Monday, December 18

Michael Wright and Pundita rumble over Iraq

Michael Wright: Iraq's generals have told the US military command, "Just give us airpower and tanks and you can go home."

Pundita: You know what they plan to do with those weapons. Same thing Saddam Hussein did after the US military command said okay to his request to arm helicopters with guns, only he used them against the Shia uprising.

Michael Wright: It's coming, anyway; it's here now. They're intent on purging the Sunni minority, and they're going to do it.

Pundita: Not if Saudi money has anything to say about it. It's a Mexican Standoff. There's no way the US can stop the Saudis from funding a Sunni insurgency in Iraq as long as the Saudis perceive there's a purge in effect.

Michael Wright: The Saudis are crazy. They wanted Saddam and his government overthrown; they had to know that doing that was opening Pandora's Box in the Middle East, if they didn't want a Shiite Crescent.

Pundita: Bandar told Cheney or maybe he told Powell, as soon as he was informed about the US plan to invade, "Just remember you bought the farm" or words to that effect. Yes, everybody saw what could happen. Nobody banked on the US military being hamstrung by the agendas of our dear allies in the invasion, Israel and Great Britain.

Michael Wright: You can't pin any of the blame on Israel. They wanted to see the country split up only after they saw the US had completely lost control of the situation. The Israelis wanted the same thing the Saudis wanted, and what the vast majority of the Iraqi people wanted. They wanted to see order imposed on the country in the aftermath of the invasion. When that didn't happen, then it was every man for himself. Let the agendas rule.

Pundita: Okay, then answer me this: how can you empty an ocean with a sieve? The British command insisted on leaving the southern border wide open. That's because the British government wanted to pacify Iran's government. So you tell me how many US troops, and how many billions of dollars it would have taken, to bring order to Iraq. We're fighting Syria and Iran in Iraq, whether the frontmen are Sunni insurgents or al Qaeda terrorists.

Look, this is not from me. Iraqis like Ghazi al-Yawer were screaming at the US command, and Washington, to seal the borders. It was the only way to bring order to Iraq because Iranians were flooding in. Granted, not all those Iranians were working under the command of Iran's military. Many were simply fleeing Iran's repressive government but they were Shiites and they swelled the ranks of Iraq's Shiite militias. Without the borders sealed and in particular the southern one, all the rest was predictable.

Michael Wright: [laughing] Oh I see where you're going! Pundita, you can't blame this on the US Department of State!

Pundita: Watch me. The little brown people over there in the Middle East will end up nuking each other, which solves that problem. But Russia will still be there, and we need back-up from the British in pounding Russia into the ground. There you have it, in one sentence: State's foreign policy.

Michael Wright: I give up! You'll sign a truce with al Qaeda before you sign one with State. Will you admit to the possibility that much of State's problem is benign?

Pundita: What do you mean?

Michael Wright: When Condi came to State, she was up against the most powerful bureaucracy in modern times so it was only natural that she'd turn to people with long experience at State to help her navigate the shoals. State's expertise is the Cold War, so Rice turned to people who had experience with Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet states.

Pundita: Ask Condoleezza Rice if she sees Iraq as a standalone war -- as separate from the war on terror. Ask her. She sees it as a separate war, and one she would not have ordered. Rice is herself a Cold War warrior. When Bush sent Rice to State, he sent the safecracker to mind the bank.

Michael Wright: We were thrown into a new war with great suddenness --

Pundita: Bah. How much notice do you need, when two of your embassies are blown up? But I get your drift. After the Cold War ended, international trade was going to make war unnecessary. America's bright young things went after MBAs; they didn't sign up in droves to join the Foreign Service.

If you remove the Cold War experts from State, the ranks are too thin to support the bureaucracy. So it is taking time to bring new thinking into State. But war is a really bad time to attempt to completely overhaul both the nation's foreign office and war department.

Michael Wright: In the end, the blame for mistakes in Iraq land on the Pentagon’s desk and the commander-in-chief's. If we're filling a bottomless pit in Iraq, does it make sense to follow [Senator Joseph] McCain's advice to deploy 15,000 more troops there?

Pundita: I don’t know, which is why I have been listening closely to McCain’s view of the situation in Iraq. When you don’t know, the best you can do is pick someone you think might know and follow his lead. McCain’s bid for the presidency is on the line, so he is heavily invested in seeing a favorable outcome for the US –-

Michael Wright: The same could be said for certain Democrats who say not to put more troops in Iraq.

