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Nation-building is a tricky business for a post-Marxist mind…

Paul Bremer has left the country… Two days earlier than was expected, he handed the administration over to the Iraqi government under Iyad Allawi. More than 100,000 foreign troops will remain as well as the funds voted for by the American Congress to finance the work of reconstruction.

John Keegan offers a ‘meta-contextual perspective’ on what is “rotten in the state of Iraq” (and in Washington) with regard to the aftermath of probably the most successful war ever fought between a democracy and a dictatorship. The entourage of highly opinionated advisers, that have become known as “neo-conservatives” may be at the root of the problem with the ill-conceived nation-building in Iraq:

A more accurate way of describing them would be as “post-Marxists”, in that, like many 20th-century intellectuals, their thinking was formed in reaction to the Soviet system, whether originally for or against. In the world in which they matured, it was impossible not to perceive politics as the supreme and dominant human activity. Their perception had distorting after-effects.

The new conservatives who had rejected Left-wing solutions to the world’s problems were nevertheless left with the conviction that any solution would be political. Confronted by the residue of tyranny, as in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, they expected democracy to take its place. Inside any people’s democracy, they might have said, there is a real democracy struggling to get out. In the case of eastern Europe, they were genuinely right.

Although the journey to freedom and democracy in the former communist bloc has not been straightforward, the assumption that those who opposed the communist tyranny saw democracy as the natural alternative, was certainly correct.

The neo-conservatives’ mistake was to suppose that, wherever tyranny ruled, democracy was its natural alternative. So, when planning for the government of post-war Iraq, the lead agency, the Pentagon, dominated by neo-conservatives, jumps to the conclusion that, as soon as Saddam’s tyranny was destroyed, Iraqi democrats would emerge to assume governmental responsibility from the liberating coalition and a pro-Western regime would evolve seamlessly from the flawed past.

To think in such a way was to reveal a dangerously post-Marxist cast of mind. Marxists can think only in political terms. They accept, even if they despise, liberal and conservative opposition. What they cannot accept is that their opponents may be motivated by beliefs which are not political in any way at all.

John Keegan concludes that the real opposition force is religion. There are others opposing the American presence, such as the survivors of the Ba’ath Party, a strictly secular organisation, however, religion is the only force that can provide an ‘alternative’, however flawed, to the current state of affairs. He admonished the Americans for dissolving the Iraqi army or police or civil administration, regardless of the number of Ba’ath Party members they contained.

Perhaps the current security problems in Iraq prove him right. I do not know whether using ex-Ba’athists in the post-Saddam Iraq would have prevented the deterioration of security in Iraq we have witnessed. I do, however, have a problem with moral implications of not purging the society of those who propped an oppressive regime. One man cannot sustain a totalitarian regime alone, it is the thousands of ‘little’ authoritarians that help to maintain the regime’s grip on its victims and destroy its opponents. I believe it was wrong (morally and politically) for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe not conduct a thorough ‘de-communisation’ of their political systems and societies. Similarly, I believe de-Ba’athification is desirable for the Iraqi society to find its footing.

However, I also find it hard to disagree with Keegan’s parting shot:

Looking back, better a Ba’athist Iraq than an Islamic one. Let us hope that it is not too late.

14 comments to Nation-building is a tricky business for a post-Marxist mind…

  • Joe

    Gabriel, this article is based on some awfully big (propaganda) assumptions: That the idea of making Iraq a democratic society is “ill conceived” and that it is all “going wrong”.

    “The entourage of highly opinionated advisers, that have become known as “neo-conservatives” may be at the root of the problem with the ill-conceived nation-building in Iraq:”


    “One does not have to belong to the anti-war coalition to believe that something has gone wrong or to believe that what has gone wrong could have been avoided.”

    There is little ill-conceived in getting rid of an enemy – and little wrong about trying to gain the bonus of then converting that enemy into an ally.

    To start from such an extreme negative “meta” position shifts the resulting conclusion also to an extreme negative.. based almost entirely on propaganda and facts removed from context.

    Also the idea that religious beliefs are different to political beliefs – sorry I don’t buy it… all beliefs are used and abused in exactly the same way. To most people their own politics are religiously held beliefs.

    I think John Keegan is largely ignoring the outside forces of agressor countries and anti-American/Bush politics that are being used to confuse the situation for outside observers. Iraq is not a static situation from which easy solutions can be instantly applied, the Americans appear to have done and are still doing a better job than they are given credit for.

    To me John’s article looks like little more than a dig at Americans for not being perfect… and/or not being European.

  • R C Dean

    I usually agree with Keegan’s analysis of things military. Here, though, he strays from his area of expertise. In particular, when he concludes that the real opposition force to democracy is not dictatorship, it is religion, he overlook the fact that theocratic states are simply another flavor of dictatorship.

    Sure, our enemies in Iraq frequently wear clerical garb, but an authoritarian is an authoritarian, from the political perspective, and I have always argued that even “secular” totalitarians are almost indistiguishable, functionally, from religious fanatics. Indeed, while the cult of the state often springs up to fill the vacuum left behind when religion recedes from society, there is nothing inherently contradictory between authoritarian religions and authoritarian states. So what else is new?

  • hi there

    better a Ba’athist Iraq than an Islamic one

    I demand Gabriel Syme be banned immediately as a Ba’athist sympathizer. 🙂

  • I demand Gabriel Syme be banned immediately as a Ba’athist sympathizer.

    Right, but if I am going down, I am taking John Keegan with me… 🙂

  • Johnathan

    Gabriel, let us not forget that nation building is a bit like economic interventionism — likely to produce unintended or at least unexpected results. When Hayek wrote of the “fatal conceit” of socialism, his insight could also be applied to nation building, however noble the motive.

