Textes d'opinion

Unsettled civilizations: How the US can handle Iraq

There is an old clause in the law codes that King Ine of Wessex established in the 8th century. If fewer than seven men attack private property, they are thieves; if between seven and 35 attack, they are a gang, and if more than 35, they are a military expedition. According to these criteria, billionaire philanthropist and financier George Soros’ view of the September 11 attacks as a criminal matter rather than an act of war – stating that «crime requires police work, not military action» – is erroneous. After all, the 19 people carrying out the attack were backed by well-organized groups of thousands of other people and by a financing network too. Al-Qaeda’s goal has been to fight the United States, and declare war on it. Why shouldn’t one take such declarations seriously?

Whereas Soros believes that the police and the US giving more foreign aid are the solutions for dealing with terrorism, others view the events unfolding since September 11, 2001 in a different light. Samuel Huntington sees these events as part of a «clash of civilizations,» and suggests remedies such as strengthening the US’s military power and increasing coordination with Western Europe, Russia, Japan, and Latin America. Most important, Huntington concludes, is «to recognize that Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single-most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world.» Though this last observation from Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is often quoted, closer inspection reveals that it is either meaningless or wrong.

It is not clear how Huntington perceives a world where – to keep things stable – the West would «not intervene.» Channels of communications being what they are, how can the West not influence other civilizations? Prohibit broadcasting, wireless communications and trading, perhaps? Stop selling or giving medicine? Cease buying oil? As to the second part of the statement, Huntington is wrong. Defeating «emerging civilizations» such as Nazi Germany’s or communist Russia’s have diminished conflicts and increased people’s well-being.

It is easy to criticize both grandiose thesis and narrow ones. To come up with a different way of perceiving the events and offer solutions is a bit harder. Yet this brief does just that. It shows that today’s conflict between Islamic groups and the West, as well as within Islamic societies, can be viewed as one between «mobile» and «immobile» civilizations, whose members can be found in every society. What distinguishes the US is that it has far more people sharing the outlook of a «mobile civilization» than any other country. And what characterizes many Islamic countries is that they have a large number of people sharing the values of an «immobile» civilization. «Relativist» orthodoxy notwithstanding, one point I make is that although one can understand the values and ideals of «immobile societies,» as fitting certain situations, there cannot be a compromise between these two civilizations. Today’s circumstances – demographic in particular – require moves toward «mobility.»

Perceived from this angle, September 11 and the other terrorist attacks reflect the power struggle within the Islamic world, a type of struggle that Western Europe went through for centuries. As in Europe, the conflict within Islam, played out both within the countries and on the world stage, is an attempt of their «immobile,» tradition-based constituents to prevent members of their «mobile» constituents – and whom the US supports – to gain the upper hand. And as in Europe over the centuries, it is the rapid increase in population in Islamic countries that brought about the ever-increasing mismatch between the expectations of the many guided by traditional institutions, and reality. But, to quote Mark Twain, though history rhymes, it does not quite repeat itself, and today’s situation is also unique in many respects. The concluding section discusses ways in which the US could deal with this unprecedented situation.

Two civilizations

The main feature of agrarian societies has been their immobility. In these societies – as in almost all societies until the Industrial Revolution, and in much of the world still today – wealth was derived from the land. Farmers learned the minute details of cultivating their lands, of adjusting to changes in weather conditions and of the soil. This knowledge is so place-specific that it is no surprise that farmers were severely taxed by a maze of institutions, whose role centered around the idea of defending «one’s land.» It’s always the least mobile who bear such burdens. What can a farmer specialized in tropical plants and knowing the nuances of weather patterns in the tropics do in a snowy, agrarian Northern Europe?

In a world where wealth is derived from agriculture and natural resources (whether forests, coal, gold, diamonds, oil), the control of the territory must be insured. Controlling them means protecting, administering, exploiting and occasionally capturing lands. Without such controls, another land or resource-based country’s army would capture the place. The institutions, values, culture, indeed the whole outlook of these societies, is shaped by being wedded to the territory. And though there are variations across such cultures, they give birth to one type of civilization – call it the «immobile» one.

Feudal lords, aristocracies and landed gentry, armed forces and police, government ministries, priesthood and bureaucracies provided protection to a place and, at times, imposed threats on neighboring, similarly immobile societies. A weak king or a weak ruler left his subjects at the mercy of his rivals. That’s why people paid taxes – call it protection money, if you wish. The amount people willingly pay for such protection bears relationship to the costs of moving to a different area, out of both the plunderer’s and the tax authorities’ reaches. When people could not thus escape, and taxes became exorbitant, the immobile people occasionally rebelled.

