May 18, 2004

Iraqi Democracy Will Be Weird

Reason Magazine isn't much for cheerleading George W Bush or the Iraqi campaign but this article does good service in identifying a huge culture clash. That Iraqi culture is part of a larger Middle East culture and that it's different is hardly revolutionary but I don't think that many people 'get' exactly how different it is.

For people in America Iraq has been, is, and will continue to be weird. It's a different world there. But there are some constants. Fathers love their children and nobody likes to have a boot on their neck. Freedom and democracy look like a good idea. And when you sit back and talk about what really matters, ordinary people aren't too far apart on goals.

The differences in traditional means will drive us crazy, both us and them. The article talks about the souk culture, how people are, just now, starting the lengthy negotiating session with the US as to what kind of government they will have. For them, all that has happened the past year has only been the preliminaries. But if you try tossing that out in a water cooler conversation in the Midwest, the idea that all this craziness is just round one of a bargaining session in the souk is likely to provoke a very unhappy response.

They do not understand us and we do not understand them. But that doesn't mean that we can't connect, nor does it mean that they are incapable of freedom, democracy, or the rule of law. What it does mean is that the connections between us and them have to be loose. We don't have to get out of Iraq, but we do need to get out of the daily patrolling business. We don't have to compromise on insisting that Iraq's women have freedom and dignity, but we do have to give up any idea that what's going to come out is going to bear any resemblance to Cosmopolitan's vision of the modern woman.

At the same time the challenges for Iraqis are huge. They have this extraordinarily force camped in their country and it is at the same time hyper-competent and utterly hopeless by turns and they can't figure out who's going to come out hour by hour, Gomer Pyle or Sgt. York. They utterly fail to penetrate the fundamental reality of the US government, that it is just as incompetent and foolish as their own regimes, only smaller.

I know how hard that is to swallow. Every time I tell a romanian visitor/immigrant that, they never believe it straight off. They sort of look at me like I'm crazy and move on. I've been doing this for about 20 years and it never changes. About six months later they have enough context to see the US private sector and the US public sector and how they interact and the light bulb goes on. At the short end it's four months, and the longest I've seen it take for someone to understand is nine months.

But these are all people who see the private sector in the US and understand that an enormous amount of the competent part of the public sector is people taking their private sector competencies and adapting it to public sector use. Iraqis in Iraq don't have that ability to immerse themselves in the US and thus they simply don't understand us. They may love us, hate us, or be anywhere in between but their understanding of us does not permit them to predict us. That's a very bad place to start a negotiation from.

So are we doomed to mutual incomprehensibility in perpetuity? I think there will always be some amount of culture clash but as Iraq starts to adopt global rule sets, things should get a bit better. But we will always point at each other and say "that guy's just weird". I only hope that we can say it with a smile a decade from now as we are speaking as friends.

Posted by TMLutas at May 18, 2004 12:45 AM