QUARTERLY ESSAY 14 Mission Impossible



Anthony Bubalo

Perhaps the funniest line in Paul McGeough’s essay on Iraq, Mission Impossible, comes towards the end. McGeough calls most of the 200-odd newspapers now published in Iraq “propaganda sheets that protect the vested interests of one political party or another rather than foster constructive debate”. Not like in Australia right?

It’s a cheap shot but there is a point. One senses from the essay that McGeough has genuine affection for the Iraqis he interviews and writes about. But there is also a hint of disappointment, even disdain. McGeough tells us we should not expect Iraqis to become democrats overnight (if at all), while at other times he holds Iraqis to an impossible standard, as in the reference above. It is as if he has a case of what a Palestinian friend used to call “Lawrence of Arabia syndrome”; that is, something of a love and a loathing of “the Arabs” all at the same time.

It is not, of course, an uncommon phenomenon if you spend time in the Middle East. You come to love the individuals and the exotic history, culture and politics of the countries you live in; you almost idealise it. But that which makes it exotic and attracts you also makes you despair of “the Arabs” ever modernising their economies or systems of government. It can even lead to branding as naive and inauthentic those individual Arabs you meet who seem to have “Western” aspirations. Today, more than ever, this disposition is unhelpful. It’s time for us all to grow up and put Lawrence back on the bookshelf where he belongs.

This is not to dismiss what McGeough has attempted to do in his essay. He has ventured beyond the threshold of his Baghdad hotel to allow, as he puts it, “Iraqi voices to reveal why today’s Iraq is not the nursery for democracy that Washington wants it to be”. This is a lot more than many journalists have done and probably more than most Coalition officials. For this reason alone the essay deserves to be read carefully.

McGeough takes aim at the American project to stabilise and democratise Iraq (if indeed the latter is the American aim). It is hard to argue with the proposition that Washington has botched the peace in Iraq as spectacularly as it won the war. Moreover it seems valid to argue, as McGeough does, that the US could have made better use of Iraq’s tribes to stabilise the country (not to mention the former Iraqi Army). As is abundantly clear, without short-term stability any effort at reconstruction or indeed democratisation will prove impossible.

But you have to have sympathy for the US military officer who complains to McGeough that if it were that simple, they would have done it; if nothing else the Americans are good at expediency. From the reports of other Iraq watchers, the US does in fact appear to be engaging the tribal system, if only belatedly, as McGeough acknowledges. I would imagine that one problem might be the long line of tribal sheikhs who will tell you (and the odd journalist) they can deliver security in a particular area – for a price, of course. The problem is that the Americans simply lack the local knowledge to know whom to believe.

The US also faces a conundrum that McGeough doesn’t quite acknowledge. Using the tribes to restore security and end the insurgency, as McGeough seems to recommend, may serve the short-term goal of stability. But it will also make McGeough’s prophecy of Iraq becoming “Beirut writ large” more likely by hampering the long-term effort to reinforce a national identity and create a political system which isn’t entirely divided on confessional, ethnic or tribal lines. (By the way, Beirut isn’t even like Beirut anymore and is now a reasonably good example of how a war-weary people can overcome confessional divisions.) In other words the Americans are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Indeed, the fear is not that the US will ignore the tribes, but that it will empower them. In other words, that the US will go down the well-trodden path of expediency as it has elsewhere in the Middle East. The fact that the Arab countries embraced by the US are no more than “liberalised autocracies”, as McGeough points out, is partly because in the past the US was never really interested in sacrificing its interests for the sake of pushing democratisation. But let’s not be churlish. For years Australia was happy to live with an autocratic Indonesia, and the realists would argue quite rightly too. Pity the US, therefore, when it gets attacked for being a status quo power and still gets attacked when it suddenly becomes a revisionist one.

There is, however, something more fundamental about McGeough’s essay that leaves me uneasy. In his rush to tell us why the US can’t democratise Iraq, McGeough also dismisses too readily the ability of Iraqis themselves to democratise. He is clearly sensitive to this charge when he notes that it may be “politically incorrect, racist even, to question the ability or desire of Arabs to embrace democracy”. It probably isn’t racist, but I still think it is wrong-headed to portray democracy as something alien to Iraq, if not to the broader Middle East. It is not that far from the assumptions that underpin the neo-conservative argument that democracy needs to be imposed in the region.

It is time that we change the paradigm for talking about democracy in the Middle East. True enough, as McGeough notes, there aren’t a lot of democratic countries in the region to cite as examples. But this does not mean that there aren’t democratic aspirations. I agree with McGeough when he says that Washington’s notion of Iraq as a democratic beachhead in the Middle East is flawed. Not because Iraq can’t be democratic and therefore can’t serve as an example, but because the citizens of the Middle East do not need an example.

Today democracy is not exclusively for the West to export or impose; it is a global commodity. It may take different forms and routes in different countries – it might not always be “Jeffersonian” – but in the end what underpins democracy is the desire of individuals to have a say in the way their lives are run. After successive centuries of imperial, colonial and autocratic rule, this is not a sentiment you need to export to the Middle East. In Iran today, students and reformists fight to expand political pluralism. In the Palestinian territories, efforts are being made to remove the dead hand of a decrepit leadership. In Egypt, reformist Islamists seek to register a political party and call for democratic elections. Even in Saudi Arabia, middle-class Saudis push quietly to make their government more transparent. Is Iraq really so different?

