Posted September 14, 2003


The Biology Shaping a New Iraq

Copyright © 2003 by John Carroll



September 14, 2003:   We conquered Iraq in war, but our efforts to bring peace are obviously not working. Almost every day we lose a soldier or two, our Bradley fighting vehicles are short of spare parts. Pipelines get blown up, the electric power grid is repeatedly crippled, people who work with Americans get killed. We're running out of reserves to replace the soldiers already there. We plead with other nations to send troops and money -- the same nations we snubbed by going to war against their strong objections. They won't give us much. We're short of troops and the money's far more than our leaders predicted. Already running a big deficit from our tax cuts, we're digging ourselves in deeper. It wasn't supposed to work that way, but that's how it turned out. The Iraqis didn't welcome us as saviors, nor did they welcome the idea of a secular American- style democracy as our leaders assured us they would.

The war was a mistake, and it's time to own up to that, or perhaps deny it and leave. The important word is "leave." But to do that in the least disastrous way, we'd better appreciate the tribal forces afoot in that place. The American war planners didn't understand it when they sent troops in, and we Americans, especially our soldiers, are paying the price. As the time to leave approaches, we need to understand what it is we're leaving in order to get out as gracefully as possible and with our resources as intact as possible. We need to understand tribal Iraq. I may have something to say about the details of how we should get out another time, but right now I'll just paint a sketch of what the New Iraq will look like after our troops come home.

Let me sketch the tribal outlines of Iraq. First, it's a multitribal nation invented in the early twentieth century by Britain and France for their own convenience. The north is dominated by the Kurdish tribe, but most Kurds live outside Iraq's borders in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but they think of themselves first and foremost as Kurds. There are lots of Sunnis in the area, but only the Kurds are "us people." To their south is the Sunni Muslim tribe of Iraq, a minority group which has ruled that country since its invention. Because it was a minority tribe, it's had to rule by force. The Sunni primacy came originally from the British who put them in charge. The majority of Iraqis are Shia'a Muslims, living in the south of Iraq, and they make little or no distinction between their religion and their tribe, at least within Iraq, though they probably don't quite consider Iranian Shiites part of their tribe. As I mention in Biology and Politics the borders of a tribe are sometimes fuzzy, but it seems that the Shiites of Iraq are a tribe unto themselves, and just as the Sunni Kurds and the Sunnis of Central Iraq are competing tribes, so are the Shiites of Southern Iraq and the Shiites of Iran. So we have three major tribes in Iraq, and as tribes will do, they all compete for the same national resources. The two main jobs of any tribe are first to protect the "us people" and the resources they have from the "them people," which is to say everybody outside the tribe, and second, to take resources from the "them people" whenever possible, by whatever means works. Fairness doesn't come into the equation.

The Americans got into Iraq with the notion that since democracy seems to work pretty well in America, it should work well in Iraq, as if that were some sort of natural law, but it isn't. Personal freedom and democracy don't necessarily bring peace, but the people who got us into Iraq hadn't looked very closely at the history of the human animal, so they didn't know that. They didn't stop to think that the first civilization became possible when people gave up freedom and democracy for safety, a steady supply of food, and obedience to a ruler.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were certainly free, with any family able to opt out of any group activity it didn't like. It took persuasion, not force, to get hunter-gatherers to act together, so they were more democratic than modern Americans are. But the evidence is that the murder rate was extremely high in the hunter-gatherer world, and the evidence also suggests a very high level of tribal warfare. And it's not just in ancient societies that democracy has begotten violence. Yugoslavia was a multitribal nation held together by force, and once it became democratic, tribal competition blew the place apart. Similary, when the Soviet Empire lost its power, Azerbaijan and Armenia, former members of that empire suddenly free, went to war with each other over territory. Freedom and democracy don't guarantee tranquility, and sometimes they destroy it.

A major reason representative democracy works reasonably well in the United States is that the overwhelming majority of Americans, whatever their economic status, color, or religion, consider other Americans the "us people" and act that way whenever the tribe is attacked. Remember the response to 9/11. Westerners who hated New York and Washington cried out for vengeance. For all their faults, New Yorkers and Washingtonians were "us people." But it's not like that in Iraq, and American-style democracy wouldn't satisfy the populace in general. Yes, they're all Iraqis, but that's their nation, not their tribe. The people belong to three major tribes, each interested in resources and security for themselves, as opposed to resources and security for the "them people" in the other tribes.

What would we expect our kind of democracy to do in Iraq? Why, bring chaos and its own demise, of course. The Sunnis of Central Iraq are just a twenty percent fraction of the population, so they'd be pushed out of dominance in a free election, and the Shiites, who outnumber the Kurds and the Sunnis of Central Iraq taken together, and who were oppressed by the Sunnis, would take control and almost certainly take their revenge. The Kurdish minority in the north, while dependent on U.S. protection since shortly after the Gulf War, and therefore better behaved from a U.S. point of view, have their own ambition -- seceding from Iraq and forming an independent nation of Greater Kurdistan, which ultimately would include parts of what are now Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Needless to say, the governments in Turkey, Iran and Syria don't think this would be a good idea, and Turkey and Iran are both far stronger militarily than the Iraqi Kurds are.