Kings, feudal lords and dictators of various persuasion understood these features of immobile civilization. They saw the relationship between the areas they controlled and those controlled by others as hostile. One’s gain of territory was another’s loss. It was a zero-sum game world. Anything that would allow people to move more easily from one place to another was perceived as clear and present danger. It weakened one’s power – and the tax base. Over time, people specialized in the myriad institutions of «immobile» civilizations and had a large stake in its survival. Whether their belief that this civilization continued to be «the best» when population grew was sincere or not, is irrelevant: delusions can be powerful when they serve one’s interests. And deeds matter more than words.

It is not surprising, therefore, to observe throughout history and up to now that many rulers and governments have done everything in their power to condemn any trade or any group that drew its power from mobility. They were suspicious of merchants, traders, bankers and financiers, even people dabbling in technology, unless these technologies addressed solving the immediate problems of the immobile population. Some or all of these occupations had inferior status – usury laws being an early means of rationalizing such status. And although initially traders did not have such inferior status in Islam – Mohammed after all was a merchant before becoming a prophet – by the 10th century business become marginalized. This happened with the closing «of the gates of Ijtihad» (independent reasoning as applied to the sharia) in the 10th century, with some sects taking the Koran far more literally than others.

The priesthood helped conserve the status quo by teaching mythologies in the Middle East and later in Europe. India’s caste system reflected a similar frame of mind. The bania, or businessman, is placed third in the four caste hierarchy, behind the brahmins (priests, teachers, intellectuals – the myth-justifying and preserving group) and the kshatryias (landholders, warriors, rulers), and one step ahead of the shudras (untouchables).

Consider the clash between «immobile» and «mobile» civilizations (at times within the same society or nation) from another angle. In agrarian societies, some work the land, some go to the army, a fraction goes into either government or the Church, and a small fraction gets to trade. People are defined by their status: as serfs, as landowners, as soldiers, as priests, as traders. Rights and obligations are connected to one’s status, are inherited, and are not subject to negotiation.

The idea of «individual rights» – meaning the idea of negotiating rights and obligations that are unconnected to the status one was born in life – does not exist. True, occasionally rulers have changed one’s status in life – but as a favor from «above.» It is the idea of contractual law – equality before the laws, and the freedom to contract unless explicitly prohibited – that eventually allowed people from all walks of life to use their talents, abandon the status they were born to, and commercialize ideas without rulers’ favors. Access to finance is crucial to achieve the latter goal. Unless one has access to different, competing sources of capital, «freedom of contract» is a slogan with no meaning.

Alternatives come from having access to capital, from being able to borrow against imagined futures. In a world where government stays the sole source of capital there can only be one «official future» – the one imagined, and financed – by the political power. In other words, freedom to contract, backed by a variety of possible sources of capital, makes one «mobile» – upward, or if one fails, downward – and also sideways, moving to other places and trying one’s luck there, occasionally abandoning one’s «immobile tribe» or one’s religion. This is what «mobile civilization» means.

At times, observers confuse the existence of trading with a predisposition to move toward «market economies.» Not so. Every society had its share of traders. But there is not much common between the trading in Middle Eastern bazaars (or, for that matter France’s little shop-owners), where the government granted little local monopolies to traders and small merchants (and in France’s case it also imposed complex price controls), and the principle of negotiating rights.

However, there is nothing more threatening to the institutions of immobile societies – based on the idea that contracts are a matter of status and hierarchy, and that everything is prohibited unless explicitly permitted – than a move toward contractual law. It takes time to escape perceptions shaped over centuries by institutions fitting an immobile world, and move from «status» to «contract.» Whether the slow adjustment happens because of self-interest or confusion due to the long-taught mythologies fitting an immobile world is a marginal issue. Deeds are far more important than motives, and myths and the veil of language can disguise the motives wonderfully, anyway.

Before taking a closer look at some past and present conflicts through this «mobile/immobile» angle, let’s address a few questions. One is: Why have so few societies succeeded in developing deep and open capital markets, necessary to become a «mobile civilization,» and without which the term «freedom» – freedom to contract in particular – has no meaning? The second question is: How did the West stumble on the maze of institutions that laid the foundations for its «mobile» civilization?

