Published: October 24, 2006
The New York Times
An American in Iraq has finally gotten it almost right.
J. D. Thurman, the major general who is the senior commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, has figured out the obstacle to America’s dream for Iraq.
“Part of our problem is that we want this more than they do,” General Thurman told The Times’s Michael Gordon, alluding to American efforts to unify Iraqis. “We need to get people to stop worrying about self and start worrying about Iraq.”
That’s a refreshingly candid alternative to the usual lines we hear about the Iraqi people’s patriotism and resolve. General Thurman predicted that Americans will keep struggling unless Iraqis put aside their differences. Quite right — and quite depressing, because they’re not about to do it, no matter what timetable the U.S. tries to impose.
But what’s stopping them is not selfishness. When General Thurman talked about the conflict between serving oneself and serving one’s country, he was applying an American template to a different culture. Rampant individualism is not the problem in Iraq.
The problem is that they have so many social obligations more important to them than national unity. Iraqis bravely went to the polls and waved their purple fingers, but they voted along sectarian lines. Appeals to their religion trumped appeals to the national interest. And as the beleaguered police in Amara saw last week, religion gets trumped by the most important obligation of all: the clan.
The deadly battle in Amara wasn’t between Sunnis and Shiites, but between two Shiite clans that have feuded for generations. After one clan’s militia destroyed police stations and took over half the city, the Iraqi Army did not ride to the rescue. Authorities regained control only after the clan leaders negotiated a truce.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq, American optimists invoked Germany and Japan as models for their democratization project, but Iraq didn’t have the cultural cohesion or national identity of those countries. The shrewdest forecasts I heard came not from foreign policy experts but from anthropologists and sociologists who noted a crucial statistic: nearly half of Iraqis were married to their first or second cousins.
Unlike General Thurman and other Westerners, members of these tightly knit Iraqi clans don’t look on society as a collection of individuals working for the common good of the nation. “In a modern state a citizen’s allegiance is to the state, but theirs is to their clan and their tribe,” Ihsan M. al-Hassan, a sociologist at the University of Baghdad, warned three years ago. “If one person in your clan does something wrong, you favor him anyway, and you expect others to treat their relatives the same way.”
These allegiances explain why Iraqis don’t want to give up their local militias. They know it’s unrealistic to expect protection from a national force of soldiers or police officers from other clans, other regions, other religions. When the Iraqi Army ordered reinforcements to go help Americans keep peace in Baghdad, several Iraqi battalions deserted rather than risk their lives defending strangers.
Instead of trying to transform Iraqis into patriots and build up national security forces, the U.S. should be urging decentralization. The national government should concentrate on defending the borders and equitably distributing oil revenue, ideally by distributing shares of the oil wealth directly to citizens.
Most other duties, including maintaining law and order, should devolve to autonomous local governments: one for the Kurdish north, one for the Sunni Triangle, one for the Shiite south, plus coalition governments in Baghad and the multiethnic region around Kirkuk. The result would hardly be peace. There would still be murderous religious conflicts in Baghdad and fierce interclan battles in towns like Amara.
But the local leaders — elected officials, police officers, sheiks, clerics — would be in a better position to provide security and negotiate truces than would a national government. It’s no accident that the most stable part of Iraq is also the most autonomous: Kurdistan, where two rival clans have negotiated a relatively peaceful coexistence.
It wouldn’t be easy for Iraqis in other regions to work out their differences, but the local leaders would have one crucial advantage over any Iraqis or Americans giving orders from Baghdad.
They would realize their neighbors are not going to suddenly embrace national unity. They would know you make peace with the citizenry you have, not the one you want.