McGeough will no doubt argue that he is simply telling us what Iraqis themselves say. But which Iraqis? During his visit to Sydney this year, the Iraqi blogger Salam Pax said that in responding to foreigners’ questions about Iraq he felt the tremendous pressure of being perceived to speak for all Iraqis. You wonder whether the Iraqis in McGeough’s essay are able to bear a similar burden. McGeough says the more he talked to Iraqi tribal sheikhs, the more clearly he realised that “the most fundamental power structures in Iraqi society run counter to those which underpin democracy”. Certainly his essay leaves little doubt that these tribal leaders are, if nothing else, self-serving. You wonder, therefore, why Iraqi sheikhs would give McGeough any other impression.

It is true that McGeough didn’t talk only to tribal leaders. But you are still left with the feeling that the sample is a little too convenient to the argument. It would have been nice to have heard from more Iraqis like those he interviewed who worked as translators for the Coalition, who tell us about their hopes for an Iraq with American colleges, an American justice system and American amusement arcades. McGeough applauds them for their bravery as quickly as he condemns them for their naivety; love and loathing again. Perhaps, as his limited sampling implies, there aren’t too many like them. But given that some 75 per cent of Iraqis are urbanised and 50 per cent of the population are under twenty, I have my doubts.

McGeough describes tribalism as the “bedrock under the bedrock” of Iraqi society. But another way to view tribalism is as a societal default. That is, in the absence of national and institutional alternatives, Iraqis fall back on tribal connections to settle their conflicts, represent their interests and provide them with protection. Looked at in this way, Iraqi tribalism is less an obstacle to change than something whose influence has ebbed and flowed throughout Iraq’s history. This is not to say that tribalism and religion are not significant factors in Iraqi or indeed Middle Eastern politics; quite clearly they are. But McGeough seems to leave little scope for evolution, for adaptation or for competing influences in his conception of the way Iraqi society operates.

Unlike McGeough I haven’t visited Iraq, so the best I can do is reach for a history book. In it you find a more complex and evolving picture of tribalism than McGeough’s snapshot presents. In the nineteenth century, for example, Ottoman economic and political reform diluted tribal power to the point where, according to Dr Faleh Jabar, an Iraqi sociologist, Ottoman Iraq became known as the “graveyard of the tribes”. Central administration, fast and reliable communications, and the re-organisation of land tenure all served to undercut tribalism to the point where some tribes and tribal confederations disappeared altogether.

One also finds this complex picture under Iraq’s relatively short-lived experience of parliamentary democracy during the Hashemite Monarchy’s rule from 1921 to 1958. As the American anthropologist Robert Fernea noted, the Iraqi tribal community in which he lived from 1956 to 1958 saw a struggle between two ways of organising life, that of the state and that of the tribe, and it wasn’t always the tribe that came out on top. Indeed, what destroyed the nascent and admittedly imperfect institutions of political representation in the 1950s was not tribalism, but autocracy. The regime’s destruction of civil and state institutions left people with little option but to seek refuge in traditional ones.

In place of McGeough’s image of the timeless power of the tribe, therefore, you get a more complex picture of tribes and tribal confederations that break up, disappear, are eclipsed and re-form and – most importantly – are manipulated by a succession of rulers from the British to Saddam. It is why Iraq experts today speak of a society that has been “re-tribalised”. The irony is that even Saddam came ultimately to rely on the same societal default, as McGeough notes. This was not because of the strength or cohesiveness of the tribes, but precisely because they could be bought off and played off against each other and represented much less of a threat to him than an Army general. Later it would be because the Army had been weakened by the first two Gulf wars. In both cases, however, tribalism was less the cause of state failure than a symptom of it.

Perhaps what McGeough is really pointing to is the persistence of a tribal ethos or, as he puts it, of a society that is “top-down driven”. This is what is called the “culturalist” approach to the Middle East that argues there is something in Arab culture that makes the region more prone to dictatorships because “the Arabs” appreciate strong leaders. Let’s assume for a moment that this isn’t a caricature. Isn’t it possible to want strong leaders and at the same time to appreciate the ability to choose the strong leader you want? Indeed, in tribal societies throughout the Middle East, being “born to rule” is only half the story. The fact that sons and brothers are often passed over when it comes time to choose a new tribal leader underlines the extent to which fitness to rule and consensus are also important parts of this ethos.

Similarly we often make the assumption in the West that secularism is necessary for democracy. Yet the vast majority of the Middle East’s autocrats are secular, and many of those pushing for democratic change are Islamists. In Iraq McGeough hints that the growing power of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani may portend a theocracy along Iranian lines. He is right when he says that no one really knows what Sistani thinks. So why assume that he would adopt an Iranian theocratic model that to this day stands outside Shiite orthodoxy? Were this Sistani’s goal he could very easily have backed Moqtada al-Sadr’s uprising rather than being the critical figure in snuffing it out. Indeed, his actions to date seem more consistent with a hard-headed calculation that some form of representational government will finally give the Shiite majority a say in running the country.

None of the above should be taken to suggest that I believe Iraq is inevitably on a democratic trajectory. In many respects it is too early to tell. What my argument is really aimed at is changing the terms of the debate. Whatever its motivations, the US removed Saddam. You could even argue there was some justice in the US expending political, financial and human capital to remove a regime it had once supported with disastrous consequences for ordinary Iraqis (and even perhaps that the US is learning a valuable lesson in imperial overreach). But what we need to understand is that what happens next in Iraq will depend not on the US, but, quite rightly, on Iraqis themselves.


Anthony Bubalo has served in Australia’s embassies in Saudi Arabia and in Israel. More recently he was the senior speechwriter of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and a director on its Iraq Task Force. He also served as Middle East Analyst in the Office of National Assessments from 1996 to 1998. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 14, Mission Impossible. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 15, Latham's World.


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