Pundita: All right; I gave a poor excuse for listening to McCain. Let me rephrase: I am weighted to sending more troops to Iraq because there are not enough there now to get control of the borders. So I tend to favor the advice of people who advocate for deploying more troops.

Michael Wright: But the troops won’t necessarily be deployed to the borders; in fact, the history of the situation doesn’t suggest it will happen.

Pundita: Well, what would you suggest? Me, I’m on endless rewind: “Seal the borders beep this is a recording.”

Michael Wright: There will be a huge uprising from the nomadic tribes and from the Iranian Shiites in Iraq, if the borders are actually sealed. Also, the Iraqi religious establishment will protest because sealed borders cut down on the number of pilgrims making donations to Iraqi shrines. The idea for sealed borders was do-able during the first few months of occupation –-

Pundita: If there had been more US boots on the ground cooperation from the British command –-

Michael Wright: Sealed borders are not going to happen, Pundita. The bottom line is the US didn’t want to be seen as the conquering occupier so the spoils of war went to Iraqi’s Shiites. With or without Iranian backing, many of Iraq’s Shiites want to divest the country’s Sunnis of all power and position.

Iraq’s democracy is still very thin; it doesn’t have strong protections for civil rights. In any case, they don’t have an adequate judicial system to enforce the protections in their Constitution.

So the US can play it two ways right now: invest heavily in trying to build a functioning advanced democracy in a short amount of time, or invest heavily in educating and modernizing Iraq’s military and police forces.

Pundita: Are you saying the solution for Iraq is a military dictatorship?

Michael Wright: You’d prefer a religious dictatorship taking orders from Iran’s military? Or clan rule? I’m saying the democratically elected government is barely working right now in Iraq. That’s because people can’t fight for things they don’t see clearly.

Pundita: I don’t understand.

Michael Wright: As in the Congo, you can get people to the ballot box, but it doesn’t mean they know how things work in an advanced democracy. The number of Iraqis who have experience living under democracy is very small. A large number of Iraqis have experience with the ways things work in the military.

Right now, the military culture is the best one in Iraq for shoring up national pride and a sense of unity. The military is the best place to instill democratic values simply because the US has so much financial clout in that area.

I know my advice goes against everything you believe in, but aren’t you in danger of making the same mistake as Jeffrey Sachs? You lit into Sachs because you said he took a scorched earth approach to applying free trade principles to bring a third-world economy out of ruins.

Pundita: Here it comes. I’m a wild-eyed idealist who can’t see past the democracy doctrine.

Michael Wright: You’re much more radical. You’re the only person I know who proposes that America develop a foreign policy based on human potential.

Pundita: We’re trying to have a civilized discussion here. There’s no need to put on the brass knuckles. I’m not a granola eater.

Michael Wright: You’re more radical than the granola crunchers. Your view is that the human race is going to tank in this century unless more people get comfortable with governing themselves and develop the thinking skills necessary for the task.

I don’t agree with your position, although I admire it. I admire that you’ve stood by your position, no matter what the cost to you personally. But if you’re trying to apply your stand to Iraq, you’ve lost sight of the US reasons for the invasion, which were not to create a democracy.

Pundita: Well then by your reasoning, the only thing the Iraqis have in memory is a military dictatorship, so they should stick with that.

Michael Wright: You’re trying to substitute the known with the highly abstract, and somehow hoping that sealing the borders will leapfrog the Iraqis over generations of conditioning.

Pundita: Are you expecting the World Bank to heap modernization loans on Iraq’s military, or do you expect the US government to foot the bill?

Michael Wright: I think the Bank and other multilateral development banks could be useful in this context.

Pundita: Don’t forget that the Bank makes loans according to IMF guidelines, and that the IMF deals with governments, not generals. That’s the same for the other big transnational development banks. The IMF wants Iraq’s government to adhere to certain economic guidelines. You can’t apply that thinking to military modernization, except via economic guidelines for a country.

Michael Wright: Iraq’s military isn’t asking for stealth bombers.

Pundita: No; they just want fighter jets. I understand. Okay; then let the Saudis foot the bill, tagged to Iraq’s military wiping out the militias, including the Shiite ones.

Nobody’s asking to seal the borders indefinitely. Seal the borders long enough to do what al-Yawer and every other sensible Iraqi has been demanding, which is to conduct a reasonably accurate census. Because without a census you can’t tax the people in any fair fashion.

With or with a military dictatorship, the government is in such bad straits because of attacks on oil pipelines and tanker routes. They can’t expect oil revenues alone to do the massive task of building a suitable infrastructure from the ground up, much less modernize the military.

