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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Reconstruction redux

I was reading a book review by James McPherson in the November 30, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books when I came across an unexpected comparison: 'Violent resistance by ex-Confederates to the efforts of Congress to reconstruct the South on the basis of equal civil and political rights for freed slaves produced a level of "peacetime" violence unparalleled in American history until the Iraq adventure.'

The Reconstruction is the period in American history about which I have always had the strongest feelings. For my readers abroad I should point out that the period covers the years 1865 to 1877, i.e. immediately after the U.S. Civil War. After the Southern states seceded from the Union and were defeated in war, they were not immediately let back in. Each state's seats in Congress and the electoral college were left unoccupied until they ratified the Constitutional amendments that the Northern states had passed in their absence. The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery; the Fourteenth guarantees equal protection of the law; and the Fifteenth extended the right to vote to all 'citizens' regardless of 'race'. It's scary to think that these amendments might never have been ratified had the South been allowed to vote on them.

In the meanwhile, U.S. troops occupied the Southern states as they tried to re-organize themselves into functioning governments with equal rights of political participation for blacks and whites alike. Many Americans have forgotten that African-American men could vote and hold office all across the South during this period. The number of high offices achieved by African-Americans during Reconstruction—two U.S. senators, one lieutenant governor—have barely been equalled in the one hundred thirty years since then.

But the period was also characterized by rampant terrorism on the part of Southern whites to bring down the regimes of civil society that Reconstruction was meant to usher in. Southern whites, as a community, simply did not want to go from having 100% of political power to any dispensation in which they had to share it with the people they had once enslaved. And you know the rest: it took another century for African-Americans to enjoy the rule of law.

Which brings me to the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. Before I go any further, let me say that I am not excusing the barbarity that we daily witness in the news from Iraq. I am simply trying to explain for my readers the motives of the non-jihadist Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

Demographically, Iraq has three main population groups: Shiite Arabic-speakers (60%), Sunni Arabic-speakers (20%), and Sunni Kurdish-speakers (20%). But under the rule of Saddam Hussein's Baathist party, the Sunni Arab minority dominated civil and professional life. A group with 20% of the population enjoyed nearly 100% of the power.

Groups with strongly tribalist mentalities and monopolies on power generally do not give up that power willingly. The referendum in South Africa in March 1992, when whites basically voted to end apartheid and share power, may be a singular exception in human history, but even that was preceded by decades of activism and struggle. For the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, what's in it for them? Why would they want to accept a democratic order in which the people they once oppressed will outnumber them in the halls of government by four to one? Ay, there's the rub.

Here in the States, the Southern white majority after the Civil War would not even let the black minority participate. Ultimately, the Sunni Arabs will have to accept the rules of democracy, but have the choices made by the Bush administration eased that transition? Was the anti-Baathist purge that laid off Sunni civil servants in every government agency from the military to the DMV meant as a confidence-building measure for a future democracy?

The jihadist insurgency is another question entirely, but it's the Sunni nationalist insurgency that is causing most of the violence and mayhem. At least that's my impression of who's responsible for what. Could much of this have been avoided if smarter people had been calling the shots in Washington? Perhaps, but that day is past. If any progress is to be made now, it won't be by sending more American troops. It will be by smarter people apprehending the basic political realities on the ground. And it wouldn't hurt to see how similar the Iraqi insurgents' anxieties are to those of our own misguided insurgent countrymen not so long ago.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

"Groups with strongly tribalist mentalities"

Are there any "groups" without "strongly tribalist mentalities"? I am sure you do not mean to imply that all those Arabs (like, say, Rwandans) are mysteriously more "tribalist", whatever that means, than us. Indeed, the evangelical-Christian English-speakers, to use your slightly strange methodology of defining groups, that currently run the US, do not seem to want to give up their power either. Are they "strongly tribalist"? What distinguishes "strongly tribalist" from merely tribalist? Would your sentence lose anything if you had just written, perfectly truly, "Groups do not like to give up power"?

6:11 AM, December 18, 2006

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Some groups hold on to power more desperately than others. Most political parties in the industrialized democracies concede losses in elections and do not try to hold on to power by any means available. Here in the States, we even have the example of a party that won a presidential election fair and sqaure in 2000 and gave up power anyway.

Are some groups more 'strongly tribalist' than others? Most assuredly, and I gave three examples: Reconstruction-era Southern whites, white South Africans in the apartheid era, and non-jihadist Sunni Arabs in Iraq in 2006.

One cannot say that all groups hoard power with equal ferocity. Not all groups are willing to countenance genocide just to maintain their own monopoly on political power. Groups that do are 'strongly tribalist', to say the least.

8:02 PM, December 18, 2006

 
Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

So "strongly tribalist" just means especially desirous of holding on to power? Curious usage. Then your original statement is simply a tautology: groups who want to hold on to power, and have a monopoly of power, don't want to give up their power. Well, yes.

Do you really think that the "non-jihadist" (I'll leave that one for now) Sunni Arabs in Iraq (all of them?) are somehow more "tribalist" than (all of?) the Shiites, or for that matter (all of?) the Kurds? If so, how exactly?