    Mind you, I think anyone who supports the overthrow of a vicious regime should recognise the responsibility for leaving the nation affected in a better condition than it was before.

  • M. Simon

    So far in the numerous places in Iraq where elections have been held the fanatics are not doing well.

    Where does Keegan get his info? Michael Moore documentaries?


    I do not understand how teaching and enabling of self governance is like socialism. I suppose there must be better alternative to what happened unfortunately none of them materialized. Why is that?

    Is it possible that sometimes the low efficiency choice (government) is the only effective timely choice. You can have utopia in the by and by or improvement tomorrow. Choose.

  • Ad de-communisation of Central and Eastern Europe:

    We’ve talked about it in Prague and I still don’t agree. It would have been quite easy to cleanse the population of all those who had owned the Party ID at some point, except that few would be left, and those few would assume power with a non-deserved comparative advantage. In Czechia, formed secret police members have been banned from public service, and that’s as far as we could go.

    Remember that it was the West who abandoned us after the WWII and allowed Stalin to build his empire. Those who resisted were shot, the rest had to adapt. Membership in the Party could effectively mean that the State left you alone.

    Finally, from the individualist’s point of view, there is only individual justice and individual guilt. Collective cleansing is a collectivist measure, blatantly illiberal. Back in 1989 we said “We are different” (from THEM). We meant it.

  • Tomas: I don’t mean collective cleansing, I mean to ferret out each and every individual commie bastard that made life hell for those around him and helped to destroy thousands of innocent lives. If there is any justice, this is what should have been done. And you certainly do not let communists benefit from what they have done, which is what happened in Central and Eastern Europe.

  • R C Dean

    Keegan claims that What has sustained the anti-war coalition, and allowed it to become influentially dominant, is the rise of resistance within Iraq to the Anglo-American presence.

    I believe this is factually, well, weak. As Belmont Club recently showed, the “resistance” in Iraq is not home-grown at all, but is imported from outside Iraq. These are not Iraqis, however misguided, “resisting” Americans, these are largely outside agitators and terrorists attempting destabilize Iraq for their own purposes. Makes for a very different story-line, no?

  • Chris

    Keegan is only partly right, but misses the mark. The real reason why it will be very hard for democracy, in the western sense, to take root is the cultural differences present. Iraq has no history or tradition of democracy, or freedom – in the western sense. The foundation is not there. You can began to lay the foundation but the process would take many years and would in no way be an instant fix, as seems to be expected. Afterall the preparation of the western mind for democracy took centuries.

  • Better a Ba’athist Iraq than an Islamic one? Then it should have been left under Saddam, which was the antiwar argument to start with. But the US led off instead with a break on the billiard table. And the balls are still rolling. How will it end? If Iraq develops into a halfway, just a halfway prosperous and stable country, it will constitute an alternative Shi’ite center of power. If it fails, it will fall into the orbit of Teheran.

    The important thing now is to play the game to the finish as well as possible. Having the taken the risk, it is no time to get cold feet now.

  • Doug Collins

    Chris wrote:
    The real reason why it will be very hard for democracy, in the western sense, to take root is the cultural differences present. Iraq has no history or tradition of democracy, or freedom – in the western sense. The foundation is not there.

    Then he wrote:
    Afterall the preparation of the western mind for democracy took centuries.

    Exactly. We didn’t have that foundation either. Yet we eventually got there. I was just listening to a talk on Pius IX, the pope who held office just after the 1848 revolutions swept Europe. I was struck by how completely unmodern his beliefs were. And -given his starting assumptions- they were logically consistent. He was as absolutely anti-modern and anti-reason as any taliban mullah. And he obviously wasn’t alone. That was just a century and a half ago, long after we in the West had left the middle ages behind.

    Our real aim is bigger than just Iraq or Afganistan. Operationally, it is to get the islamosavages off our backs and to make sure they don’t attack us again. That is a difficult, but utterly essential task. I don’t see any hope of doing it without bringing the bulk of them into the modern world. That would necessarily require their acceptance of the tolerance that they now reject.

    Even if the Iraq effort is as complete a failure as Keegan seems to be claiming, it still may very well have accomplished its main objective – to start the modernization snowball rolling. The Crusades were by any reasonable measure a failure, yet they started a process in the West that can be traced forward to Luther, Bacon, Newton and beyond. Iraq has literate people who embrace reason and modernity, perhaps not a majority but certainly a larger proportion of their population than of say – 17th century England.

    Freedom, capitalism, reason (properly applied – we have a way to go ourselves yet) all work. They aren’t just “alternative lifestyles”. They are the direction that human cultures must go if they are to grow and thrive. The only alternative is stagnation and death. Either way, Islam will not remain a problem forever.

    At the very worst, the spark that has been lit may build into a murderous conflagration like the wars of the reformation. Certainly there are vested and armed interests in the Middle East who are as threatened by modernity as any Hapsburg was. But from our point of view such a bloodletting would divert their deadly attentions to each other, away from us. Aside from the western lives that would be spared over the next few decades by such a diversion, it would leave the moslem survivors with no illusions about the barbaric current form of their religion. Christianity was able to adapt. I see no reason why Islam shouldn’t be able to do so also. If it cannot, it will cease to be.

  • lucklucky

    The solution was US to emulate Ataturk, only then can Irak advance.

  • Luniversal

    The USA proposes to create a simulacrum of a western political system and capitalist economy in another country, thousands of miles away, by fiat within a relatively short time. More than $100bn in aid will be dispensed. If the plan succeeds, what a splendid practical case for supranational, armed statist intervention and dirigisme George W Bush will have made. None of that nightwatchman-state rubbish for Iraq!