July 26, 2007

The Truest Separation

Michael Yon has another dispatch from his embed mission in Iraq, reporting on the surge from the front lines of Baqubah. He details the planning that goes into even a spot response to terrorists, and the consequences of error. Yon also talks about the difficulty of maintaining the balance of power after driving out al-Qaeda of neighborhoods, as Shi'ite militias such as the JAM appear poised to fill the vacuum in the immediate aftermath:

As AQI is run off or bashed down, one of the larger concerns is that the Shia JAM militias will fill the power vacuum. Even as LTC Johnson and others were arranging food drop-offs in late June, the politics of whether to drop supplies to Sunni or Shia first became acute and gave rise to arguments. Soldiers don’t want to be seen as killing al Qaeda only to pump up JAM, which exists to “protect” Shia, usually by attacking Sunnis before they can attack first. Some months ago, a soldier told me that JAM reminds him of the KKK. I said “That’s strange; JAM reminds me of the KKK too, but I have no idea why.”

Yon also touches on an underlying reason why reconstruction has gone so slowly and why reforms seem stalled in Iraq. The populace has plenty of residual pessimism, and can't seem to understand why America can't deliver a turnkey middle-class republic:

I have wondered now for two years why is it that American military leaders somehow seem to naturally know what it takes to run a city, while many of the local leaders seem clueless. Over time, a possible answer occurred, and that nudge might be due to how the person who runs each American base is referred to as the “Mayor.” A commander’s first job is to take care of his or her forces. Our military is, in a sense its own little country, with city-states spread out all around the world. Each base is like a little city-state. The military commander must understand how the water, electricity, sewerage, food distribution, police, courts, prisons, hospitals, fire, schools, airports, ports, trash control, vector control, communications, fuel, fiscal budgeting, fire, for his “city” all work. They have “embassies” all over the world and must deal diplomatically with local officials in Korea, Germany, Japan and many dozens of other nations. The U.S. military even has its own space program, which few countries have. ....

We live far better on base here in Baqubah than many people who are living downtown (though there are some very nice homes), and it’s not all about money. Not at all and not in the least. When Americans move into Iraqi buildings, the buildings start improving from the first day. And then, the buildings near the buildings start to improve. It’s not about the money, but the mindset. The Greatest Generation called it “the can-do mentality.” It’s a wealth measured not only in dollars, but also in knowledge. The burning curiosity that launched the Hubble, flows from that mentality, and so does the revenue stream of taxpayer dollars that funded it. Iraq is very rich in resources, but philosophically it is impoverished. The truest separation between cultures is in the collective dreams of their people.

When I listen to people in these civil administration meetings inventorying the obstacles, giving detailed and passionate speeches about why the things that need to happen cannot, often next comes the tired lament, “You can do these things because America is rich.” This seems like a chicken-egg argument, but it’s not. They will stare at you like a bird. Blinking. Blinking. As if waiting for an answer to a question that seems to forever loop back on itself. “But you are rich! You put a man on the moon!”

Let's not be too hard on the Iraqis, though. Only a celebrated few were ever allowed the power to run anything in Iraq before 2003, and most of those either fled, perished, or have been barred from power. The people who now need to grasp the reins and govern responsibly have never had much practice at it, and the only examples in their personal experience all involve kowtowing to a brutal dictator -- not exactly the model we'd prefer them to follow. We've had a lot more practice about building communities in a peaceful and democratic manner.

It's another intriguing post, but be warned, Yon includes a lot of photography; the bandwidth requirements may mean slow loading for most readers. It's another reminder of why readers should kick in a few dollars to keep Yon's bills from bringing an end to his self-employment as a front-line journalist.


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Comments (17)

Posted by NahnCee | July 26, 2007 10:10 AM

From what I can see, it's not just the Iraqi's but Arabs as a whole who lack initiative. None of the failed states in the Middle East have ever demonstrated any "can-do" about ANYthing. Ever.

It stands out in Iraq because of the comparison with Americans who do go in and immediately start making things happen.

It's nice to blame Saddam for Iraqi's lethargy because he killed so many people in his 35 years of rule. But if ever there was a country that is "rich" and should be able to make things happen, wouldn't it be Saudi Arabia? Well, I guess the Saud's *are* making things happen by funding and supporting the spread of Wahhabi terrorism ... but I'm not at all sure that would fall under the heading of "can do" or nation-building.