8:37 PM, December 18, 2006

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Two more things. My sentence, only partially quoted by the good doctor, was: 'Groups with strongly tribalist mentalities AND MONOPOLIES ON POWER generally do not give up THAT power willingly.'

And finally, the whole point of my remarks comparing the situation in Iraq to the Reconstruction in the American South was to say that the Sunni Arabs of Iraq ARE like 'us', to borrow the good doctor's pronoun. I ended by saying, 'And it wouldn't hurt to see how similar the Iraqi insurgents' anxieties are to those of our own misguided insurgent countrymen not so long ago.'

That should answer any lingering questions.

9:26 PM, December 18, 2006

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

My apologies to the good doctor for inadvertently suppressing his or her follow-up comment for two days. 'Doctor Hutu' was not the only one affected. I had activated a feature to 'moderate' comments, not realizing that everyone's comments would be blocked until I individually approved them. I disabled that feature today.

As for the doctor's last comment, in my original remark I used 'strongly tribalist' to refer to groups who would rather kill members of other groups than allow them to participate in legal and parliamentary institutions. Any group of people can be called a tribe if they imagine themselves as a community and deny social privileges to those deemed outside the community. Killing people outside one's own imagined group in order to prevent them from participating in the institution of voting or to prevent a democracy from coming into being was the sort of violence I had in mind when I used the phrase 'strongly tribalist'.

That's a far cry from simply being, in the doctor's words, 'especially desirous of holding on to power'. Nearly everyone desires to hold on to what they've got.

Again, white Southerners during and after the Reconstruction were the American case of a 'strongly tribalist mentality' that I was trying to suggest my readers recall their likely historical familiarity with.

The doctor has invited me to make finer distinctions. Very well then. The Iraqi Kurds have been content to go off on their separatist path. For most of the past three and a half years, most incidents of violence in Iraq have been attributed to Sunni Arabs. Throughout 2006, violence by Shiites in Iraq has steadily grown, and there are now routine reports of Iraqi Shiites acting in death squad fashion. Now that violence by Shiites has reached, or surpassed, the level of violence by Sunnis, we can fairly speak of civil war in Iraq. But this was not the case until recently.

In short, because the Shiites expect to benefit from a democratic Iraq, by sheer numbers, they have not needed to blow people up rather than let parliamentary institutions grow.

As for the doctor's question about the word 'all', let's not be silly. Did all white South Africans support apartheid? No, of course not. Bringing the question closer to home for the doctor, were all Rwandan Hutus guilty of genocide in 1994? Clearly not because the génocidaires also murdered Hutu liberals.

Again, my original comment was specifically about non-jihadist Sunni Arab insurgents. Insurgents. Not 'all' Sunni Arabs in Iraq. How precise do I need to be? I appreciate the good doctor's interest, but I invite him or her to read more closely.

I suspect the good doctor simply objects to the word 'tribe'. Fine, call it something else then. But I still see similarities between white Southern anti-Reconstruction insurgents in the U.S. and Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq today. Perhaps the good doctor can propose a word to account for their similarity.

Jeff

11:36 PM, December 20, 2006

 
Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

in my original remark I used 'strongly tribalist' to refer to groups who would rather kill members of other groups than allow them to participate in legal and parliamentary institutions

No, in your original remark you offered the undefined "strongly tribalist" as a psychological explanation for why some people act in that way, which is why I asked what it meant in the first place.

Killing people outside one's own imagined group in order to prevent them from participating in the institution of voting or to prevent a democracy from coming into being was the sort of violence I had in mind when I used the phrase 'strongly tribalist'.
That's a far cry from simply being, in the doctor's words, 'especially desirous of holding on to power'. Nearly everyone desires to hold on to what they've got.


But some desire it especially, to the point of being willing to kill their opponents. So "especially desirous of holding on to power" is indeed what you are saying. And I'm afraid your original statement is still a tautology: "Groups {who are willing to kill others to preserve their power} and have a monopoly on power are not going to give up that power willingly." I guess not!

For most of the past three and a half years, most incidents of violence in Iraq have been attributed to Sunni Arabs.

I am sure you cannot mean this.

But I still see similarities between white Southern anti-Reconstruction insurgents in the U.S. and Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq today. Perhaps the good doctor can propose a word to account for their similarity.

How about "pissed-off"?

2:02 AM, December 21, 2006

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I don't know why people, myself included, pursue disputes endlessly, but so be it.

Before going any further, I would like to remind the anonymous doctor and all other interested parties that this back-and-forth began when I posted a blog entry meant to encourage Americans and others to see why members of the Sunni Arab community in Iraq had turned to insurgency rather than embrace a new democratic order. I did this by likening them to the well-known case of violent insurgency pursued by Southern whites in opposition to Reconstruction. I also blamed the Bush administration for aggravating the situation by purging supposed Baathists from all levels of Iraqi government. From a historical or political-science point of view, both groups were faced with a loss of their groups' monopolies on political power, and significant numbers of both groups chose violence.

Now, on to the doctor's objections.

