All Politics Is Local


A new variation on the Good News From Iraq story comes from Nicolas Rothwell of The Weekend Australian, who reports that, even as the nation's political factions struggle to form a central government, much of the country is getting by without one:

Although the "good news" blogs that compile instances of Iraq's progress tend to present an over-rosy picture, the consistent progress being achieved on the ground, away from the headlines, highlights one of the stranger truths about post-Saddam Iraq: the country has devolved into a set of local fiefs, each effectively administering itself.

The lack of a central government with democratic legitimacy since the election result was announced has been an inconvenience rather than a disaster….It is common, in the Shia southern part of the country and even in the poorer districts of Baghdad, to find the preacher at a small mosque regarded as a political and moral authority, decider of disputes and dispenser of advice.

A similar role is played in Sunni regions by the heads of large, interconnected tribal groups that run businesses, dispense charity and provide a political lead for the entire community.

In the Kurdish north, a different system has developed over the past 12 years since full autonomy from Iraqi central control was achieved by a successful rebellion.

Local governmental structures, based on tribal lines of authority, have become the key to the success of the Kurdish region.

These local structures illustrate "two critical points about the new Iraq," Rothwell writes:

First, the interim administration presided over by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, for all its determination to restore Iraqi unity, lacked the sole persuasive argument Saddam Hussein relied upon: fear.

Second, the US occupying forces, despite their obtrusive presence, have had relatively little impact on the structures of Iraqi society, and the local politicians linked with them have not benefited from the association.

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  1. The Kurdish area of Iraq is basically a different country altogether. They have enjoyed far less violence than the rest of the country. Culturally speaking, the Kurdish area is about as removed from the rest of the country as Vermont is from Mississippi. I wonder how they personally regard one another in the parliment?

  2. So someone help clarify this for me: Did we as a nation go into Iraq to liberate it, or to balkanize and destabilize it? Or both?

    Also, I read that the president stated today that the U.S. would “bear the brunt” of the costs of the Iraq war, as if there was ever any doubt. But I could have sworn Mr. Wolfowitz, or Mr. Rumsfeld, or Random Bush Flunky #12-C, had stated quite confidently that Iraqi oil profits would finance this expedition.

  3. But I could have sworn Mr. Wolfowitz, or Mr. Rumsfeld, or Random Bush Flunky #12-C, had stated quite confidently that Iraqi oil profits would finance this expedition.

    Are you suggesting the government employees might have been wrong about the costs of a massive government undertaking?

  4. No, sir! I don’t want to go back to Room 101!

  5. Hi gang! Greetings from sunny Florida, where you don’t get six inches of snow every other %&&^%$^*…

    Anyway, “So someone help clarify this for me: Did we as a nation go into Iraq to liberate it, or to balkanize and destabilize it? Or both?”

    I don’t buy your premise, that the devolution of authority to more local levels of government is contrary to liberalization, democracy, or stability.

    Our democracy started out local, then grew to the regional and finally national level. As each higher level became more democratic, its authority increased. It’s too bad no one in the administration was thinking along these lines. Their model of democratization is the equivalent of overthrowing George II, replacing him with a military dictator, then having a British-empire-wide election for the next king.

  6. If anybody wants to build without a permit in Boston, better do it quick before joe gets back! 😉

  7. These developments aren’t very surprising, considering that “Iraq” is a 100% artificial construct (courtesy of the British Empire and WWI) to begin with. It sounds like the country is devolving to its Ottoman-era administrative system, with a very loose central authority (i.e. the villayets of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul) overseeing semi-automomous tribal and clan units. The Kurds will be steering a course towards eventual independence,regardless of what happens in the rest of Iraq; it’s been their consistent political goal for the last 80+ years. What the Shia and Sunni decide to do about it, and about each other,in the next 3 – 5 years should be very interesting.