Remember that Iraq was in ruins even before we bombed it to rubble. Saddam was funneling uncounted USD billions into building a nuke in Libya. Pundita has not forgotten why the US invaded Iraq, but the way the developed world works, all the paths for development assistance lead to some version of the way the IMF does things.

The IMF wants to see the secular government strengthened. So whether or not Iraqis are ready for democracy, getting with the democracy program happens to be the fastest route to unlocking development megabucks. That holds true for all nations at this time in history. It’s just the way the developed nations are set up to give assistance.

So if I’m an Iraqi clan leader piddling around with a few thousand dollars I can scare up from nomad relatives or Iran’s military, I have to measure that against what the developed nations can do for my clan. That’s the bottom line; it just has to be shouted until it sinks in.

Michael Wright: I should have known better than to debate with a demagogue.

Pundita: I accept the compliment but you’re actually debating with the world’s biggest bankers. Development loans are like a huge machine with numerous working parts. People who have not seen the machine have a hard time visualizing how much needs to be in place, for the machine to work.

I used to know how much of the development loan dollar went into the actual project but a big chunk of the money goes into building the loan machine, country by country. On paper a military dictatorship can build and work the machine, and it’s been done in the past, but in this case it’s out of the question because the military is presiding over rubble.

These days, it’s all boxes in boxes: on the other end of the World Bank has to be the government departments to work out the development program and coordinate it with IMF guidelines -– a mind-boggling task requiring the labor of thousands of specialists and pen-pushers. Then the government has to work out the actual projects in the program. More specialists and pen-pushers. Then the money has to be disbursed and the project overseen and executed.

In essence, these days governments have to be set up according to rather sophisticated levels of functioning, just to get more than a few big external development loans. And the governments can’t be set up that way, if a few generals and clan leaders think they can run a modern country.

I understand you know all this stuff but you don’t apply it, when you peg me as a radical. I’m just saying the things that any international development banker would say. Democracy is no longer a luxury. Democracy is no longer an ideal. Today, it’s just the shortest distance between rubble and getting the rubble cleared away. It’s the easiest way to set up effective government for serving large populations, if you want a large measure of outside help.

Why is it easier? Because of the way the machine works. If you want your toaster to work when you plug it in the socket, you don’t need a fancy electrical grid. If 50 million people want their toaster to work, they need a grid. Same principle applies to a government getting into the business of chasing development loans. Today, democracy is to government what the power plant grid is to electricity.

And I’ll tell you it’s only getting tougher for the governments because there are now teeth in the Bank’s anti-graft measures.

If you want to say to hell with the machine, my cousin Abdul the rich nomad will throw me a few hundred thousand dollars in cash to build a water treatment plant for my town –- okay. Now how long do you think you stay alive, if you don’t peel off many thousands to keep your other cousins from killing you to get control the funds?

Michael Wright: Setting up the infrastructure has not made China a democracy. Sri Lanka was a democracy in name only when the Mahaweli Dam was built.

Pundita: China’s government bled copiously because of corruption arising from the influx of the big development loans, although much of the story has not been made public. China’s government lost so much money and made so much mess for themselves, it could take generations to recover.

The Mahaweli Dam project is the textbook illustration of what happens when you make a mega-development loan in a country that has only the rudiments of democracy. Fighting over the loan bonanza –- fighting over jobs connected with the project, contracting business, and land grabs -- helped ignite Sri Lanka’s ethnic cleansing in the 1980s.

I’m trying to think of a metaphor that best illustrates the situation but the best I can come up with right now is to say that doing things the clan way in today’s world is only like stepping on a land mine. But doing things the IMF way, in a country without a democratic government infrastructure, is like dropping a bomb on your own head.

Then the governments call the development banks the devil. The truth is that the development loan gizmo is constructed to plug into a democracy socket.

That observation holds true, even though the Islamic Development Bank specializes in making loans to Islamic governments, which are for the most part authoritarian and horribly corrupt and thus, horribly inefficient.

Michael Wright: So what you’re saying is if Iraq’s military wants to quickly raise billions for modernization, they are best advised to work through a government with democratic channels in place.

Pundita: If they are serious about making their military efficient in quick time. Making the channels in Iraq is not easy, of course, but the alternative is like routing a trip from New York to Boston by way of Bangkok.

Michael Wright: Will the development banks lend to Iraq in big ways while the country is so violent?

[long pause]

Pundita: If you think you have me cornered –-

Michael Wright: I’m here in peace.

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