17 August 2006

Bush Blinded by the Lens of the Nation-State

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”
- Anais Nin

The prospect of civil war in Iraq is increasingly real, and yet Bush and most of his critics seem united in the notion that US troops should stay in Iraq until the Iraqi government is stable. That goal may be unrealistic and the reason for it may be the same as the reason that the invasion has proven so problematic in the first place.

A solution starts with a change in perspective. The same problem that got us into Iraq is causing us problems in the occupation: Bush continues to address political problems as national problems, even when those problems defy such neatly defined boundaries. His answer to terrorism was the invasion of two countries; his answer to civil strife is building a stronger Iraqi army. Yet trying to address these problems as national problems seems only to exacerbate them. Terrorism is a problem that spills across national borders and belongs to no single nation; the civil strife in Iraq stems from a conflict between nations within the borders of a single state. Simultaneously offering the autonomy implied in democratic rule by forcing a single state onto multiple nations is a guarantee of conflict. What got us into Iraq is what is keeping us there – assuming that the best leverage point for dealing with any political problem is through established nation-states. Yet the really significant problems of this century – from terrorism and tribalism to global warming and economic stability – defy neatly defined national solutions.

First Blinded by the Nation-State Lens
Bush labeled 9-11 an act of war. If it were, the fact that we have the best military in the history of the world would be an advantage. Yet it turns out that the war on terrorism is more like the war on poverty or drugs than World War II. Imagine being handed a CD and having only a turntable on which to play it and you get some sense of Bush’s predicament when he confronted 9-11. Wars against terrorists and wars against nation-states are very different and yet Bush opted to respond to a terrorist threat with a conventional war strategy.

Bush ended despotic regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq but has made little progress against Al Qaeda: Saddam is on trial yet bin Laden is free. Defining and conquering Al Qaeda is more difficult than defining and conquering nations. Where others saw a messy ideological battle that was part foreign policy and part crime-fighting, Bush saw clearly defined invasions. This was the first time that he was blinded by the lens of the nation-state.

Blinded Again
Three years after the Iraqi invasion, our occupation has divided the American public, increased international animosity, and has not yet delivered a government able to ensure safety or even basic utilities. In the last two months, 6,000 Iraqis have been killed. American generals and the British ambassador are warning of possible civil war. Some experts say civil war is not just possible but is already underway. One cannot blame Bush for a lack of commitment. Our $100 billion annual spending represents a multiple of Iraq’s $22 billion pre-invasion GDP. Our troops have already spent as long fighting in Iraq as they spent fighting against Hitler. So, why has this occupation gone so badly?

Where Bush sees Iraq, historians see three former Ottoman regions populated by Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds consolidated into a single nation after World War I by the British. Iraq did not emerge out of a shared culture, philosophy or economy – it was the product of a British idea. These three groups still find it difficult to reconcile their differences into a single community. British occupation, Saddam’s tyranny, and a democratic constitution have apparently done little to address the reality of three separate people, or nations, distrusting one another. This problem of different nations sharing a single state has led to brutal civil wars in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

The common claim is that the Bush administration is engaged in nation building. This is a misnomer.

Nation-states represent a confluence of nation and state, a people who share an identity (the nation component) and a government (the state component). Given that a nation suggests a shared culture, language, and worldview, a nation is very difficult to build and doing so can take decades or centuries. By contrast, building a state involves setting up a government and can be accomplished in years or decades.

It is doubtful that the Bush Administration can actually build a nation in Iraq. The reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II represented a triumph of policy – yet it did not involve nation building. Germany and Japan were clearly single nation-states. The Marshall Plan helped to rebuild the German state, but it did not create a German nation. It would be more effective to accept multiple nations than to try to build a single nation.

History suggests that when a people are allowed self-determination, one of their first acts is to create a state that aligns with their sense of national identity. To ignore this impulse is to sow the seeds of on-going civil strife and war. Starting from the premise that Iraq is actually three nations now governed by one state would be no panacea, but it could provide a starting point for genuine progress towards stability in the region.

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