Wednesday, April 19, 2006

When is it a Civil War?

When is it a Civil War?

As the media maelstrom caused by Husni Mubarak’s comments clears, we need to make distinctions between the semantic rubble and the actual situation ‘on the ground’ in Iraq. On the one hand we have the journalists who wish to see the situation as a temporal construct with a clear linear plot. For many journalists, ‘civil war’ is merely another act within the greater drama of the Iraq War, yet they are at pains to distinguish when the curtain goes down on the previous act. On the other hand we have government officials (of all stripes) trying to show that this is merely a period of political instability that will eventually resolve itself into a more robust national entity. I would even depict the latter as the position put forth by the Iranian government, whose dream scenario would be a continuation of shi’ite political dominance with a steady representation of its own theocentric blend of democracy in both executive and legislative branches. A recognition that political power currently in Iraq is so closely wedded to physical power is tantamount, especially considering that this configuration has been put in place by the world’s most physically powerful force. If the US military cannot provide localized security (with the notable exception of the touristy ‘Green Zone’), the local militias are attempting to fill the gap. This however comes with a catch: How can you tell a local militia from an insurgent group? Welcome to the semantic rubble, or a game I like to call “when is it a civil war?”

The problem here is one of terminology, and it is hardly new. Even as the twin towers were smoldering, there was a silent debate over how one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. If radical Islamism is the only cogent adversary to the globalized capitalist system, then we have to recognize that this was due to its near dominant entrenchment in the recent post-Soviet historical period. When the crash of the Asian markets did not end with tangible military repercussions, we took it to mean that the world has matured enough to withstand periods of high uncertainty with a great deal of self-restraint. It now seems to us impossible to conceive of a situation where Malaysia would invade Thailand, or even Singapore, but there was also a point in history when in periods of hardship you went to your military for help rather than the IMF. For non-state actors, that luxury is obviously non-existant, and thus we have a situation where they are the only entities that still rely on physical force. What you have in Iraq is a large collection of non-state actors; the majority of which is local, but is amplified by new comers from the Arab states and Iran. Does anyone have any statistics about the number of Iranians in the Mahdi Army? Or the number of Iraqis in Zarqawi’s organization? No, but it would be foolish to think that it’s zero.

If the situation right now is unclear, then let us look at the political moment immediately preceding this one. During the Iraqi elections, very few journalists were using the term civil war to describe the conflicts on the ground, and this to me seems perfectly accurate. Everyone was not in a constant state of warfare with everyone else. Friends of mine who lived through the Lebanese civil war describe a situation where every street in Beirut had its own political party with a small militia. Each group was fighting whoever they perceived to be an immediate threat to their security, and causing a dizzying configuration of bizarre alliances, like Druze/Sunnis vs. Shi’ites, Philange/Shi’ites vs. Sunnis, or any other configuration you can think of. You did not have that situation in Iraq, even after the elections the the three major groups of Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Kurds remained relatively autonomous even when collusion would have been favorable. It would make sense for the two smaller groups, the Kurds and Sunni’s, to unite against the colossal Shi’ites–but the Shi’ites seem to be doing a better job of dividing themselves into smaller tangible units with the inability of Sistani to completely control Muqtada al Sadr. No doubt Iran is the great puppet-master in all this, but it makes you wonder if they have all their ducks in a row.

What I envision happening has very much to do with the question of “when will a civil war break out?” First, what needs to happen is for some Iraqi’s to recognize that which is all but inevitable; that the socio-ethnic distinctions put forth by the Americans and the media is flat-out wrong. It is awfully bad American ethnography that comes from a flawed academic understanding of Iraq. To understand why it is flawed we need to look at the social experiments that Iraqi society has been going through for most of its modern history. You can de-Baathify the army and the bureaucracy overnight. But you cannot change what the Baath regime has done to the people for over 30 years.

Part of the problem is that westerner’s don’t take the nationalist efforts of third world countries seriously; they consider them to be ‘barely countries’ and in no sense as ‘nations’ per-se and certainly not ‘nation-states’–a category they think is only applicable to the great western nations. I have no doubt that a westerner would consider Djibouti to be a country in the official sense; it sits in the UN assembly, it issues passports, etc. But this modicum is not enough in western minds to be considered as a ‘nation’ or a ‘nation-state’ because it lacks not only the industrial capacity but also the intellectual capacity. For one thing, most third world states did not define themselves (like France and Germany), but were defined by the colonial powers when they found the colonial arrangement was no longer tenable. Djibouti in a sense does not have a ‘history’ because its history was defined by others. Their power structures were put in place both by a hazy concept of self-determination, care-taker exiting colonials, and the western educated elite. The natives are in a tenuous position because it is their expected role to resist these efforts at modernization, thus causing a structural failure from the outset but one where the countries can sit ’side-by-side’ with other countries on the level of appearances. This arrangement is for the most part an illusion; once the colonial powers that be left the scene, a lot of self-definition was beginning to take place. Just by teaching several generations of children their national anthem, a re-interpreted version of their national history, and the overall inculcation of political values we have the processes of a societal reconfiguration. We tend to focus in totalitarian regimes on the coercive measures taken in order to punish deviancy. However, what we end up ignoring is the rewards the citizenry get for cooperation; in this case, complete integration with the Baathist social program.

