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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Cherchez le politicien

Belatedly, but no less relevantly, I was directed to the following Letter to Editor published in the Daily Telegraph last Saturday. It is from a British Army officer who was (still is?) in Basra. Its content was heartily approved by the Samizdata’s own Our Man in Basra – his quotable comment was I could have written every word myself

Sir, I am a serving Army officer. Publication of photographs that are faked – as appears to be the growing consensus – does not assist our soldiers on the ground but, while such abuse is intolerable to us, brutalised Iraqi opinion differs from ours. Most Iraqis are baffled as to why we do not employ such methods.

Suggestions I have encountered while working with Iraqi governance institutions in Basrah include: crushing looters’ hands, wiring pylon saboteurs to the national grid and hanging rioters by the neck and beating them to death.

In Iraqi eyes, it is not through torture that we have failed Iraq. One year on from liberation, improvements have not materialised. We still seek military solutions to problems caused by policy. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) inherited and perpetuated a Soviet-style centralised bureaucracy without the clear central direction or the threats to back it up that made the Ba’athist system work.

Poor salary decisions mean that operating budgets cannot be paid, so, while there are new police cars, they have no fuel and Iraqi jails lack money for food.

On March 13, after nine months of operations, the Rapid Regional Response Programme, the CPA’s principal project fund for improving Iraqi life had, in the South, identified almost $42 million (£23.5 million) of projects but, owing to excessively bureaucratic contracting, completed only a shameful $627,671 worth. Emergency Infrastructure Project funding achieved more, but millions of dollars worth of projects will not be completed when the June deadline expires.

Yet many Iraqis will endure all this for freedom and democracy. In terms of freedom, Iraqis are still arrested, held indefinitely without trial and, apparently, tortured. In terms of democracy, the CPA, fearing calls for national elections in which Islamic parties may succeed, has banned direct, democratic elections in favour of caucus-style selections derided as undemocratic by most Iraqis.

Meanwhile, those such as Moqtada al-Sadr, the rogue cleric regarded by most Iraqis as a foolish upstart whose lack of support would be revealed by polling, terrorise the country with armed militias. Next month, the CPA will hand over sovereignty and responsibility to an Iraqi nation singularly unequipped to cope.

Iraqis I have spoken to confirm that ousting Saddam was the right thing to do, but if overturning unpleasant regimes is to become a regular feature of foreign policy, we should ensure we have something better to replace them with.

In short, cherchez le politicien.

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6 comments to Cherchez le politicien

  • Guy Herbert

    I’m sure this is account is absolutely right. What seems ever more extraordinary as it emerges how early the Bush administration was looking at unseating Saddam, is the seeming incoherence of the plans for what happens next. In anything so wildly complex as occupying and reconstructing a big country there are bound to be lots of mistakes and big ones. But even the principles are unclear. It is understandable the Iraqis are baffled, since next to nothing is explained.

    As the simplest possible example: Has anyone ever seen a sensible explanation of why looting was widely tolerated?

  • Jacob

    Social engineering is impossible.

    Remember that, that’s no mere slogan as Iraq proves. You can’t build a liberal-democratic regime (or any other) from scratch, by design and decree.

    Saddam needed to be removed. That’s absolutely sure.
    But don’t expect a smooth and easy regime change. These things are messy and prolonged. No one knows what will be – say one year or ten years from now. But that is no argument for leaving Saddam in power. The plans for a new Iraq were incoherent ? Sure, because these things cannot be planned, every “plan” would be incoherent.

    The transition is messy ? It cannot be otherwise. Mistakes have been made ? Sure. It cannot be otherwise.
    Does anyone wish Saddam back ?

  • S. Weasel

    Meanwhile, those such as Moqtada al-Sadr, the rogue cleric regarded by most Iraqis as a foolish upstart whose lack of support would be revealed by polling, terrorise the country with armed militias.

    Maybe, but what would polling reveal about would Sistani’s support?

  • Jacob

    Polling is irrelevant to these societies.

    They are not governed by politics as in the West, by parties, by popular polling. The social structures in place there are families, clans, tribes. The clan elders or leaders are the ones who determine outcomes; you don’t poll all the population including youngsters and women; you poll just the influential people – the clan elders and religious leaders, and warlords.
    A government is a coallition of clans tribes and warlords, often forged by the power of arms of some leading warlord.

    Is that an accurate description of power structures in Iraq ? I don’t know. I guess it is at least in part true. Anyhow, politics there is very different from politics as we know it. Polling is useless.

  • Cobden Bright

    Simple answer – hold elections immediately, leave a division or two in the desert to deter a tyrant from taking over by force, and let the Iraqis govern themselves.

    For sure, stop spending billions of dollars employing troops to get shot at, and taxing westerners so that Iraqis can have nice new highways or water-systems. None of this contributes to western security at all, but rather endangers it.

  • Julian Taylor

    … and elections are the answer to any instability situation? And what good would ‘leaving a division or two in the desert’ do? Also what ‘nice new highways or water systems’, from what I hear engineers are still nearly 6 months away from recovering the water and electricity systems from the almost total damage that Saddam’s people did to the country’s infrastructure.