by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright March 2007
I consider the US experience in Iraq to be an unmitigated disaster. The silver lining in this experience is how much relevance it brings to other social disasters I have read about in history. The longer this Iraq Experience goes on, the more history lessons I see sharpened. In my last essay on Iraq I wrote about how the US experience in Iraq resembles the German experience in occupying France and Russia during World War II. My newest jump in "Ah Hah!" thinking is to the Reconstruction Era after the American Civil War in 1861-65.
When The North won the Civil War in 1865, a new challenge came immediately upon the nation: how to heal the wounds of what had been a surprisingly long, expensive and bitter contest. (The surprising part is important; it means that Panic Thinking will be involved.) The many questions of how to heal the wounds quickly divided into which of two policies to follow: a tolerant policy in which the southern states would be rapidly brought back into the United States as equals, or a punitive policy in which the southern states "would have to be taught a few things" before they came back in as equals. President Lincoln and his successor vice-president Johnson were strong advocators of the tolerant policy (for Johnson, this was a flip-flop, he was a radical until he became the president). Radical Republicans, who had a majority in congress after 1866, were advocators of the "lets teach them" policy. How much Lincoln could have moderated the Radical Republican policies, we will never know. Johnson tried, but could not, and was nearly driven from office for trying to. With the outrage at Lincoln's assassination added to the bitterness of the long, bloody war, America became party to Radical Republican ideas of Reconstruction in their "lets teach them" fullest.
One feature of the Reconstruction Era was that Washington-based radicals tried to rule the south. In addition to adding newly freed slaves to the voting rolls, they tinkered with the voting process in other ways to weed out "dangerous" voters and candidates -- those who supported Ante-bellum Southernism in one form or another. This policy was very similar to the Anti-Baath policy pursued in Iraq after it's military conquest. Another similarity is that many idealist people came from the conquering land to help the conquered people change their ways to better ones. In the Reconstruction Era those Northerners who went south were called Carpetbaggers. There were thousands who did so. Those southerners who decided, "If you can't beat them, join them." were called Scalawags. The Freedmen (freed blacks), Carpetbaggers and Scalawags collected under the Republican Party banner and won elections in all southern states. Once in power, they set about the complex task of changing the south for the better. They built railroads and created public school systems. But, they stepped on a lot of toes as they did these things, so there were a lot of unhappy southerners, who were not happy with the way things were changing. This unhappiness transformed into violence.
In the US under president Grant (who followed Johnson) Reconstruction Era South was as militarized as post-Saddam Iraq -- federal troops were sent to the south to maintain order, and they supported the Republican coalition rulers who had been voted in.
The sending in of idealisitic "foreigners" who were going to deeply change how the country was run, and were backed by lots of soldiers, happened in both Iraq and The South. This meant that the ruling methods were similar in both Iraq and Reconstruction South:
In both the South and Iraq this massive disenfranchisement opened the door for some really oddball people to run and get elected, and then call themselves rulers of the community. This process was fatally flawed in two ways: first, these newly elected rulers were rulers in name only, they had weak support from those who had voted for them ("Yeah, I voted for him, but who is he?"), and no support at all from those who had boycotted them ("Whoever he is, I'm not going to pay any attention to him... but I may kill him if he gets in my way."). Compounding the problem, these newly elected officials were often outsiders, idealistic and inexperienced, and many were just plain wacky -- in anything approaching normal times they would have been laughed away as too strange to be taken seriously. The second flaw was that power now split between the formally elected officials and the informal leaders of the disenfranchised community. The formal officials got their power from above, while the informal leaders got their power from the community.
In the best of times and places, the new leaders in conquered lands prove their leadership ability, and are able to reconcile their differences with the disenfranchised communities and are able to steadily gain their trust and support. In a few years, the new leaders have the full support of the community, and are leading the community into a new age which is compatible with the ideas of the conquerors. And, and this is very important, the disenfranchised communities "get with the program", become wholehearted supporters of the new society, and their next generation of leaders become fully integrated into the new government. That's what happens in the best of times and places. Spectacular examples of the best of times and places would be the Islamic expansion out of Arabia during and immediately after Mohammed (600's), the American expansion across North America (1800's), and the British consolidation of India (1700's.)
