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Thursday, July 19

Heaven and earth

"Dear Pundita:
In your July 17 post you wrote: "You run into quicksand if you confuse a system of government with a metaphysical system."

As succinct a description of libertarianism as I've ever read (at least the anarcho-capitalist drivel that's passing for libertarianism these days).
Dave Schuler
The Glittering Eye "

Dear Dave:
I haven't paid much attention to the libertarians but from what I recall they struck me as skating close to the Nazi idea of using government to shape man into superman. Yet isn't that also what conservatives and liberals are trying nowadays, when they use legislation as a means to engineer profound transformations in human behavior?

In any case, the CPA was trying to engineer a New Iraqi Man, which was not the task; they were supposed to set up a new government.

I hate to say this but if we had outsourced the task to the Chinese, Iraq could have a stronger democratic government by now. The Chinese know there's heaven and there's earth and don't mix up the two. The CPA mixed up metaphysics and business and the result was, as I observed in the July 17 post, psychedelic; there's no other word for it.

The Chinese save their flights of fancy for foreign policy aims. "Peaceful rising" is officially out; the new nonsense term is "harmonious society." But the Chinese are beating the pants off the US government when it comes to foreign aid and development schemes. They keep the goal simple and concrete: what does the foreign government need to serve the baseline needs of the people?

Too simple, one could argue; Beijing skirts the issue of the type of government they're helping. But Washington can learn from Beijing's concrete approach when it comes to helping governments establish a democracy.

The tragedy is that by confusing heaven and earth, many in Washington are falling back on Jeane Kirkpatrick's concept of realism. (The concept was alluded to in the Tucker Carlson show conversation mentioned in the July 17 Pundita post; see the transcript in the post.)

Once the failures of the CPA became evident, many in Washington pronounced the democracy doctrine dead and argued for a return to a "realistic" foreign policy, along the lines of Kirkpatrick's ideas. The ideas boil down to the US supporting autocracies when it's expedient to do so.

But expediency during Kirkpatrick's era rested on the notion that only superpower governments could seriously upset the balance of power in a country run by an autocratic regime. Today, even a small government can destabilize a government in another country.

Kirkpatrick's concept of realism is outdated and very dangerous in today's world; indeed, the concept is unrealistic today. Yet it's as if, failing the test of realism in setting up a government in Iraq, many in Washington tried to redefine the concept of realism.

After living through the psychedelic experience in Iraq, John Agresto, who was the CPA's education advisor in Iraq, observed about Americans: "We, as a country, don't have a clue as to what has made our own country work."(1)

I think it's more precise to say that at the procedural level, Americans who want to build democracy in other countries have a hard time distinguishing between what's central and peripheral in setting up a government. Yet this is also the case for Agresto himself! After all the mess he went through at the CPA; after all his hand-wringing about gaga CPA decisions, look at what he deems necessary for a government:
But all the ingredients that make [government] good and free -- limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, calendared elections, staggered elections, plurality selection, differing terms of office, federalism but with national supremacy, the development of a civic spirit and civic responsibility, and, above all, the breaking and moderation of factions -- all this we forget about. We act as if the aim is "democracy" simply and not a mild and moderate democracy. Therefore ... we seek out the loudest and most virulent factions and empower them ...
Agresto finally argues himself into the conclusion that until Iraqis "find their Madison," Iraq would be better off "with just a good ruler."

So there you have it: a defender of democracy arguing for autocracy. It doesn't get more mind-bending than that.

Note that Agresto mixes up the task of governing with procedural issues related to voting. It seems that Americans have now hung so many hopes for humankind on the mechanism of government that we can't prioritize the steps for building a government, let alone a democratic one.

That's how Paul Bremer ended up diverting his energy to things like lowering Iraq's tax rate. Iraq's tax rate was on paper, for crying out loud. Iraqis didn't pay their taxes.

He also put a lot of energy into reducing export duties and liberalizing foreign investment laws. Reducing tariffs meant that Iraq was flooded with imported cars, which created the massive traffic jams in Baghdad that made it hard for even the US military to navigate on the ground, and which infuriated Baghdadis.

And the huge influx of cars meant gasoline shortages, which resulted in mile-long lines at the gas pump -- and the need for the CPA to use a significant amount of Iraq's oil sales profits to import car-grade gasoline, and at astronomical prices! That's because Iraq didn't have enough oil refineries -- if any at all were operational after the invasion.

As for foreign investment, the foreign investor didn't want to set up shop in Iraq because of the security situation.

All that doesn't mean Bremer's ideas for liberalizing Iraq's economy didn't have a place down the line, but they had nothing to do with the task of setting up a government.

In Iraq, Paul Bremer couldn't distinguish between heaven and earth. Instead of casting stones, Americans need ask themselves just what government means to them. If we want heaven on earth, we need to re-think the meaning of government.

1) All Agresto quotes are from Rajiv Chandrasekaran's
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone
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