Saturday, September 25, 2004

The challenges of Iraq 

Earlier in the week I wrote a longish (for me) post about what I called the Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder; the tragic psychological legacy of life under a dictatorship and its implications for rebuilding countries like Iraq. The post generated quite a deal of interest, as you can see in the comments section. Iraq the Model guys thought my diagnosis accurately reflected the state of Iraqi national psyche at the moment. Andrew Sullivan introduced the link "Cheery Chrenkoff notes the extraordinary devastation that the Saddam mafia wrought on that poor country." Which is a pretty accurate reflection of the post's contents, although I'm still mystified about the adjective "cheery." If anything, the post itself was an antithesis of cheery, dealing as it did with the pervasive spiritual damage totalitarianism does to its victims in places such as Iraq. The reason for the "cheery" description probably relates to my "Good news from Iraq" (and Afghanistan) series (see the top of the side bar for links), particularly since the full text of Andrew's post ran like this:
"Here are two striking but different takes on Iraq's current situation. Cheery Chrenkoff notes the extraordinary devastation that the Saddam mafia wrought on that poor country. Juan Cole asks what America would be like if it had the same level of violence and instability as Iraq now has."
I find it amusing in an in-jokeish sort of way (pleas forgive me) since it's not the first time that I have been juxtaposed with Juan Cole. A few weeks ago, Greg Djerejian of the Belgravia Dispatch wrote about his take on the situation in Iraq: "[B]etween Coleian doom and gloom and unmitigated Panglossian sunshine (Chrenkoffian, I might say in the blogosphere!) there is still some room for cautious and limited optimism." As I explained elsewhere, my intention was never to be cheerful, merely to provide a bit of balance to the media coverage of Iraq, but I guess if there's one thing you learn in this business is that you can never quite control your image. Oh well, "Cheery" Chrenkoff is not a bad reputation to have, particularly seeing that by nature I'm not a born optimist.

Some readers, although kind to the post itself, have misunderstood its intention. Wrote one: "Arthur, this is a great critique of Bush's ongoing delusions on Iraq. The hawks really seem to have believed that if we just toppled the statue in Baghdad, Iraqis would immediately line up at polls, no shoving, and launch a full-blown civil society. As delusions go, we might as well have elected Joni Mitchell on a promise to turn our bombers into butterflies; it's about that realistic. PTSD is one good reason why. As some of us said at the time, why would we expect Iraq to deal with PTSD better than Yugoslavia did? Bush/Howard could never have sold this invasion if they'd been honest about it's entirely predictable outcome."

My post was not meant to be a critique of anyone's approach to Iraq, except those perhaps who wallow in doom and gloom and blame the Bush Administration for the fact that Iraq is not a peaceful, functioning democracy by now. My message was: be patient; it takes time, not just because rebuilding a country ruined over three decades of war, oppression and isolation is never quick or easy, but also because the attitudes and ways of thinking acquired by people under dictatorship tend to linger and don't make transformation any easier.

I don't think it's a fair criticism of the neo-conservatives or the Administration generally that they expected instantaneous results. From the "cakewalk" onwards, this seems to be one of left's straw man arguments. Bush et al were always at pains to underline the point that both the war on terror and Iraq will take time and we should be prepared to be in for a long haul.

If there are political implications of my post it is not that the situation is hopeless and we should have never tried, but that the challenges are huge and we have to try even harder. I know that every case is different, but over the years countries and regions as diverse as most of the South America, Germany, Japan, Eastern Europe, Turkey, India, South Korea and Taiwan, among others, were given by various critics little chance of succeeding as working democracies and reasonably normal and decent (by comparison) states.

We cannot give up on the Middle East and the Arab world. Let's be aware of the realities and challenges, by all means (hence my original post about the Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder), but let us not use it as an excuse to wash our hands and walk away. Often what seems like an easy and reasonable option in short-term comes back to haunt us later on.


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