15 March 2007

Rerun from 8/17 - Bush Blinded by the Lens of the Nation-State

I began publishing this blog 17 August of last year. One of the things that motivated me to blog was my disgust with Bush's handling of Iraq and the utterly vacuous commentary about our options in the country. That day, I made the following posting. To this day I still don't understand why the two people who read this posting didn't take my advice and change our foreign policy. Hmmph. I still hold this opinion and am willing to repeat it every six to seven months (albeit edited a bit for clarity). Sign me, "typing at windmills."

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

[As I write this in August of 2006] 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.

If there is a solution to our entanglement, it 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 three different nations - three different people - within the borders of a single state. It is highly doubtful that we can fight terrorists as we would a traditional army, using tanks and planes. In fact, it seems that such tactics and their inevitable "collateral damage" might simply swell the ranks of terrorists.

A state refers to a government with a central administration that invariably includes a military. A nation refers to a people who share a culture, a history, and language. States and nations don't always neatly overlap and the process of aligning the two often plays out as a series of civil and regional wars. Think about how many wars were fought and treaties negotiated before the European states were formed into today's still evolving map.

Democratic rule suggests autonomy - giving a people what they want. If a people see themselves as three nations, one of the first things that they'll want is three states. To offer democracy while forcing the people into one state seems like a guarantee for conflict.

What got us into Iraq is what is keeping us there. What got us there is Bush's unquestioned assumption that the best leverage point for dealing with any political problem is through established nation-states. The Bush administration has continually shown its disdain for international and trans-national agreements or governance. In its dealing with Iraq, it has similarly shown its disdain for what is sees as"tribal" conflicts or sectarian conflict.

The really significant problems of this century – from terrorism and tribalism to global warming and economic stability – defy neatly defined national solutions.

Blinded by His Worldview, Part One
Bush was first blinded by the nation-state lens when he called the terrorist attacks of 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 relevant. 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. Faced with an issue that did not fit into his worldview, he nonetheless plopped the needle down on the rotating CD and has not yet been able to make sense of the resulting music or lyrics.

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 [now executed] 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 using traditional military force. This was the first time that he was blinded by the lens of the nation-state.

Sand in His Eyes - Blinded a Second Time
[Four] 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 [sadly, the number would probably be the same or greater now, five months later], 6,000 Iraqis have been killed. American generals and the British ambassador are warning of a possible civil war. Some experts say civil war is not just possible but is already underway.

One cannot accuse 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, imposed by bureaucrats reporting to officials based in London and living in a different time and place than these people we've come to call Iraqis. These three groups still find it difficult to reconcile their differences into a single community. British occupation, Saddam’s tyranny, and a democratic constitution coupled with an American occupation have apparently done little to address the reality of three separate people, or nations, distrusting one another and holding different notions of a community. Regardless of what politicians in far-off countries might think, it appears as if there are actually three separate nations within the borders of Iraq, three nations that deserve three states.

This problem of different nations sharing a single state has led to brutal civil wars in places as different as Rwanda and Yugoslavia. It is once again playing out here, in this region we now call Iraq.

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 central 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, unified nation-states before rebuilding began. The Marshall Plan helped to rebuild the German state, but it did not create a German nation. Germans already had a keen sense of being German, for whatever the differences between regions. MacArthur did great work in post-war Japan, but it is hard to think of a more clearly aligned nation and state than Japan. Iraq's situation is vastly different than that of post-war Japan or Germany.

Within Iraq, it would probably be more effective to accept the existence of 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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