On Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East

Spurred by one of the most interesting talks on the Middle East I have ever heard, I decided to type my notes.   Confidentiality precludes me attributing the source (senior diplomat).  I list some of the points made which already exist in the media discourse and my own response below:

Core points made:

  • Neo-con mentality underpinned the misconception that the US needs to exercise overwhelming power in theatres of conflict
    • But, threat of power is more potent than its use &
    • When the limitations of the exercise of power became apparent the US and its allies became weaker as a result
    • The Arab spring is associated with the relative loss of credibility of Western backed authoritarian rulers
  • As far as Iraq and Afghanistan are concerned: we have the same responsibility as if we rampaged through a china shop
    • We broke, it we should fix it
  • Politicians in the ‘new democracies’ in the Arab world are not held to account
    • A first test of elections:  are they unpredictable?
    • One election doesn’t a democracy make
    • 1st election in Iraq acted as emotion reliever
  • In Afghanistan the state collects 2bn in tax, they need 4-5bn$ for the army and 4-5bn$ in development
    • This means a long period of dependence to foreign aid that will have conditions attached (and therefore we can count on Afghani compliance with our norms)
  • Failure in Iraq was in not preparing for the aftermath – Rumsfeld takes the blame
    • New Iraq Constitution, our biggest success
    • Leaving Afghanistan and going to Iraq without building institutions between 2003-8 one of our biggest failures
  • Iraq was a war of choice, but decision was not taken on a whim
    • Blair put the best argument forward for going to war on Iraq and did not expose his doubts

My response

  • Creating a top down vs a bottom-up democracy are qualitatively different propositions, i.e. it is the distinction between a supply and a demand problem
    • Our understanding of democracy in the West presumes representation works in the interests of citizens, that assumption is not true in strongly hierarchical societies
    • There is a strongly functional definition of power in the M. East, its use and those that have legitimacy to exercise it.  The reason that power is often entwined with religious questions is exactly because metaphysics is used to determine an ultimate arbitrage on legitimate power
  • Civil society cannot be a panacea, again this is a grass-root concept, that presumes generalised trust and the existence of social capital.  But, clientelism, tribalism and strong familial ties directly undermine generalised trust,
  • What we have instead is strong interpersonal trust which leads to the preponderance of so-called ‘dark social capital’
  • Monopoly of power does not exist for the institutions of the state in the M. East
  • Monopoly of legitimacy does not exist for officers of representative institutions
  • In the West we have a consistent bias for representative democracy, but constitutional systems of ‘Platonic’ (i.e. Senatorial) or even a mix with institutions of direct democracy might be more appropriate in hierarchical societies in allowing for the evolution of power structures
  • Understanding of power and where it resides would have been fundamental to a pre-intervention brief, a monolithic assumption that it lies with the leadership or with the people is blatantly erroneous
  • Assumptions on the importance of grassroots activism in strongly hierarchical societies lack a reference to where power is seen to reside and who should legitimately hold power by the people we expect to act as citizens

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