Iraq: Disneyland Deathmatch


July 17, 2006: One thing the current Iraqi government, and that of Saddam Hussein, have in common is corruption. While Saddam was running a police state, his subordinates were free to plunder what they could, as long as they remained loyal to Saddam. Loyalty was more important than anything else. The current government is democratically elected, and corrupt. Loyalty is to the tribe or religious/ethnic group that elected you. Once in office, you steal for your family and your followers. Several high profile kidnapping cases recently (like that of the Olympic Committee) were all about squabbles over who was going to steal what.
The corruption is so bad that American officials find their Iraqi counterparts more concerned with stealing than governing. The theft is so pervasive that an honest official (who doesn't steal) is at a political disadvantage. During Saddam's years, much of the private economy was taken over by the government, and then dispensed in return for loyalty (or at least the appearance of such, Saddam always suffered at least one assassination attempt a year.) Thus Saddam made an old Middle Eastern custom even worse. With the country currently so dependent on oil revenue and foreign aid, it is the government officials who get control of that money, who wield the most power. If there are disagreements over who gets what, then some big shot and all his bodyguards gets kidnapped. Or maybe just the bodyguards get snatched, leaving powerful people alone in the middle of Baghdad without bodyguards. Very embarrassing, and dangerous.
The corruption contributes to the rampant crime. Criminal gangs find themselves a sponsor in the government, someone who can be bought, and then you go on stealing, kidnapping and extorting. In a pattern found in many countries, a lot of the crime is committed by police and soldiers, either on duty, or as a second job. This is the land of "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves," and the locals still admire a bold and successful gangster. Saddam played on that, and regularly used criminal gangs as allies. Some Americans, especially the U.S. Army Special Forces, just accept the local customs and work with the crooks and corrupt officials, the better to stamp out those Saddam followers who are still fighting. But rather more conventional American officials are put off by the culture of plunder and double-dealing. Not that it's really that much different than what you find in most Western democracies, but it does get in the way of creating an efficient economy and government.
It's quite a culture clash, made worse by the Iraqi tendency to regard tales, of how things operate in the West, as the result of some kind of magic or supernatural powers. This attitude drives many educated Iraqis, who know better, up the wall. But what are you going to do when members of your own family prattle on like this?
The use, and abuse, of democracy and civic responsibility has created a violent clash of cultures. It's surreal, sort of a Disneyland Deathmatch. Everyone is a little, or a lot, detached from reality, and fighting to the death to maintain the superiority of their particular fantasy. In the middle of this, there are millions of Iraqis who do understand the reality of the situation. But they are outnumbered by a majority that appear to occupy different realities, and are content to live out their fantasies.
The United States was, and most of the world still is, willing to leave Iraqis alone to their illusions, even as the fever dreams of Middle Eastern fanaticism are also blowing things up in the West. Europeans believe you can't really change Middle Eastern attitudes, and things are better left to sort themselves out. The United States is willing to take action, pay the cost, and bet that change can be made to happen. What is less clear is exactly what the change will amount to in the short, and long, term. Historically, there has been dramatic change in the Middle East, when outside forces suddenly appeared. Unfortunately, the degree and direction of the change has never been orderly or very predictable.


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