Chance and necessity

The answer to the first question is that capital markets depend on a certain kind of trust – namely, the trust that the law will be applied equitably to parties to contractual agreements in the long term. A maze of complex institutions is required to generate and sustain this trust, and it took centuries, accompanied by prolonged conflicts and a long sequence of trial and error, to stumble on them. Democritus, the Greek philosopher, once said: «Everything in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.» (And, I would add that this is true for the internal universe of the human minds, too, where the two cannot be separated either.) Indeed, chance and necessity shaped the institutions that eventually allowed «mobile» civilizations to emerge.

One such chance event stands apart: it was the Gregorian Reformation. This event in the West separated the Church from the secular world of politics and governance, freeing the clergy from the domination of lord, kings and emperors, and putting in place first two, and later more, competing powers. Pope Gregory VII reshaped the Catholic Church into a centralized bureaucracy of educated clergy, independent of local political control. This separation, as Harold Berman noted, «gave rise to the formation of the first modern Western legal system, the ‘new canon law’ … of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually to new secular legal systems as well – royal, urban and others» (and did not happen in Byzantium). For centuries, the Church remained the only institution capable of standing up to royal and feudal authority, and, for a while, becoming one of the few channels of upward mobility for those born poor.

In addition to rediscovering Roman law, and Greek philosophy, the new legal spheres created by Church, kings, cities, merchants and the competition among these institutions, allowed individuals to carve out more rights than before. The notions of rule of law, of accountability, of balance of power, freedom from arbitrariness, the elaboration of the concept of «corporation,» be it monasteries, merchant guild, universities, and eventually companies, all came to stand between the individual and the state, allowing a «mobile» civilization to develop. The long history of struggle, of rivalry between the highest political authorities and the Church, and eventually, with the Reformation, within the Church, is a distinguishing feature of Western European history.

Places where this separation did not happen, and no competing powers emerged, fell behind, whether it was Spain under the Inquisition, Islam, the Orthodox part of the Church, and later in Russia. James Franklin remarks in his book Science of Conjecture, that in Islamic law both the concept of «institution» is missing and that «the idea of contracts involving risk survived – but only for the purpose of prohibiting them.» He adds, «the Prophet forbade games of chance and, according to authoritative traditions, also any contract that involved gharar – any risk, uncertainty or speculation.» Under Islamic law, people could not sell birds while in the air, even if it was expected that these birds return to their nest. Neither could they sell future crops, or fish in the water – unless its catching was certain because the water was shallow and the water belonged to the vendor.

Religion becomes «fundamental»: God can’t be wrong, and one can’t even argue with Him. (Contrast such an attitude with the Old Testament, where characters argue and negotiate constantly with God, and debating interpretations of the text is encouraged). Except in Turkey in the 20th century, the lack of separation of powers in Islamic countries has resulted in accepting interpretations of the Koran as final arbiters on commercial and financial matters. Debates fell little by little into oblivion in the 10th century, with the prohibition on independent reasoning concerning the sharia, «the closing of the gates of Ijtihad,» as the event is called.

In sharp contrast, Christian scholars in the West, in the 11th and 12th centuries, took just the opposite direction, and rediscovered Greek classics and earlier Islamic scholars. These discoveries, combined with increased trade and legal challenges, change the language of discourse in Western Europe, reintroduced the terms «probably» and «like» (from Greek), and to the conduction of sophisticated discourses on probability, chance and risk, often linking them to trade, profits and «usury.» By the 18th century, Joseph Butler could conclude, «probability is the very guide of life.»

Practice and language shape habits of mind. The greater the role of business and the more transactions, the more complex calculations of probability become, and the notion of probabilities change, imperceptibly, perhaps, all facets of life. To describe transactions is far from a trivial exercise, as even a casual look at any investment prospectus illustrates. Prices, which are present values of goods and services to be delivered in the future, are approximations, reflecting expectations and probabilities. Because of difficulties in fulfillment when pricing uncertain quantities, price becomes just one feature of a complex contractual agreement. It is not surprising, that in mobile societies, with developing capital markets, discussions about probability, risk and uncertainty are linked to both legal reasoning and the institutions needed to back contractual agreements.

