TCS Daily

On the Brink; But of What?

By Lee Harris - February 24, 2006 12:00 AM

Since the wanton destruction of the golden dome of the Shi'ite shrine in Baghdad, there has been an escalating sense that Iraq is on the brink, but the question is: on the brink of what? Warnings are flying about that Iraq is on the verge of civil war -- but what do we mean by this phrase, a civil war?

The first thing that we Americans must get out of our heads is our own memories of our Civil War -- a label that is in many ways unfortunate. A far more appropriate label was the one that was once given to this bloody conflict by those who had fought on the Southern side, namely, the War Between the States -- a cumbersome phraseology, to be sure, but one that recognizes the fact that the conflict was not between disorganized tribes and sects, scattered promiscuously hither and yon, but between two different confederations of states, where each confederation was looked upon both at home and abroad as a genuine state in the full European sense of the word. Both sides claimed certain territory, and, by and large, those who lived within the claimed territory recognized the legitimacy of the government that had been set over them -- a government, moreover, that in both cases functioned precisely the way any modern government is supposed to. Both had administrative systems, such as you find in any modern state, and both could field armies that had been created, organized, and structured along the lines of all modern armies.

In other words, the so called American Civil War was like any modern war that takes places between two independent states. It operated by the same rules that were observed by Germany and France in the Franco-Prussian War that erupted not long after the defeat of the South. Thus it is totally inappropriate for Americans to draw on memories of their own "Civil War" in order to understand what we are on the brink of in Iraq. For what Iraq is facing is not a war between states, but a war in a country where no state exists, yet where tribes abound.

Iraq, in short, is not on the brink of a civil war, as we understand it from our own experience; rather it is on the brink of something that no American, based on his own experience of civil life within his nation, can possibly hope to grasp in its full horror -- namely, tribalist anarchy.

Where there is no state, there is anarchy. It may be the philosophic anarchy of the libertarians, in which everyone peacefully goes about his own business, without harming anyone else. Or it may be the Hobbesian anarchy in which each individual is pitted against every other individual in a constant struggle for his survival. But neither of these kinds of anarchy approximates the tribalist anarchy I wish to describe.

In tribalist anarchy, there is no central government, no central security force, no central army. There is no Leviathan in the form of a state that can stand above the feuding tribes and that can force them to stop their feuding -- and force them, often, through acts of spine-tingling ruthlessness, the way that all modern states have historically crushed all those within their territory who persisted in tribalist feuds.

Under conditions of tribalist anarchy, instead of there being one centralized power, power is disbursed and diffused through the tribes themselves. The result is that there is no higher power that can restrain the power struggles that begin to erupt among the various competing tribes. There is no state-controlled professional army, made up of soldiers who have sworn to put loyalty to the state above loyalty to their differing tribes, and whose gut loyalty is, in fact, loyalty to the state. Instead, there are only informal and spontaneously generated militias or paramilitary groups, each of which is permeated with the tribal spirit, just like the boys in a gang. Each, that is to say, makes up an Us, and looks upon the rival gang -- or tribe -- simply as Them. If you are not one of us, then you are one of them -- and that is enough to make you my enemy.

But it gets worse -- and this is something that we all need to understand if we hope to have any grasp of what is unfolding in Iraq, and, more generally, throughout the Muslim world. Once a society has lapsed back into tribal anarchy, a vicious cycle sets in, one in which each of the feuding tribes will be egged on, by their own members, to perpetrate more and more ruthless acts against the enemy tribe. Thus new enormities are committed by one tribe, which immediately call forth even more hideous enormities by the other tribe. Under tribalist anarchy, the lex talionis is suspended. An eye for an eye is no longer enough -- there must be three, four, or a hundred eyes for each eye. If you kill our women, we kill your children. If you destroy one of our mosques, we will destroy a hundred of yours.

