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March 06, 2005

The Stone and the Sword: Nation-Building in Iraq

Demosophist

I've been thinking lately about the process of nation-building in Iraq and elsewhere, under the difficult conditions imposed by a vicious terrorist insurgency. The prospects for the enterprise sometimes seem as likely as the quest for the Philosopher's Stone, the mythical device that was supposed to turn "dross into gold." Somehow the transfer of legitimacy from an occupying power to a new liberal democratic government, in a recently totalitarian society, seems just as implausible, and valuable. Recently I compared this bit of alchemy to a famous cycling contest, between American Lance Armstrong and Italian Marco Pantani, up the slopes of the bleak and legendary Mont Ventoux. Cycling is such a rich mix of competition and cooperation that it often supplies useful analogies for political processes, and this particular contest seemed appropriate because it involved an attempt by Armstrong to "render the victory" to another rider, in order to obtain cooperation of that rider's team in a larger strategy. The attempt was unsuccessful for a number of reasons.

In the context of establishing a new nation victories attributable that nation's fledgling military forces confer badly needed legitimacy on the new government. For instance, a critical turning point for the United States occurred when it defeated the British in the "Second American Revolution," during the War of 1812. (We don't emphasize the fact that our role in that war was rather minor, or that we experienced a number of ignoble defeats, as well as one astounding and unlikely victory.) But if this victory's contribution to the modest stock of political/social legitimacy of the new United States was so formative, imagine the "legitimacy problem" confronted by a nation that owes its very existence to an external liberating power. The cycling analogy works reasonably well as an introduction to the essential difficulty of passing legitimacy from a greater to a lesser power, but it fails, ironically, because it actually overstates the problem. In fact it remains useful as an analytical tool not so much because it's a good analogy, but because it fails in a relatively well-defined way. That failure focuses attention on some extremely important aspects of the nation-building process.

Although many of the differences between a bike race and a nation-building effort are obvious, they aren't necessarily non-trivial. It isn't especially important to the utility that one is a sporting event and the other a war strategy, because we already understand those implications well. It's enough that both are contests, with opponents and alliances. It's also not terribly important that one is a contest between individuals, and the other groups. Again, it's enough that both individuals and groups are capable of conflict as well as cooperation. But two aspects of the analogy bear significantly on the comparison: The definitive and brief nature of the finish, and the necessarily obvious proximity of the finishers.

First, the finish in a bike race, or almost any sort of sport race for that matter, is measured in hundredths or even thousandths of a second. It is therefore both definitive and brief in a way only slightly exceeded by ballistics analysis, computer electronics design, or advanced particle physics experimentation. More importantly, as the contestants approach the finish the subjective stakes for the riders and their supporters ramps like a tsunami approaching a shallow coastline. During the long climb up Mont Ventoux (an ascent so difficult it is considered "beyond categorization" or hors categorie) the interests of both cyclists are served cooperation as well as competition, because two riders of closely matched ability not only provide one another with incentive to give their best effort, but riding in a close line gives them a combined aerodynamic advantage not achieved by a lone rider. (This combined advantage diminishes at lower speeds typical of a steep climb for most mortals, but pro riders still climb at speeds where aerodynamic drag is a factor.) However, at the finish of Mont Ventoux after the long and arduous duel up the mountain and the abrupt approach of the denouement, it became nearly impossible to mollify Pantani's sense of disgrace when Armstrong relented at the last instant to allow the stage victory to the Italian. It was all too obvious to Pantani's fans, let alone the rider himself, that he was the inferior contestant on that day. The disgrace overwhelmed and spoiled any implied goodwill, and instead of inducing an alliance, as intended, the gesture turned sour. The Italian was livid, and vented furiously in the press the next day. He later dropped out of the race entirely. (Some have argued that this result was intended by Armstrong, but I see no evidence for that. Pantani was not competitive for the overall lead, and with his team he might easily have been a useful ally.)

Any attempt to similarly bequeath Iraqi victories must, therefore, avoid any hint of the sort of transparent gesture that enraged Pantani, because the "fans" of a new government are everything. If they see their new state as merely a puppet of the US, dependent on American support for its very survival, the new nation won't survive independently for very long. At best it will be a "hot house" colony. But if those who are ruled have faith in their government and its institutions, the nation may endure some very difficult trials on its own. Fortunately, unlike a sport race the finish of a nation-building effort is not only indeterminate but prolonged. It can drag on for months or years, and involves many turning points. It therefore offers "opportunities for alchemy."