In more average times and places, the shortcomings of the hastily installed rulers become more obvious than their virtues. The installed rulers make odd choices, and the informal leaders mock them. Instead of learning how to work together, the new and old leaders go from confrontation to confrontation, and the community sees little or no improvement in their situation. What they see instead is massive corruption and waste of money on the part of the new rulers, and support of massive violence on the part of the informal community leaders. In the US Reconstruction Era the symbol of corruption was the state governments selling out to railroading interests. In Iraq the symbol of corruption is the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal. The symbol of violence supported by the informal leaders in the Reconstruction Era was the KKK, and in the Iraq Era it is The Insurgents.
The more the situation becomes confrontational, the harder it is on the new rulers because the new rulers are the ones with something to prove. They have to show that the new way is the better way. If the confrontation becomes chronic, the new rulers lose. They lose because sooner or later, and usually sooner, the up-top authorities who installed them in the first place tire of supporting them. The up-top authorities finally say something like, "I put you in that position to bring order and collect taxes. It's years later now, and I am still paying lots of money to protect you. What's the problem, son?" The military finally moves out, and when it does those conquering leaders who have not gained the respect of the informal leaders are chased out or killed. In the case of the American Reconstruction, the Carpetbaggers and Scalawags headed north with the departing federal troops, and they were replaced with a community power group known as The Redeemers who represented the informal leaders, and voted solidly Democratic. One scar of the Reconstruction Era was that the south voted steadily Democratic for the next hundred years, another was that the civil rights movement didn't come to life again in the south until the 1950's.
The Reconstruction Era lasted from 1865 to 1877 (12 years) and is considered one of the darker chapters in American History. The Iraq Reconstruction began in 2003, and there is already no doubt that it will equal the American Reconstruction in darkness. The question facing America now is, "What is the best kind of unfriendly government can we leave behind in Iraq?" Should we leave a failed state full of chaos, similar to Somalia? Or should we leave a unified state that is tolerant of the ambitions we have declared are dangerous -- terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and radicalist/fundamentalist-Islam? Whatever comes, it will be the equivalent of the "Jim Crow" South that came after the Reconstruction Era. Jim Crow South was no shining light in American history, either, and what follows the Bush Era in Iraq is going to be a long, dark chapter in Middle East history as well as US history.
Ironically, those issues that Bush people care the most about -- exported terrorism and nuclear proliferation -- are not going to be important issues in post-Bush Iraq. Post-Bush Iraq is going to be an ugly place, run by Iraq's equivalent of Jim Crow South's "good old boys." But for that very reason, the locals will concentrate on Sunni/Shiia/Sectarian issues -- local issues -- not the global issues the Bush government worries about. (More on this in Part Two.)
How to stop the violence? As I pointed out in a previous essay, the key to civil tranquility is enfranchisement. The thing that has gone wrong in both Iraq and America's reconstruction was the wide disenfranchisement of an important segment of the community. The way to end the violence in Iraq is to re-enfranchise all Iraqi communities. This was never an easy task in Iraq. The prima fascia evidence that it was always hard was how brutal Saddam had to be in his rulership. But spreading the enfranchisement is necessary, absolutely necessary. Inadvertently, American policy in Iraq has been one of systematic disenfranchisement. We need to recognize that this has been a big mistake on the Bush Administration's part, and reorganize US policy to make enfranchisement the top priority.
As enfranchisement is reestablished, peace will be reestablished. The linkage is very direct, and it's in that order. Enfranchisement first, then peace.
The 9-11 Disaster started the US on a really spooky, panic-driven roller coaster ride that has lead us to our current state of affairs in Iraq. Panic Thinking has driven the US government to make a lot of terrible policy choices, and driven Americans to support those policy choices. Panic Thinking has made the US government very confident in supporting ideas that turned out to be dead wrong. We need to get over this panic, and one step in doing so is to recognize how important enfranchisement is in the fight against terrorist violence. It is through spreading enfranchisement, not troops, that we will cut out terrorist bases of support.