Which brings us to the dilemma of an American army trapped in the midst of tribalist anarchy. In our War Between the States, it was quite possible for an outsider to take one side or the other. For example, both the British and the French flirted with recognizing, and even throwing their support behind, the South. But, under conditions of tribalist anarchy, it is impossible for any outsider to try to take sides in the feud -- and this is especially the case for American soldiers who, quite naturally, feel no visceral loyalties to the various tribes and sects of Iraq, and who can only be horrified at the indiscriminate brutality and escalating ruthlessness that is modus operandi of all tribalist warfare. Hence, the only response Americans can make is to urge calm and recommend reconciliation -- precisely the virtues that are the first victims of tribalist anarchy.

Those who are predicting that Iraq is on the brink of civil war may well prove to be guilty of wishful thinking. What is unfolding in Iraq may turn to be something far more horrifying -- not the relatively civil Civil War fought by Americans a century and a half ago, but kind of tribalist anarchy that swept over Rwanda within our own lifetimes, and that has been the baseline of most human existence from time immemorial.

In short, the beguiling dream of the End of History is on the verge of turning into the nightmare in which the tribal Law of the Jungle makes its triumphant return. We may well all be living out the last days before the commencement of a new and yet very old Age of Kali.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.



A failed state
For once, Lee and I are in agreement. Something big just happened. But where he would say Iraq is "on the brink" it is apparent to the rest of the world that Iraq has fallen in.

And the failure of the state has our name on it. "Shops closed and muezzins recited prayers from the loudspeakers of nearby mosques and blamed the United States for the turmoil, saying "God is Great, death to America which brought us terrorism.""

We know now that it was predicted before the onset of the war that we would win or lose depending on how quickly we were able to restore order and keep the nation up and running. 35 months in, it appears we weren't able to consolidate our position as quickly as we would have hoped.

What to do? Since our military presence now only serves as an inflammatory reminder of how they got where they are today, it might be time to wish everyone a hearty blessing and get onto the helicopters.

Reading Recommendation for Lee Harris
I've read your book Civilization and Its Enemies, and I recommend to you a book by Don Beck, "SPiral Dynamics," which maps well onto your ideas in your book, and will help to clarify even for you what is going on throughout the world, with tribes and societies of boys' gangs, and what we should be doing to get them out of these low levels of psychosocial complexity.

Tribalism is the norm for Middle Eastern and Arabic 'societies'
Throughout recorded history, tribalism has dominated this part of the world. Certainly it has given way (or hidden from) certain conquers (Alexander, Rome, The Ottomans, etc.) but as the grip of these conquers weakens it always reverts to tribalism.

Until the people of this region can understand there is more value to them from a modern state (Constitutionally Limited Representative Government) than from a disparate set of tribes, we will never see peace or enlightenment in this region.

All we will see is violence and the emergence of a totalitarian, theocratic state that believes its god has given them the mandate to impose their theocratic rule on the world - BY WHAT EVER MEANS ARE NECESSARY.

you may be right, but I'm not for throwing in the towel just yet
This is just what the various religious and tribal factions are trying to get done. Get the U.S. out and they can battle it out for power. I still think the majority of iraqis are willing to live in a country where they have a vote and a say in the government, but there are a lot of factions doing a lot of dirty work in the name of their pet cause. The destruction of this Mosque is exactly the kind of thing they need to get enough people worked up and willing to fight.

The first question is: will things calm down? The next question is: even if they do, how long can we keep this together.

I agree with president Bush; setting a public time-table is the wrong thing to do. At the same time, I think we have about a year left before it all blows up beyond anyone's control if we don't get out.

The moment will soon be at hand; either escalate our numbers and combat operations or leave the Iraqis to fend for themselves.

Looking into the crystal ball
Good points. Most Iraqis agreeing to be interviewed hew to the opinion that they (1) want a stable, democratic government but (2) think that America leaving is a precondition before such a thing can be established. They feel that undue influence on their nascent democracy by America is unacceptable.

So to the locals it looks like a Mexican standoff. Nothing gets any better until the Americans leave, and the Americans won't be leaving until everything is hunky dory. You see this sentiment over and over in the Iraqi blogs.

Add to this the number of people who don't like the way things are going and who know how to derail the process. This would include a lot of Sunnis who think they're getting a raw deal-- as well as the foreigners. I would lay odds that Zarqawi's group may be behind the destruction of the Golden Temple.