What this integration entails is something that is ignored in the American analysis. I first described the failure as stemming from a flawed academic understanding of Iraq. It is because of the emphasis in American social science on understanding social change rather than how things stay the same–the latter they conceive as merely ‘descriptive’, the former as ‘analytic’. Descriptive work for them is boring, and for one thing, it entails a certain familiarity with a culture that they have been avoiding since 1991. Analytic work for all its rigor is still somewhat speculative. The American’s assumed that the split will be between ethno-religious lines–in fact, I would argue, they encouraged it. Sunni/Shi’i is a divisional category they can understand, even though in isolation they have no idea what makes a Sunni sunni or a Shi’i shi’i. But on the other hand, understanding the situation in Falluja or al-Anbar was not something that was in the initial analysis; hence the shock when they turned out to be the hardest places to control. Had they known they were going to be difficult zones, they would’ve bombed them instead of only focusing on Baghdad. They just had no idea, because no one described to them the social situation in the ground. They just hired an anthropologist who told them the theoretical social categories based on ethno-religious grounds.

What I think the Baathist program was attempting to do was in fact to blur these ethno-religious divisions because it was inimical to its socialist (and nationalist) foundation. The Baath has a great track-record at having an ethnic minority (like the ‘Alawis in Syria and the Sunni’s in Iraq) to rule over other majorities–but this minority did not however control the entire government. Theoretically, if every Sunni or ‘Alawi was to be employed in the government, then you would in no way have enough physical bodies to run it. In fact, even if you only put one ethnic group in all managerial positions, you still could not run it. If the bureaucracy and the military was entirely of one ethnic group, you would’ve had a coup a long time ago. But what they did do was put the people they trusted most (family members, old neighbors, etc.) in the most sensitive positions. Its how they governed Iraq, not the way they organized their society. I am sure that Tikrit got favorable treatment because its local son was running the show, but you benefitted from the improved services in Tikrit if you were a Sunni or a Kurd. And the better proof of this was that the party itself was full of Shi’ites; in fact, the numerical representation of Shi’ites in the Baath party was even the majority. In the long-term social program, it would have been a matter of time before a Shi’ite rose to party leadership, but at that point it wouldn’t have mattered because Iraqi Nationalist/Baathist identity would have been completely hegemonic.

I think the Iraqis will have the societal cleavages for a matter of time, but eventually they will recognize the certain elements they all share. Socialistic thought was something they were taught as children, and it is clear that communitarian element is still strong on their mind. Yankee individualism is simply not the mode they are used to, and the gap is currently filled with Islamism, something that is also somewhat foreign to Iraqi society, but far more comprehensible. However, I think one of the things that Saddam was able to instill is the relative secularization of Iraqi society. Of the four largest countries in the Middle East–Saudi, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey–I would even bet that Iraq is second only to Turkey in its secularism, and even then I would qualify this with a ‘maybe’. So the Islamists, who get so much coverage in the news, will eventually be rejected as a major force because it will run out of numbers. Barring any sort of religious awakening (like in Palestine with Hamas), secularism will still be something that many Iraqis will agree upon. The other thing is socialism. Let us take a look at a quote from Hegel:

“The property of many is, on the one hand, the absolutely identical relation of persons in recognition;–on the other hand, it is mediated by the arbitrary judgment of each individual, which makes a certain thing into their property as against the others’. Recognition is recognition not only of the abstract, but of the real personality of others, that is, of their judgment, and what is or could be my property is dependent on them as well as on their judgment of what is mine.”

–Hegel, Encylcopedia of the Philosophical Sciences #411

What I think is pertinent to this analysis is the idea that some Iraqis will come to a recognition that the natural resources of Iraq is ‘the property of many’; the ‘others’ will be those who deny this communitarian instinct. The Islamists will always say that the resources are those of God–the secularists will have none of that bullshit. When this recognition begins gaining force–be it from continued or even amplified hardship from the American mismanagement of the occupation, or their ultimate withdrawal–we are going to have a major civil war. The message will be one that a lot of Iraqis will be willing to fight for, and in terms that they can clearly understand. They will fight the Islamists (both Sunni and Shi’ite), the weak puppet government, and each other in a manner that will dwarf the current situation because of the sheer numerical augmentation. I really don’t think that most Iraqi males between 15 and 45 have Islamist persuasions; but I do think that they are more than happy to be part of a socialist/nationalist party. These will begin popping up under different banners, each a variant of the Baath but of course completely disavowing their parentage. Some of them might integrate radical Islamist rhetoric, or develop a form of Islamic Socialism that is substantially different than the Post-Muslim Brotherhood message of Islamic investment banking. What you will have is that every street in Baghdad will become its own political party, just like it was in Lebanon, and every single one of them will attempt to replace the old Baathist system under a new banner. It is, after all, what they have been taught to do, and something the Americans can’t seem to replace with anything better.