In 1876, after ten years of militarily occuping The South during what is now called The Reconstruction Era, Federal troops were sent home, and The South was free to rule itself again. What followed was called the Jim Crow Era of the South which lasted from the 1870's into the 1930's. At some point, the Federal troops occupying Iraq are going to be sent home, too.
What will "Jim Crow" Iraq be like?
If we look to Jim Crow South for some comparision, what will we see happen in Iraq when the US troops leave? The following are some observations of what happened in the Jim Crow South, and how that will be expressed in Iraq.
Reconstruction South was noted for it's violence. Jim Crow South was violent, too. In particular, lynch violence by whites against blacks continued on in The South at a fairly steady pace. This (according to Roger Theory) is a symptom that disenfranchisement was still very much a part of the social system of the south. Carpetbagger/Scalawag disenfranchisement of the local powers was replaced with Redeemer disenfranchisement of the Freedmen, ex-carpetbaggers and ex-scalawags. The tables had been turned, but the tables were not removed. The Redeemer philosophy of "Separate but equal" was not a philosphy that produced a widely enfranchised community.
The violence of Jim Crow South stayed in the south. It did not export. The violence centered around local issues, and there was very little pressure to move those issues into other venues, such as The North, or Congress.
I foresee that no matter how the US troops leave -- as "winners" or "losers" -- Iraq's violence will quickly collapse down to center on local issues. There will be some cheap talk of exporting violence and terrorism, but the talk will be cheap. Instead, the locals will spend a lot more time worrying about the violence and vengance of other locals. In this way, Iraq will resemble current conditions in Somolia, a place where warlords have ruled for decades. There is a lot of violence in Somolia, but it doesn't spread out to other regions.
This tendancy for the violence to remain local means that Bush is guilty of yet more wrong-thinking about Iraq. We could have left a year ago, we could have not started the war in the first place, and the effect on international terrorism would have been about the same: no effect.
In those famous words of a Jim Crow Southerner talking to a newcomer with strange ideas, "Boy, you ain't from around here, are you." (Meaning: "You don't have a clue as to what is going on here, and whatever you're thinking of doing, it ain't gonna work.")
The "good old boys" of The South were famous for embracing the status quo. The South was economically lagging behind The North and The West before the Civil War and it did more so during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow eras. Jim Crow South was socially reactionary at this time. There was huge economic progress made in The South as there was throughout the US, but its progress always lagged behind that of The North and The West. It wasn't until the 1980's -- thirty years after Jim Crow South ended, that The South achieved economic parity with the rest of the US.
This economic lag problem was not caused by a lack of resources. The South had White Gold (cotton), Iraq has Black Gold (oil), so both regions have plenty of natural wealth to pull them out of their economic morass. The problem was a hamstringing caused by local social priorities. I predict that Iraq for the next fifty years will act more like Somolia than Korea: Its material progress will be thwarted by the "good old boys" who will fill the power vacuum as the US troops leave. Economic progress will not be as high on their agenda as making sure those who are disenfranchised are kept in their place, and that Iraq stays culturally Iraqi... whatever the local definition of that turns out to be.
The root of the violence and the lack of progress will be the same widespread disenfranchisement that is currently causing problems in US-protected Iraq. What will change is not how much disenfranchisement there is, but who is disenfranchised. Once the Iraqis settle who is going to run Iraq after the US troops leave, the issue of keeping that status quo will dominate the Iraq community for many decades to follow. Under US guidance the Iraqis have experimented with democracy, but all the violence says they haven't liked the results. When the US leaves, they will go back to having some group dominate the community, and that group of "good old boys" will first disenfranchise the rest, then spend the rest of their rulership enforcing that disenfranchisement.
When will the violence stop? Iraq will change and become more progressive and peaceful as enfranchisement spreads... but that won't be anytime soon. In the words of 1920's film comedian Oliver Hardy, "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into." and this nice mess is going to last a long, long time, no matter who "wins."
-- The End --