If total meltdown has already started this past week, I can't imagine what things will look like in a year if the Americans haven't left. But since leaving now is unpalatable to our leaders, we will certainly see.

Nevertheless, since 1991, the United Nations has made efforts to promote the establishment of a democratic government in Somalia. Van Notten strongly argues that such government is incompatible with the Somali customary law, which prizes life, liberty, and property. He asserts that democracy is not even a viable option:

"When the electorate is composed of close-knit tribal, religious, linguistic or ethnic communities, the people invariably vote, not on the merits of any issue, but for the party of their own community. The community with the greatest numbers wins the election, and the minority parties then put rebellion and secession at the top of their political agenda. That is nothing but a recipe for chaos." (van Notten, 127; 2005)

This is a state of the world
'Under conditions of tribalist anarchy, instead of there being one centralized power, power is disbursed and diffused through the tribes themselves. The result is that there is no higher power that can restrain the power struggles that begin to erupt among the various competing tribes. There is no state-controlled professional army, made up of soldiers who have sworn to put loyalty to the state above loyalty to their differing tribes, and whose gut loyalty is, in fact, loyalty to the state. Instead, there are only informal and spontaneously generated militias or paramilitary groups, each of which is permeated with the tribal spirit, just like the boys in a gang. Each, that is to say, makes up an Us, and looks upon the rival gang -- or tribe -- simply as Them. If you are not one of us, then you are one of them -- and that is enough to make you my enemy.'

If you step back and look you will see that this is the state of the world. There are many states and yet most are not in perpetual all out war.

We do not need a big state in Iraq small states called you call tribes may be better. What is needed is for the people to tire of violence.

It seems to me that Iraq as currently configured 3 distinct groups of people each on a similar level power wise is unstable and will always be. Better to breakup to city states or even neighborhood/clan states. Look at N Ireland or the Basks (sp?) in Spain. A central state can mean trouble.

With 3 distinct groups of people each on a similar level power wise is unstable!

No Sale
Unless the helicopters are going on patrol, there's no need to fire them up. A little perseverence is in order. The clerics and the political leaders know how to count. The Shia know that they would win the initial encounters but would inevitably draw in Sunni players in a regional war that they cannot win because, if nothing else, their logistics train is almost exclusively american and the US would not support them if they are the aggressors. The Sunni can count too, at least their leaders can. They know that before that wave of outside intervention arrived and turned the tide, they would be grievously wounded, losing many of their people and having large swathes of Iraq be ethnically cleansed of Sunni arabs.

So all sides are stepping back from the brink. That's exactly the wrong time to withdraw from Iraq.

When tribes are irreconcilable, borders are no longer sacrosanct
Somalia would likely benefit from being broken up into microstates and letting the individual states negotiate for a federation that can handle all the expensive, messy stuff (like maintaining embassies or negotiating extradition treaties).

This has been seen before
Think the Thirty Years War (1600-)in Germany. Yes, there were various nations (France, Sweden) involved; but the Germans themselves were very much "tribal" / religious. Basically, there had to be a huge amount of killing before everyone realized that religion could not govern.

If only...
If only we still had it in us to be so ruthless with our enemies, we would have none. Perhaps it is a lesson that we must be taught again, hopefully at someone else's expense. You can take the monkey out of the jungle but you can't take the jungle out of the monkey. We in the civilized west believe that we have evolved beyond monkeys, but we are still all monkeys and we are still in the jungle with all the other ones who hold no illusions about what they are.

Somalia is a tribal anarchy which works well as long as outside forces (US & UN)do not attempt to force a central government on the tribes. Once the specter of a central government looms the tribe start to fighting to see who will gain control of the new government. Central governments are overrated and serve mostly as tools for the power wh_ores to control others and their property.

In fact in Somalia things are not what one would expect from this type of system--anarchy simply gets a bad rap. This from the CIA fact book:
"Despite the seeming anarchy, Somalia's service sector has managed to survive and grow. Telecommunication firms provide wireless services in most major cities and offer the lowest international call rates on the continent. In the absence of a formal banking sector, money exchange services have sprouted throughout the country, handling between $500 million and $1 billion in remittances annually. Mogadishu's main market offers a variety of goods from food to the newest electronic gadgets. Hotels continue to operate, and militias provide security."

