which forced democratization at the point of a gun has ever worked with America in the driver's seat.

There is a 25% success rate in the past century of democracy taking root within some 5 years after a military occupation by the US. None of those are relevant to Saddam's Iraq. Check CEIP's website for the grubby details.

You still think spreading democracy in the neocon style, at the point of a gun, can work? Okay. Prove it.

Don't merely assert it -because assertions mean nothing without backup. And don't argue about the inevitability of history - history is never inevitable; there is not a single book or paper more than 25 years old that accurately predicted the 21st century reality that America faces: a world with no Soviet Union, a world in danger nearly everywhere (biggest exception: Europe) of sliding into religious fundamentalism and holy wars.

And let's not quibble over 450,000 versus 400,000 troops. Prove neocon-ism can work by references to history where it actually did work and cite real scholars, real stats, and real situations.

Oh, and let's agree, because it will make your task much easier, to ignore whether any country, no matter how powerful or wise it thinks it is, has any moral right whatsoever to effect regime change anywhere except in seriously distressed situations related to imminent or present-day genocide. Simply prove there's a place something like Iraq where neoconism can work, and furthermore, did work, no ifs, ands, or buts.

If you can't prove it, then admit you've been wrong on this -which is the only intellectually honest thing to do, frankly - and let's go on.

Look, there's nothing wrong with being wrong, Von, unless you continue to make excuses for being wrong and continue to make the same mistakes.

*For my friends on the right: yup, I'm confindently making a prediction after saying that predictions are unreliable. Contradiction? Nope. Look, it's a contingent world. Bill Bennet might actually win on the next slot pull; y'never can tell, right?

Well, actually you can. It's called probability. And based on everything I know about history and the present world situation, I am confident that the probability that Iraq will become a city on the hill of neocon lore approaches 0. I would love to be surprised, I hate being right when "being right" means people will suffer.

But being surprised about Iraq is not a plan. It's not even a hope. It's just a shabby delusion.

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