Up until the aftermath of the bombing of al-Askari Masjid in Samarra on February 22, 2006, my impression had been that most of the violence in Iraq was undertaken by Sunni Arabs against Shiites. I went back to the New York Times's coverage of the bombing, thanks to Lexis Nexis, and here is what they reported.

February 23, 2006
Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 6; Foreign Desk; Pg. 1
HEADLINE: Blast at Shiite Shrine Sets Off Sectarian Fury in Iraq
BYLINE: By ROBERT F. WORTH

Excerpt:
'The shrine bombing came as Iraq's political leaders continued to struggle under heavy American pressure to agree on the principles of a new national unity government. As in past moments of political transition here, violence has mounted during the uncertainty, and the attacks, mostly against Shiite civilians, seemed aimed specifically at creating more conflict between Iraq's Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni Arab populations. That effort had at least a momentary success on Wednesday, and the streets of the capital emptied as Iraqis hurried home early, fearing further attacks by Shiite militia members or possible reprisals by Sunni Arabs.'

Up until that bombing, most coverage portrayed most of the violence as Sunni attacks against Shiites. If you don't agree, 'Doctor Hutu', take it up with the journalists.

After the bombing, Iraqi Shiites dropped whatever restraint or pretense of restraint they had left and set about retaliating with greater force than previously shown. Another excerpt:
'Shiite militia members flooded the streets of Baghdad, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at Sunni mosques while Iraqi Army soldiers who had been called out to stop the violence stood helpless nearby. By the day's end, mobs had struck or destroyed 27 Sunni mosques in the capital, killing three imams and kidnapping a fourth, Interior Ministry officials said. In all, at least 15 people were killed in related violence across the country.'

And for most of 2006, the two groups have waged civil war against each other. But for most of 2003 to 2005, the news coverage of Iraq is as I have described and quoted.

As for my use of 'tribalist mentalities', I see now that perhaps the doctor has taken 'mentalities' as a psychological reference. I had meant the word more loosely. I do not offer psychological explanations of people from afar. I made a historical comparison of two groups of people, one in Iraq and one in the American past, who shared similar historical circumstances and acted similarly.

Okay, doctor, how about this instead?
GROUPS WITH SIMILARLY STRONG IMAGINED-COMMUNITY CONSCIOUSNESSES
It would be a shame if Benedict Anderson's rhetoric was the only one everyone could agree on. I think people who burn down African-American churches and bomb Shiite masjids ought to be called tribal. I don't see what the big deal about 'tribal' is if we apply it as readily to Iraqis as to Americans.

Yo, Doctor Hutu, who the hell are you? You care enough to check my blog regularly and to argue with me. You must be someone I know, but who?

Jeff

5:01 AM, December 21, 2006

 
Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

I don't know why people, myself included, pursue disputes endlessly, but so be it.

Why write a blog otherwise?

Thanks for directing me to "the journalists"; actually, I was just hinting at the rather obvious fact that there is another major actor involved in "incidents of violence in Iraq" over the past three years. It is sometimes known as the "coalition", to which, according to the recent Lancet study, 31% of post-invasion violent deaths may be confidently attributed, as against 24% confidently attributable to insurgent activity. Hence to say, as you did, "For most of the past three and a half years, most incidents of violence in Iraq have been attributed to Sunni Arabs", is quite untrue. I apologise if this seems a facetious point.

Okay, doctor, how about this instead?
GROUPS WITH SIMILARLY STRONG IMAGINED-COMMUNITY CONSCIOUSNESSES


That strikes me as something of an improvement!

Yo, Doctor Hutu, who the hell are you?

I am a heteronymous pedant and desire that my true identity remain obscure.

5:56 AM, December 21, 2006

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Here are the Lancet data mentioned by the doctor:
http://www.thelancet.com/webfiles/images/journals/lancet/s0140673606694919.pdf

Well, the doctor is right that I have ignored 'coalition' activities in accounting for the violence in Iraq. The reason is that this long thread has been about the actors commonly called insurgents. But yes, the actions of foreign militaries in Iraq are indeed violent acts.

In that regard, the people most responsible for the climate of violence and lawlessness in Iraq are George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, not Sunnis and Shiites.

But if I used my blog to make such obvious statements, I doubt people would read the blog at all.

12:18 PM, December 21, 2006

 
Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

I certainly wouldn't!

However, I'm not convinced that this whole thread has been about the "insurgents", since they are, in common parlance, those who attack the "coalition", not those committing sectarian violence against other Iraqis. It is probably helpful to distinguish between the two.

1:46 PM, December 21, 2006

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Here, in full, is what the online OED says about 'insurgent', both noun and adjective:
'A. adj.
1. Rising in active revolt. Also fig.
2. Of the sea or a flood: Surging up or rushing in.
B. n. One who rises in revolt against constituted authority; a rebel who is not recognized as a belligerent.'

Acts of 'insurgency' have been committed not just against the 'coalition' but against the incipient Iraqi state as well.

The term has been apt but may have recently lost its aptness. If one now sees the situation as a civil war, and particularly one where Iraqi state entities have been compromised by violent Shiite partisans (no pun intended), it will not do to call either side an insurgency.

Doctor, you are relentless.

5:10 PM, December 21, 2006

 

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