Islamic societies were not the only ones that did not go through the Gregorian Reformation, or the counter-Reformation, which did not see the emergence of competing political powers, and stayed «immobile.» Consider Russia in the two centuries before the October Revolution of 1917. For those 200 years, the Russian Orthodox Church was governed by principles introduced by Peter the Great in 1721 in the Ecclesiastical Regulation. According to this regulation, the Church ceased to be an institution independent of government, and its administration became a function of the state. Peter’s explicit goal was to abolish the possibility of domestic challenges to his power. He achieved his goal with far-reaching consequences, bringing about – inadvertently perhaps – another somewhat «immobile» civilization.

State control over the Church had a devastating effect. Although Russians could still find solace in orthodox services and the sharing of suffering in a Church community, the Church could not play the same roles in society as its Western counterparts. This powerless Church occupied itself with private spiritual matters and would not stand up to the government on behalf of Judeo-Christian values. As a consequence, it soon lost the allegiance of the Russian groups who wished to move Russia toward a «mobile» civilization. Two centuries later, Vladimir Lenin merely tightened the screws: he established a puppet patriarchate, controlled by the state rather than the Holy Synod (the institution he abolished). This new patriarchate never uttered a word of criticism against the regime. Author Alexander Solzhnitsyn was right when he declared that Russia would have developed a more civil society over the past centuries had the Church not surrendered its independence.

It is no accident either that Russia and the Islamic countries, like any others dominated for a long time by one authority, have much in common, both displaying the characteristic features of «immobile civilizations.» These countries have had large and corrupt bureaucracies. They share a long history of arbitrary authority; of confiscation of property; of forcing people to buy goods at high prices and sell the products of their own labor cheaply (unsurprisingly, since laws and regulations immobilized the people), and, in general, forestalling the market – all while maintaining relatively powerful police forces and armies. They also share the custom of bribery, and a general attitude of fatalism – with occasional outbursts of revolutionary ardor.

What will eventually move immobile civilizations toward adopting the institutions of mobile ones – slowly, gradually and likely after prolonged conflicts, will be a combination of necessity and chance. The necessity is «demography» – a large increase in population, and the bankruptcy that occasionally accompanies such demographic change. The reformer, on whose ideas a critical mass of followers wishing to move Islamic countries toward a «mobile» civilization, represents the «accidental,» unpredictable part of this transition – Turkey’s Kamel Ataturk, who, almost a century ago, separated Church and state, the only Islamic country to do so, being an example.

Demography is not destiny, but ….

There was a time when humanity was at the «end of history,» in the sense of arriving at very similar, stable patterns of living around the world, though not even having been in contact. People settled in what we now call «primitive tribes,» which stayed stable for hundreds of thousands of years and, for a while, as population grew, replicating the same patterns as people settled in new territories. Family, kin, and the tribe provided insurance – with small numbers, there is no other alternative – and exchanges were based on trust, honor and reputation, family, custom and rituals providing the implicit collateral. The right to property – which was well defined and respected in these societies – was identified through personal acquaintance. The elderly settled disputes resulting from misunderstandings between parties. It was a compact, immobile world of small numbers.

Population growth (due to climate change, perhaps), and widely differing fluctuations in this growth around the world disturbed this somehow achieved stability. As populations grew and moved, trust was lost. And as populations continued to grow, there were limits to how many could stay on the land using traditional methods of cultivation, agrarian innovations notwithstanding. Or, how many more people could rulers employ as soldiers used to capture new territories, without going bankrupt, or how many could the Church absorb.

Something had to give, since there was no way to confer hereditary status for what turned to be an increasing number of people in Western Europe, starting in the 8th century and continued uninterrupted until the Black Death in 1346. This increase transformed the face of Europe – and the sequence of events described in the previous section was part of that transformation. A century later, somewhere between 1440 and 1480, Europe’s population started growing again, building persistently, though irregularly, the institutions that established the groups which became the core of the new «mobile civilization.»

Until about 100 years ago, Europe’s population continued to grow, explaining much of its unique series of events, the emergence of «nation-states» and the ideas underlying self determination for ethnic groups in particular. First these nation states united the increasing number of people, as religion ceased being a unifying force. But recall that the term «religion» comes from «re-ligare» which means to re-link. Western Europe’s rulers, facing rapidly rising populations both within their «tribes» and among neighboring ones – increases that religious leaders faced in earlier times – sought that nationalism that could re-link members of the tribe, and thus better face threats coming from the increased numbers of the neighboring ones.

