June 15, 2004
The Papa Principle

Four out of five Iraqis report holding a negative view of the U.S. occupation authority and of coalition forces. -- (Washington Post, May 13, 2004).

Only a third of the Iraqi people now believe that the American-led occupation of their country is doing more good than harm. (USA Today, April 28, 2004)

Few Iraqis mourn the fall of Saddam but there is a growing, at times almost visceral, hatred of the occupation. (Independent/UK, June 22, 2003)

The signs seem to be everywhere... we're failing to rebuild Iraq, we're screwing up the occupation, the Iraqis hate us and want us gone gone gone. It would seem that saying the occupation is not working out is like saying George Bush tends to stumble over words or Michael Moore looks a little chunky. The whole thing feels like it's coming apart faster than an zombie extra in "The Dawn of the Dead."

What I find surprising is that everyone thinks this is a bad thing. As far as I'm concerned, the absolute worst thing that could have happened would have been for us to have gone in with a marvelous master plan that quickly and efficiently rebuilt Iraq into a gleaming, well-scrubbed nation, sorta like those IKEA commercials, only with tanks. You see, nation building is simply not something I think we should be all that good at.

"You two want to go outside? You better clean up this goddamned room first, because if I come back and this place still looks like a train wreck, I'm going to clean it up for you."

"I'm going to clean it up for you." No eight words were heard with more dread in our house, especially coming from my dad. The first time he gave us an "or else", we didn't take him all that seriously. When we came home our room was spotless... pristine, like something you'd see in a Home and Garden magazine. It was fantastic, until we realized it got that way because dad had been the one deciding what was junk and what was important. For a brief time we thought he'd even thrown out the dog. It was, in essence, an apocalypse for two boys who thought putting stuff up was what a maid (or mom) did.

From that point on we took our dad's warnings with deathly seriousness. "Clean up your goddamned room!" motivated us with the same alacrity as Greek peasants hearing Zeus's own voice from on high.

This makes us sound like two selfish spoiled brats, which we were, but really we were just being human. Throughout time and space, giving something valuable to a human being in the hope they'll start working to get more is disastrous. Eventually, and with surprising swiftness, they start expecting that something. Taking it away results not in a buckling down to get it themselves, but instead brings tantrums wailing for a replacement or outright rebellion in order to take it.

Only providing humans with the opportunity to get it themselves, and then having the patience and discipline to let them, will lead to long term success. Oh, there will still be wailing and rebellion aplenty, with maddening attempts to cheat, lie, or steal their way to success, but it will be the background noise of a system building itself up instead of the chaotic roar of a system crashing down.

In this, nations are not much different from the people who make them up. South Vietnam had billions of dollars poured into it, and the protection of the most powerful military machine in the world to protect it, and the result was not a vibrant society of capitalists but instead a sad, sick, twisted culture of dependants and sycophants who simultaneously loathed the presence of the rich Yankee and bewailed any mention of his imminent departure. The Yankee would never depart, so why should they even try to figure it out themselves? The resulting collapse when we did leave may have been demoralizing for Americans, but it was Armageddon for the South Vietnamese, who endured nearly two decades of violent "re-education" at that hands of their northern brethren.

That today we are disheartened or surprised at the chaos and confusion, inefficiencies and graft, abuses and even death in Iraq merely shows the world is right in one respect... most Americans are hopelessly naive about the world around them. What other country would be disappointed that a people ground under the boot heel of a madman for the past thirty five years, with not one year of self-rule in the past five thousand, were unable to "see the light" and form their own working democracy in less than eighteen months? What other country in the world would contain a significant number of people who think this failure could have been avoided with better planning?

Fixing a broken nation isn't like fixing a broken car. This is not "Pimp My Ride" with a guy named Achmed and a really sad truck. A nation is an organic thing, capable of healing itself if given the time and space to do so. A surgeon who cuts and sews on a patient and then does it some more when they don't leap out of bed the next day isn't a healer, they're a butcher. So it is with a beuracracy, polity, or chattering elite who search for program after program to "fix" a nation's problems and then blame the first white face they see when it all fails, all the while ignoring and even impeding the progress of the people on the ground, who are after all the only ones with any real hope of solving it at all.

So pardon me if I'm not disappointed when an Iraqi says we're screwing it all up, or when a reporter breathlessly announces "they hate us", or that they'll be happy to see us all go. I don't want them to be happy with us. I don't want them to think they owe it all to us. I don't want them to think they owe any of it to us. Arab cultures are the last great honor-driven societies in the world. Can you imagine the guilt trip an entire nation of them would undergo if they thought they owed it all to a bunch of clumsy grinning Yankees who just walked up and handed it to them? Do you really think they would be grateful? Do you really think they'd keep it running after we left?

I want the rest of the world to know we're serious when we say "clean it up or we'll clean it up for you", and that the consequences of ignoring this warning will not be a non-stop jet ride to modernity. I want the mice to understand that roaring will like as not get them stepped on before they're handed any cheese. But I don't want us as a nation to think we're good at it, or that it's a simple way to solve a problem. It's said that when you hold a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and I would fear for a world containing a nation that thought such carpentry was cheap or quick or easy.

But I would equally fear for a world that contained no nation, no society, no people, willing and able to stand up and take down fascists and fanatics when they see the need. I'm proud to be a citizen of a nation that's willing to sacrifice its own grown children to ensure at least the hope of freedom for those only now being born in a place almost as far away and alien as a crater on Mars. I want desperately for them to succeed, and to believe they succeeded not because but in spite of our help.

I can think of no greater tribute to the sacrifice of our soldiers and citizens than a free, prosperous, safe, argumentative, unreasonable, and ungrateful Iraq. If the price we must pay for the first three is putting up with the last three, so be it. After all, rebuilding something in your own image means always having to look at yourself in the mirror.

Posted by scott at June 15, 2004 03:43 PM

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