  8. I think Jesse’s title says it all. But I would like to know a bit more about these local structures. Using the Kurds as an example seems inappropriate, since the Kurds have been essentially trying to establish a separate country — you can call it “local” politics only if you require “Iraq” as a national unit. I can see why there might be a lack of corruption among men and women who see themselves as a noble opposition (although I’d like to know what measure of corruption was used, and how it was measured). I am more curious about the local fiefdoms that have developed throughout Iraq — sure, they do possess the social capital to keep everyone in line, but at what cost? If you are a young woman in Iraq, do your rights fluctuate wildly depending on which fiefdom you happen to be living in at the moment? The reports I’ve seen on this issue seem to trend towards the pessimistic side, at least on the rights of women, but most of these reports come out of Baghdad. Regional news is naturally harder to come by.


  9. I would think that whether or not this local authority phenomenon will lead to “Balkanization” depends on two kinds of tolerance. Whether or not the central government ultimately tolerates these local authorities, and whether or not the local authorities tolerate (and respect the rights of) the minorities within their jurisdictions (which of course will have a major impact on the first form of tolerance).

    Cross thy finger!

  10. The Iraqi government had better handle their initial moves deftly. Too much assertion of authority could result in an anti-government backlash, leading to civil war. Too little, and the local governments will take matters into their own hands, which of course could lead to civil war.

    Oh, and let’s not forget sectarian conflict, too. This could be like someone constructing an atom bomb without first understanding how chain reactions work.

  11. >>I would think that whether or not this local >>authority phenomenon will lead >>to “Balkanization” depends on two kinds of >>tolerance. Whether or not the central >>government ultimately tolerates these local >>authorities, and whether or not the local >>authorities tolerate (and respect the rights >>of) the minorities within their jurisdictions >>(which of course will have a major impact on the >>first form of tolerance).

    Don’t forget the oil. It’s very hard to tolerate your neighbors when they have a lot of lovely oil on their territory.

  12. SPD,

    I think it’s too bad that you assume that allowing local authorities to flourish would inevitably lead to civil war. After all, if all local authorities respected each other, where’s the problem? But then it occurs to me that perhaps it’s that attitude that is essentially an inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy which dooms local authority because it is inevitably feared, both by the ostensibly applicable central authority and by other local authorities.

    Authority — such a problem!!

  13. fyodor,

    I only mention the possibility in this case, where you have several groups that might have been at each other’s throats years before. Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and probably a few smaller groups that regretfully do not come to mind. Tyranny held that in check, but obviously not in a good way. With no reason to look over their own shoulders, who knows which factions will choose to either secede or settle scores that date back countless generations?

    I see Iraq as the new Yugoslavia. I hope I’m wrong about that.

  14. Mark,

    You are so right about the oil thing.

    I have written a a bit about it here.

    Funny thing is that it was the French and the Canadians in the thick of it with Saddam.

    Then look at who is making deals with Iran.

  15. SPD,

    There is a force unifying Iraq.

    Neighbors hungry for Iraqi oil.

  16. Iraq has a problem vis a vis its level of centralization. Choosing a unitary model with the provinces mere vestigial organs smacks too much of the Saddam era. Actually, that system goes back to Napoleon’s France or the Roman empire, but I digress. The delegates to the contituent assembly have pledged to create a federal Iraq, but, as we know from our own history, hitting the right balance of powers between the central and provincial governments, not to mention between the governments and the citizens, can be tough. We went through the Articles and the pre-ACW Constitution before settling some of these questions.

    Iraqi Kurdistan operated as a semi-autonomous zone under the protection of Coalition air power for years before we rolled into Baghdad. I’m sure President Bush has Condi delivering this message to the Pesh Murga: “You can walk right up to the line of independence, but cross it and you will drop the US into a pot of dung with Our Brave Turkish Allies, and we are not having any of that.” Still, reports from Mosul and the Kurdish region are that the Kurds’ experience of self-government while shielded by “no-fly” enforcement is standing them in good stead.


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