While Europe was struggling to find solutions for re-uniting its growing population, the rest of the world had a relatively stable demographic history. The sudden reversal of the past few decades, with Europe’s population stagnating and the rest of the world’s growing fast, has been due to the introduction of medical and other Western innovations in the latter societies. However, these societies – Islamic ones prominent among them now, with their youth bulge – did not have the luxury of a few hundred years of experimentation with a variety of institutions to make the adjustment.

This observation brings us back to the present.

Where the stakes, phases and solutions are

Looked on from this angle, what is happening today in Islamic countries is neither surprising nor unprecedented. Indeed, history rhymes, even if it does not quite repeat itself.

The mismatch between customs, traditions, institutions, skills and language – all still fitting a smaller, relatively immobile population – and the institutions needed to give an increasing number of young people hope and a stake in the future brings about instability, much as it happened in Europe for centuries. A fraction of these societies’ members understand what’s at stake, are ready to make the necessary adjustment and establish the institutions that would allow making the transition toward a «mobile civilization.» This group looks to the US for guidance and support, political, military and financial. In contrast, members of the «immobile civilization» within Islamic countries consider that without the US’s support, the «mobile» groups would lose power. With traditional leaders at the helm, traditional institutions would be sustained, and the glory of Islam could be revived. These conflicting attitudes are a familiar occurrence, and it is where history rhymes.

Where history does not rhyme, is where the separation of the two civilizations – between the mobile one in the US and the immobile ones around the world – is concerned. Whereas in the past they existed side-by-side, with little interaction, today, because of both population growth and technology, the two civilizations encroach on one another. And there is no common ground between a society where the «MotherLAND,» «FatherLAND» or «Sacred Land» dictate status and values, and one where equality before laws, and individual rights, guaranteed by an American-type constitution, are the dominating principle. Indeed, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, Camille Pecastaing notes, «Among the things that troubled [young Arab Muslims in France] was the contradiction between the liberal, egalitarian ideals of the West and the legacy of servitude they carried over from northern Africa. In the New World exiles could no longer rely on the comforting predictability of a traditional, hierarchical society; they were hit by the existential anxiety of choice and responsibility and the formidable risk of failure.»

Looked on from this angle, European politicians’ perception that the two values are reconcilable is surprising. After all, the European Community is itself born from the memory of not letting the «Fatherland» values of Germany that led to such destruction in Europe, to surface again. Even Russia’s disintegration can be perceived as a move away from its «Motherland» values, and toward the values of a «mobile» society. And even though China makes noises about Taiwan, it seems that the conflict there will be resolved through trade, too, rather than military conflict.

It’s in Islamic, African, Latin American countries and – what’s new? – the Balkans, that «land» is still the dominating principle, the «immobile» groups within them perceiving every non-member of the «ethnic tribe,» «the pure sect,» as polluting the «sacred» soil. It is not quite surprising that the mobile civilization society condemns suicide, whereas the immobile one celebrates martyrdom. Unfortunately, this is even predictable. And much of the dangerous European torturing of language notwithstanding, there is no reconciliation between the two values. There cannot be. In this sense, the Osama bin Ladins of this world are right too: one of these societies must give up their fundamental values – or fight.

The curse of being resource rich

A fraction of the population finding itself in the midst of an «immobile» civilization also understands what is at stake, but believes it can stay in power and sustain the ancient customs and institutions by paying off the increasing number of people, youngsters in particular. How can this elite hold such beliefs? Why aren’t these societies driven into bankruptcy, and then forced then to adjust their institutions? If only life was that simple. This is where history does not repeat itself either.

Occasionally societies stumble on manna from heaven – «natural resources» – of which the Middle East has plenty. This windfall strengthens the hands of those who happen to be in power – or are ruthless in pursuing it. The money from natural resources provides the clout to hire enough people for the military, for buying arms, expand internal police, and bribe people into spying on their fellows. It can also sustain a priesthood in style either at home, or if they become too inflammatory, provide the means to export them. As long as they can sell oil and gas at good prices, Middle Eastern rulers can pursue a combination of these strategies, and prolong the life of their «immobile civilization.»

