In the coming months, I predict we will find a good number of lefties agreeing with a good number of righties about a crucial aspect of the future of Iraq. This will be no small agreement, and the consensus among these vocal groups will put considerable pressure on the occupation of Iraq and may well influence its eventual outcome. In short order, I predict, both sides will agree on the great value of Iraqi self-determination. They will do so for different reasons, of course. From the right, I think, we can usually expect cynicism. This will be no exception. Promoting the ideal of self-determination will give the neo-cons who supported the war, but never really wanted to pay for it, a good out. We tried, the line will go, and now matters are up to ordinary Iraqis to work out. From the left, alas, I think we can often expect naivetÃ©. This will be no exception. The ideal of self-determination sounds great and seems the best way of demonstrating respect to a people who’ve gotten the short end of the stick for a very long time.
This is bound to end in disaster. This is not because there is anything wrong with self-determination properly understood, but rather because the term can mean a great many things, some of them worse even than occupation. Self-determination, in the best case, means that ordinary Iraqis are given some genuine control over the political processes which determine the nature of their new state.
It means that the barriers to effective participation in political life are not obstructed by violence, intimidation, or extreme poverty. In the worst case, self-determination means that the guys running the show are Iraqis, and it implies nothing at all about what sort of show it is.
I think the calls for self-determination for Iraqis will derive much of their appeal (beyond the fact that they let the U.S. off the hook) from the attractiveness of the first ideal. I’m afraid that they will be used to support the second, ugly kind of self-determination.
I am all for internationalizing the occupation, though I fear that the time to do that really effectively has now passed. But make no mistake, for the real kind of self-determination to emerge, some sort of occupying force has to create the conditions for it. Democracy is not impossible for Arabs, or Iraqis, or anyone. But it is very difficult for a country emerging from the hell that Iraq was under Saddam Hussein. An early withdrawal of some sort of stabilizing force would favour established groups within Iraq (i.e., clerics, tribal leaders, and remnants of the former regime) because it would leave nascent groups without the time or the protection to develop a standing within a new democracy. Although the tensions between various ethnic groups in Iraq should not be overstated, they are exactly the type of divisions that are easily exploitable by political leaders in conditions of extreme instability.
Weâ€™re lying to ourselves if we think that an early withdrawal will lead to anything other than a vicious story of the strong persecuting the weak, a matter of trading one kind of occupation for another. You can call that what you want. Iâ€™d rather not call it self-determination.