April 04, 2004

Baghdad Dispatch

One of my oldest and dearest friends (I was best man at his wedding) is currently serving in Baghdad with an organization that seeks to help along the democratization process.

He sent the below E-mail to me overnight which I think well showcases some of the main challenges we are facing in the new Iraq.

Read the whole thing.

"According to ancient custom, in cities which submitted peacefully to the rule of Islam, the preacher carried a staff. In those that were conquered by force, he carried a sword." --Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam

"Of course I know what federalism means," the cleric scoffed, "it comes from the Greek root meaning unitary state." Unclear on the precise etymology myself, I let this slide, and tried to get back to the principle of our discussion. So it's a good thing, I prompted, don't you think? The room erupted again into unhappy murmers, and he stared back at me with a stony look that let me know I'd missed the apparently classic Arab double-entendre. Oh, I continued as if I'd just stumbled on the actual meaning of the word, you mean it's actually a backroom deal, reached conspiratorally, that ensures a tyranny of the minority? His face lit up and his eyes warmed considerably. The growing roar of murmers ebbed back to silence, broken only by the angry footsteps of a Kurdish participant who got up and left. Things were going badly--I should have guessed this by my translator's increasing nervousness and the growing visibility of our plainclothes security staff around the exits of an otherwise sleepy Baghdad auditorium--but I pressed on. Can it really mean both things? Why don't you just tell me what you really think? An impolitic question, sometimes, in the New Iraq.

Old men here can be generous. Younger ones can be less so. A fiery youth cut to the chase: "why do I need your democracy when I have other options?" he shouted. I didn't need to ask what those other options were. Time to get back to my prepared text on the wisdom of James Madison, and quickly.

Word travels fast on the Arab street, and talking points distributed via xerox by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have penetrated deeply, I've come to learn. The Transitional Administrative Law, agreed to last month by Iraq's Governing Council, calls for constitutional assembly that gives veto power to any three of the country's 18 districts should they object to the will of the Shia majority, for whom the native Iranian Sistani is a key opinion-shaper. They're throwing the virtues of majoritarian rule--a democratic principle it seems--back at us without a great deal of concern for protecting minority rights. Don't worry, I've heard time and again, Islam accounts for protecting these rights in its own way.

An evening pow-wow in a gilded hallway beneath the dome of what was once Saddam Hussein's palace number one was feverishly focused on how to respond to Sistani's criticisms and highlight the benefits of the interim constitution. People serving the Coalition Provisional Authority here word hard, very hard, and frequently through the night. As the countdown to the June 30th hand-pover of sovereignty ticks down, every hour matters. I was glad my colleague pulled me into this meeting for two reasons. Firstly, it was interesting. Secondly, the fifteen minute delay it forced on our leaving the Green Zone this evening allowed Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicles to close down the main road and me to miss by minutes the eruption of a firefight on the bridge over the River Tigris.

As a college student, I did my best not to find our founding fathers' wordy polemics on federalism, factions and foresight to be painfully dull. Here, today, the issues are vividly real and pressing. Iraqis overwhelmingly do believe in a unified state. This is not Yugoslavia. Getting from the graveyard of these buried animosities to a working union, though, is another matter entirely. It calls for bigger ideas and persuading the good people of this sometimes fractious nation to buy into them. We all want the same thing, a Communist organizer told me this afternoon, so why do we have such problems settling an a common course. Odd though it may be, after nearly three years of trying to advance democracy in Russia, I found the company of this union activist quite comforting indeed.

The contradictions here are sometimes searing: End the occupation, but keep us safe. Give us democracy, right here and right now (if not yesterday). Transfer sovereignty--but to whom? The response of the CPA is not to get stymied by and indignant at the seemingly defeatist parodoxes, but rather to work harder to carry them through to clarity. I have never seen my government work harder. And I have never felt more proud to be an American.

After three weeks in Baghdad, my Arabic comprehension remains more or less de minimus. But there is one word that seems to seep into almost every sentence, sometimes repeatedly: "Mun'kin." A young friend of mine in Bangor [Maine] used to use this as a contraction for "monkeying around." Here, in Arabic, it means that which is possible. Enchallah. [my emphasis throughout]

Martin Indyk made the same point about Iraq not being Yugoslavia (we certainly hope--in terms of avoiding the specter of civil war) that I blogged about here.

And I've previously discussed why I think the creation of three separate para-states (or a "deep" confederation) is a dismal solution.

And note my friend's point about never having seen his "government work harder."

This includes, of course, people working in conjunction with the U.S. government--such as NGOs, various sub-contractors, U.N. and coalition personnel.

I'm proud to hear that, aren't you?

Remember that the next time a petty member of the "laptop brigade," ensconced in sunny Cali or such, disparages the memory of some of the courageous individuals working to make the most critical American foreign policy challenge currently on our plate a success--against very difficult odds and in highly dangerous conditions.

Posted by Gregory at April 4, 2004 09:18 AM
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