Looked on from this perspective, it isn’t quite a surprise that resource-poor Turkey became the first Islamic country to make the separation between Church and state, build up the institutions of a mobile civilization and prepare the grounds to join the European community. The Turkish experience also serves as a warning of just how slowly people’s attitudes change, and what may be needed to bring such transitions about. Turkey’s constitution empowers the military to enforce the separation between Church and state. In the 1970s – half a century after Ataturk separated Church and state – when the extreme right and left clashed, the military ruled for two years, returning then the power to civilians. The Turkish military has followed each of three coups (the last in 1980) with a rapid return to civilian rule. The fact that Turks hold the military in high esteem has nothing to do with them liking being ruled by generals. Rather, the military happens to be for the moment the only institution capable of sustaining the rights that a mobile civilization needs.

These events also help better explain why I examine events through what may seem like an over-simplified angle of immobile versus mobile civilizations. Re-writing constitutions – as Ataturk did – is relatively easy. Enforcing its spirit is something entirely different. One needs strong and competing institutions for that. If an army happens to collude with either the political powers or the Church, society stays an «immobile» civilization, constitutions and the facade of democracy notwithstanding. It’s such collusions that characterize Islamic countries that on the surface seem «democratic,» Egypt being one example.


What, then, are the steps to be taken today? Let us arrive at them by elimination. As noted at the beginning of the article, Soros’ recommendation of being «nice» seems hardly appropriate: if anything it would be counterproductive, strengthening the groups interested in sustaining the institutions of their «immobile civilization.»

Some of Huntington’s recommendations, as noted at the beginning of this article, are at best unclear, at worst wrong. Ruthless dictators, sitting on natural resources, who have the power to keep their own people in fearful resignation, buy arms and have the potential to engage in wars and finance terror, impose a heavy burden on the rest of the world. That’s why discussing the present situation in terms of «sovereignty» is hardly relevant. One civilization encroaches on the other. Huntington also recommends to «Westernize» Latin America, without saying how. And he suggests to coordinate with Europe – again, without addressing the question: What if France and Germany seem more interested in pursuing dangerously short-sighted power games, diminish US power – and, inadvertently Western civilization’s – rather than diminish that of Middle Eastern despots?

If the lasting remedy for preventing terror is then to speed up the move toward establishing institutions conducive to a «mobile» civilization within Islamic countries, what can the US do? First, as can be inferred from the above, the US had little choice but use power: the chances of domestic forces getting rid of a ruthless despot sitting on billions of gallons of oil are slim, if not nil. But what should the US do now? As the historical evidence summarized here suggests, expecting that one can create democratic institutions in countries where large segments of the population are still mired in mazes of institutions fitting an immobile civilization, is a dangerous delusion. Of course one can write beautiful constitutions, set up courts, institute voting. But remember, all Latin American countries, and some Middle Eastern, did that, without bringing about much real change. Who will enforce the spirit of these laws and institutions? Ataturk, remember, did it with the backing of the army, which followed him, having been the hero of the Dardanelles during World War I, defeating the allies at Gallipoli and being the only undefeated Ottoman commander when the empire collapsed at the end of World War I.

Iraq does not have either such a hero at present, an army, or even a reliable police force, and it is not clear how long it would take to build them. Without the presence of a force capable and willing to act, institutions promising «democracy,» «rule of law,» and «right to property» are no more than facades, giving rise to another «cargo cult.» This term emerged on an isolated island in New Guinea. During World War II, airplanes would regularly arrive full of cargo, part of which was distributed to the natives. After the war, the planes stopped coming. Distressed, the natives built thatched-roof hangers, a beacon tower made of bamboo, and an airplane made of sticks and leaves. Priests prayed for the cargoes to return. And they waited. Many countries around the world, in the Middle East and Latin America in particular, became such cargo cults. Yes, the terms and institutions sound familiar: they have constitutions, promise equality before laws, have courts, and people vote. These societies have adopted the facade of a mobile civilization, but for the moment, leaving out its content. There cannot be such a thing as «democracy» where there are no «democrats.» There may be a few in Iraq, but it does not seem that there are too many.

There seems to be little choice but for the United States and its allies to do two things: leave no doubts among Iraqis that the army is there to stay to back the emerging institutions. However, in order to bring about a speedier transition toward long-term stability, the US can encourage the move toward institutions that are the backbone of mobile civilizations: those that diminish corruption and encourage trade.