Another important aspect of the bike race, for comparison, is that it was necessary for Armstrong to engineer a close stage finish in order to optimize his overall lead in the multi-stage tour, which was his real objective. A rider finishing a stage within what is considered the aerodynamic "wake" of a leading contestant receives the same time as the winner, and the overall lead for the multi-stage contest is entirely a matter of the time accumulated over many stages. This meant that the American could not afford to allow Pantani to take a sufficiently commanding lead that it would have been a convincing stage victory for him. (Nor would it have been useful to do so, for Armstrong.) Although Pantani was not a serious overall contender, others were. The Texan therefore had to finish in as brief a time as possible. Yet, if Pantani could manage to hang on or stay close, or better yet actually help, Lance wasn't averse to rewarding the cooperation by allowing the other rider to cross the line first, to stand on the winner's platform for a day. Ultimately, although some of these circumstances suggested the possibility of enlisting Pantani as an ally, others made such an objective extremely difficult, if not impossible. To work, the gesture had to be sufficiently obvious to be recognized by Pantani and his team, but not so palpable as to be, well... embarrassing. Armstrong has since stated that he will never again attempt such a gesture, and has not done so.

Again, what we're doing in Iraq is building a vanguard for democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East in order to oppose the enemy's own vanguard. (For a good elucidation of the enemy's strategy see Mary Habek's Heritage Foundation lecture: Jihadist Strategies in the War on Terrorism, or the video archive of the same.) So maintaining an ally is a critical part of our objective, not merely a secondary opportunity. The last thing we want is to enrage or demoralize the new nation's "fans," or undermine their faith in the enterprise. But fortunately, unlike the contest between the Texan and the Italian, there is no real need for the US forces to cross the finish line at all. Our "reward" is the success of the new Iraqi nation, not our own. Our stock of legitimacy is rather substantial after more than 200 years. While it's true that we need to avoid the appearance of defeat in order to deter potential adversaries, there is no real need to claim the final stage of the military victory as our own. We can afford to let the Iraqis reap that reward convincingly.

The finish in Iraq will ultimately be governed by two interrelated trends. The first is the growing competence of the domestic security force together with public confidence in the national institutions it represents (including, in this case, the direct transfer of Ayatollah Sistani's personal charismatic legitimacy). The second is the waning capability and spoiling effort of the opposing insurgency, and if possible its catastrophic loss of legitimacy. Obviously this is a far more complex scenario than a bike race, but ironically it's not correspondingly more difficult to manage. In fact the very complexity of the scenario renders the task of nation-building somewhat more manageable. Furthermore, the two "finish trends" aren't quite mirror images in terms of predictability, and this can be turned to advantage as well.

While the two trends are related and similar, control of the learning curve for the defense forces (the police, National Guard, etc.) is far more reliable than the enemy's actions. The training of the domestic security force is characterized by relatively small or incremental day to day ups and downs, while the insurgent capability is characterized by relatively high variability, and corresponding uncertainty. Still, over time each trend will tend to be the inverse of the other. As the Iraqis become more competent the mujahadeen will become more stressed and less effective. At a certain point the frequency and intensity of the insurgency's attacks will become largely manageable by domestic security, assuming both a successful training program and military strategy/tactics. But the US role in achieving this result can remain largely obscured from the "fans" of the domestic force, ironically by the relative unpredictability of the insurgency's actions. The uncertainty of both its successes and failures are actually an advantage. We can think of the variability of the latter function or trend as providing a certain amount of "cover" for the transition, during which the precise role of the US contribution will become increasingly obscure. And victories obtained by the domestic force during this period provide the primary means of transferring legitimacy from the occupying force to the domestic force, and to the institutions of the new nation.

It is therefore the very uncertainty of asymmetric warfare, usually considered one of its primary strengths, that provides the most reliable means for the mystique-laden transfer of national legitimacy and the consolidation of sovereignty that is the core of this particular form of "alchemy." By gradually bringing the insurgency under control we are progressively employing the enemy's strengths against its own long term objectives. In a sense we are enlisting the enemy in the service of the ally, and it's precisely the advantage of this sort of practical irony that's the real "secret" behind the Philosopher's Stone's power.

(Cross-posted by Demosophist to Demosophia and The Jawa Report)

Launched by Demosophist at March 6, 2005 12:33 AM
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