Sounds better than what is happening in Iraq. Perhaps we should let them have their country, duke it out and settle into life once again. I like the idea of not wasting the lives of our young military men and women---as always the young pay in blood and agony for the sins of political hacks.

The Muslim world on the brink
Recent events in Iraq are probably a harbinger of deeper faults in the Muslim world. The U.S. intervention in Iraq is not the cause of these faults; just a catalyst for their manifestation.

One could feel optimistic about the future of the Muslim world only when Muslims at large will show a greater disgust at random large scale killings than at the publication of rather innocuous cartoons.

For Radical Political Pluralism
The United States (and, to a limited extent, Canada, and even, to an even more limited extent, some central and South American countries) is the only country in the world where different groups believing different things live together. France is made up entirely of the French. Germany is made up entirely of Germans. To the extent that there are other kinds of people in those countries, they are not and have never really been welcome. The United States welcomes all. But in places like Africa and the Middle East, where the national borders were created by the British and the French in order to maintain power through separating tribes and putting tribes together that historically have never gotten along, we have the kind of disaster we saw in WWII Germany (and, I predict, will see again in Europe with the Moslem population). Each and every tribe throughout the world -- particularly in Africa and the MIddle East -- should be given its own national borders. Then they can have self-determination. And once they have that, and a stable country, they can then engage in economic trade with their neighbors, and finally get along with all the tribes they have historically hated. Only then will they be able to move into more complex levels of psychological and social development. The UNited States is not a proper model for any country -- our country is one made up almost entirely of immigrants. And that means, too, that everyone volunteered to come here. That's why everyone gets along so well in this country. As much as I love this country and especially the genius of its form of government, other places need other models. However, Iraq may have been able to have been held together with a model of government almost identical to the U.S., with the Sunni Arabs, the Kurds, and the SHi'ites having equal representation in a Senate and population-based representation in a House, but that's not what happened. Instead, they settled on a Parliamentary system (a bad form of representational government, since it does not have checks and balances) -- and now they have a civil war.

We are in agreement, except on the when and what to do
Take the leaders out of it. Taqke into account everything to this point is a given. What do YOU do now?

Personally I begin fighting the insurgency (Something that has only been done in violent fits). The tactics will probably be very oppressive on personal liberties (Seal the borders up tight, metal dectors all over the place, searches of persons, homes and vehicles every time you take a breath, etc.) but less deadly in the long run. I think six months without the ability to deliver a deadly attack will force all those involved to think politically. I don't know if it can be done, but I would sure as heck give it a shot before I gave up and left.

However, one place I think we will agree: It may already be too late.

Who created this situation in which Iraq is soon to be worse off than under Saddam?

Ans: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, & the neocons.

Who predicted this would happen:

Ans: and the spoilsports at the State Department.

The one things the liberal coward morons who habitually come here in order to get repeatedly humiliated constantly forget is this:

We, teh United States, and we alone, hold the ultimate trump card in regards to any and all of these conflicts: WE have the ability to utterly destroy them, down to their base particles. They do not. Iraw does not, Iran does not, Russia does not, even China does not, NoKo certainly does not. some of them may be able to inflict harm, but there is a difference between harm and utter, complete, permanent eradication.

We can play these petty games with the childlike and the uncivilised, because we know, ultimately, they will either do what we want, or we will destroy them. And they know it too, which, really, is the truest source of the bitterness and resentment aimed at the U.S.

Might may not equal 'right', but it sure does equal control.

It's all well and good to wring our hands and fret and worry about some third-worlders dragging the planet back into some kind of tribal anarchy. And, in some quarantined places, it may well be allowed to occur. But long before any such thing becomes a true menace to the bulk of the civilised world, if these alleged 'people' do not eventually come to their senses, we will have no choice but to erase them from this plane.

Cold and harsh? Sure. But it's easier if you think of it along the same lines as the battle against 'bird flu' - even if one case is found in a given bird population, the entire group is immolated.

If those infected with the virulent and poisonous disease of violent islamic xenophiobia do not cure themselves, then they will have to be destroyed.

And it'll be no one's fault but their own.

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