To achieve this goal more quickly, the US could suggest creating an international public trust fund, which would offer each and every Iraqi a fraction of oil-revenues, drawing on the Alaska model (as explained in my previous article for Asia Times, «Oiling the wheels of a tribal society,» November 20, 2003). The other portion would be transferred to central and local governments, through institutions held accountable for the spending. This arrangement would ensure that people have an immediate stake in the new Iraqi system (pretty much as the giving of land and apartments had in post-communist countries), and incentives to cooperate and prevent sabotage, and offer collateral to up-start small commercial entities. The act would also offer a clear signal that the US is there not as an army plundering the country’s resources, but to enforce the establishment of the type of institutions that an oil-rich, ruthless dictator would not do, imposing heavy costs on the rest of the world. It would give Iraqis collateral and something to start a new life with. Also, with less money flowing through a central government’s hands, there could be less corruption. These actions combined would also allow the US to draw parallels with the sequence of events that led to prosperity in Turkey.

Since the distinct tribes that constitute Iraq do not display strong national identification and live in rather distinct areas (unsurprisingly, since it and other Islamic states were formed relatively recently), a number of political options would open once the revenues from the distribution of oil revenues are settled. The Iraqi tribes may decide to roughly remodel themselves along the – for the moment – unique Swiss lines, where the French, German and Italian-speaking groups have each carved out territorial entities. There is one Italian canton (Ticino), many German ones and a few French (the last French one – Jura – having been carved out from the German canton of Bern in 1974, through a series of votes because of the French minority’s dissatisfaction with the German majority’s misallocation of funds). With the revenues from oil having been solved first, a major potential obstacle for delegating powers to lower levels has been eliminated, since there is less to redistribute on the central government level.

With revenues from oil being widely dispersed, the chances of much funding going for rebuilding centralized military and police powers are diminished. «Power» is dispersed and brought closer to the people. Whether or not such dispersion of financial clout will lead to developing over decades, or maybe centuries – bottom up – a canton-like federal arrangement as in Switzerland, or lead to a breakup of Iraq along ethnic lines – time will tell. Both solutions seem more stable than what the world has been facing until now.

If the tribes do not see eventual advantages of staying together, so be it. The separation of Slovakia from the Czech Republic did not end up in any great disaster. If the ethnic groups now populating Iraq can’t get along, and end up fighting, the resulting instability can be more easily contained, since none of the groups would have as much financial (oil-generated) clout as Saddam Hussein had. The best scenario would obviously be if these tribes – having now stakes in stability because of shared oil revenues – slowly find ways of making deals, and build up trade. But even if one is prepared for the worse case scenario of the three major tribes not finding a modus vivendi and breaking up within the anyway artificial borders of what now defines Iraq – the harm is minimized. Once the fighting among the three groups gets out of hand, the window of opportunity to calm down tempers through the above scheme, would be closed.

Ideas have long lives. Oil money flowing through the hands of ruthless dictators sustains both outdated institutions and character traits. This is why the crucial first step in moving toward long-term stability in the Middle East is to leave no doubt in the minds of the leaders of the «immobile groups» that the coalition armies are there to say. They are there to stay to insure that the «mobile» groups within these civilizations get the upper hand. To help these groups gain credibility, move toward less corruption and more trade, the US could start by dispersing the funds from oil revenues, thus creating an increasing number of people having a stake in the new civilization. Unless the people within the present Iraq borders are given such a tangible stake in the future, «democracy» and «constitutions» will become nothing but empty promises and worthless pieces of paper, with the vast majority of people continuing to be mired in poverty and ignorance.

After all, keep in mind that for decades Latin American countries had beautifully written constitutions and people voted. Yet Latin America – especially those endowed with natural resources – stayed poor and unstable.

The US government will know when to give the order for its troops to quit Iraq when a local reformer is able to emulate Ataturk’s gesture. He put up a memorial in Gallipoli on which he had the following text inscribed: «There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, Where they lie side by side here in this country of ours, You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace after having lost their lives on this land, They have become our sons as well.» Ataturk survived, the memorial survived, and his reforms survived. Decades later, Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister, said something along similar lines: that peace will come when Palestinians would love their children more than they hate Israelis. When Iraqi tribes will share similar sentiments, will create a similar memorial and pass reforms – the US’s job in Iraq would be done.


-Berman, Harold, Law and Revolution, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

-Franklin, James, The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

-Huntington, S P, The Clash of Civilizations, New York: Free Press, 1996.

-Pecastaing, Camille, «The Secret Agents: Life Inside an Al Qaeda Cell,» Foreign Affairs, January/February 2004.

-Soros, George, «The Bubble of American Supremacy,» Atlantic Monthly, December, 2003.

Reuven Brenner est chercheur associé à l’IEDM.

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