Since the Gulf War the Kurdish problem in Iraq has been held in check by the Americans, who need Turkey as an ally, and by Turkey itself, which has periodically invaded Northern Iraq to deal with subversives who want to recruit Turkish Kurds into the movement for founding Greater Kurdistan. Under American protection, the Iraqi Kurds have achieved something close to democracy and prosperity, but only because they're one tribe in one territory. What happens if and when the Americans pull out completely is another matter. But it's hard to imagine the Americans pulling out of Kurdish Northern Iraq in the foreseeable future. They'll probably have to maintain a presence comparable to the one they maintained during Saddam's time indefinitely if the area's to become even as peaceful as it was before the American conquest. The Kurdish area will have to remain formally within Iraq, but informally will probably be an independent state protected by the U.S., but also limited by the U.S. in its territorial reach so that it doesn't destabilize neighboring countries, especially our ally, Turkey. Everyone can probably live with that outcome, if only because other outcomes are clearly worse for all concerned.

The rest of Iraq will consist of the Sunnis of Central Iraq, a minority people who until the Americans arrived dominated the whole nation, and the Shiites, who now dominate the South. Ideally, those two tribes would be separated, and in the best of all possible worlds, which might not be all that great, we'd have three nations where Iraq once stood. But that won't happen because neighboring Arab states don't want it, because the people of the West, who view the entire Middle East as a resource, are convinced that splitting Iraq would lead to conflicts that would destabilize the whole region, and because the tribe in a position to control the nation wouldn't tolerate it.

They're probably right. Set free and unprotected, the Kurdish area would probably fall to Turkish control, though Iran and even Syria might grab pieces of it. The area that could be Kurdistan is rich in oil, so every nation that borders it would want to control as much of that oil as it could. Turkey's already working on a legal theory that at least some of the Kurdish oil fields by rights belong to Turkey. The Sunnis living in what's now Central Iraq would be in danger of attack from Shiites who wanted control of Baghdad and the nearby oilfields, and who have some scores to settle with the Sunnis anyway. It seems unlikely that a stable American-style democracy will take hold in Iraq no matter what we do. As someone pointed out, a truly democratic election in Iraq would be a one-shot affair. The Shiites would win, and quickly turn Iraq from a new democracy into an Islamic theocracy, with Shiites running the show and democracy as we know it nowhere to be found. Short of eternal occupation, we can't stop that. It's not Mr. Bush's plan for a secular democracy to stand as a model for other Middle Eastern nations, but it's the best that can be done. (NOTE: While Mr. Bush claims to want a secular state in Iraq, his pro-Christian moves in the U.S. cast doubt on his commitment to secularism.) To save face, we should empower an Iraqi government to set up elections, oversee the elections, make sure the Shiite tribe, which we expect to win control is well-armed, and begin moving our troops out of the country as fast as we can, except the few needed to keep the peace in the Kurdish north.

Once we're gone, tribal dynamics will take its course. Things won't turn out the way we wanted. We won't get a secular society and we won't get a lasting democracy or a monopoly on oil contracts. We'll get another Islamic state, presumably run by Shiites rather than our secular friend, Saddam Hussein. The new Iraq won't practice democracy or justice as we think of those things, but it will establish a working social order. Even though the new leaders will owe their power to America, they won't like us, but they will take our money for reconstruction and sell us oil when they get enough to sell.

They'll also get rid of the terrorism and sabotage. For one thing, any foreign terrorists will have less to gain by humiliating any Iraqi tribe than by humiliating Americans, so they may just leave Iraq. More important, terrorists, foreign or local, will be stopped by one of Saddam's tactics. As long as there's no sabotage, the local communities, which badly need money, will get paid off by the government. And if terror or sabotage happen, the flow of money will stop. The locals will solve the problem. Al Qaeda might be welcome in some circles, but Iraqis of all persuasions appear to prefer prosperity to poverty, and Al Qaeda would bring them poverty and perhaps more U.S. missile strikes. Once the Americans are gone, a foreign terrorist organization will be no more welcome than the Americans were. It's possible that internal terror will become a problem for the ruling tribe, but that will be terror aimed at them, not at us, and our tribe can live with that.

There's one last disturbing question hanging over the American retreat from Iraq. Could Saddam Hussein come back and again rule that nation? I don't see how. The Kurds surely don't want him, and the Shiites surely don't want him. If they have the weapons, and we'd better make sure they do before we leave, Saddam won't be back. With at least eighty percent of the country on his trail and heavily armed, he'll either live out his life in hiding or he'll be hunted down and killed.

Invading Iraq was a monumental American blunder. It cost us troops and treasure, lowered our status in the eyes of our competitors, and gave aid and comfort to international terrorism. The job now is to get out, which means turning government over to Iraqis as quickly as possible. We don't have to like the kind of government they put together. We just have to get out with minimal losses. Most likely a Shiite government of a very religious persuasion will take power. So what? We've managed to work with the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia, and we can work with the Shiites. The new Iraq won't be a democracy. Again, so what? What matters to American tribal interests is that our access to resources is preserved and our exposure to terrorism is minimized. It might be nice to get rid of terrorism in the Middle East so everyone could live happily ever after, but our first goal as Americans is to protect American tribal interests in the area, which we can best do by getting out and letting Iraqi tribes compete with one another for their resources, and stacking the deck before we leave so the Kurds are protected (to prevent fighting with Turkey) and so the Shiites, who are going to rule no matter what we do, have control of enough weaponry to maintain their government. That will keep violence to a minimum when we leave. And having assured those two things, we need not worry about the details of a new Iraqi government. They will just take shape as Iraqi tribes compete with one another for resources and safety.

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