It seems racist to note that all Arabs are failures, or lazy, or greedy -- but would it be any better to pronounce the culprit as being Islam for their bird-like waiting for a regurgitation process to be fed? Or maybe Arab failure is something that *has* been bred into their genetic DNA through centuries of in-breeding and the purity of cousins marrying cousins.

In any case, it ain't just the Iraqi's, I'm afraid.

Posted by lexhamfox | July 26, 2007 10:19 AM

I suspect those with the 'can-do' attitude have removed themselves from Iraq entirely. Most of the middle and leadership class of Iraq have left Iraq. MILLIONS of people, not a few hundred thousand. The numbers are staggering especially when one takes into account those displaced in within Iraq (nearly two million). This exodus is still underway with about 50,000 leaving every month.

Iraq was not always the heap of misery and hopelessness that it is today. There used to be a fairly accomplished class of Iraqi and it was not limited to Saddam's clique.

Posted by Mike M. | July 26, 2007 10:30 AM

This post is dead spot-on correct. It's truly amazing how much in life really is all about one's attitude and general philosophy. It's the biggest factor in determining whether one is a winner or loser in life.

Unfortunately, and I believe this because I've been told the same thing by many different people who have been over there, the big problem is that while the Arabs are culturally quite intelligent and curious, they are also incredibly lazy. They don't like to do anything that they can get someone else to do for them.

Posted by starfleet_dude | July 26, 2007 10:52 AM

Yon is just blaming the victim here, as Iraqis never had a problem building a modern nation before now.

Posted by John Steele | July 26, 2007 10:53 AM

Yon's observation perfectly exemplifies why I though from the very beginning that the Iraq reconstruction should be left to the military, not State or some civilian agency. Would there be waste? Of course there would, the military is not designed to be cost-efficient., but it is damned effective. So instead we got the State Department and AID running things and we got waste, corruption and less progress.

Posted by Charles D Quarles | July 26, 2007 11:47 AM

starfleet_dude, you are a fool.

Dictatorships demoralize their subjects. It is inherent in the nature of a dictatorship to do so. Put that on top of the ideology or philosophy that logically flows from Islam, well, then you get poverty. Poverty, by the way, is a state of mind. Broke is a state of being. It is not "blaming the victim" to state the truth of the situation.

This is also another reason for us to stay the 7 to 10 years it will take to successfully birth a new Iraqi State. It took 7 to 10 years to put both Japan and Germany on the path to enlightenment, and we still have troops stationed in both nations 62 years after those nations surrendered.

Oh yeah, the stationing of troops is not the same thing as an occupation. We have won the Iraq war. We need adults to win the peace. Unfortunately, roughly 45% of the electorate behave childishly and roughly half of the congress critters are doing the same.

We won the Vietnam war too. It was the copperhead Democrats that refused to resupply the South Vietnamese government after our withdrawal that resulted in the fall of South Vietnam. These same copperhead (and Know-Nothing) Democrats intend to repeat that mistake. Never again, I say.

Posted by crossdotcurve | July 26, 2007 11:50 AM

Gates has confirmed to Senator Clinton in a letter that withdrawl planning is underway:


Um...is the Secretary of Defense giving aid and comfort to Al Qaeda?

The writing is on the wall.

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

Posted by LarryD | July 26, 2007 11:50 AM

"That’s strange; JAM reminds me of the KKK too, but I have no idea why."

I can see the parallels.

Theologically, Islam is a millstone: (emphasis mine)

"It was the work of the very Islamic philosophers that Ramadan cites that prompted Europe Christian thinkers to make a break with their Muslim counterparts. Historically, the views of the Ash'arite school were rooted in the theological dogma of "volunteerism", which holds that rather than created objects having inherent existence, Allah constantly recreates each atom anew at every moment according to his arbitrary will. This, of course, undermines the basis for what Westerners understand as natural laws.

"From volunteerism sprung another irrational idea amongst Muslim thinkers - occasionalism - that further prevented the development of rationalism within the Islamic tradition. Occasionalism is the belief that in the natural world, what is perceived as cause and effect between objects is mere appearance, not reality. Instead, only Allah truly acts with real effect; all seemingly natural observances of causation are merely manifestations of Allah's habits, for Allah simultaneously creates both the cause and the effect according to his arbitrary will. ..."

And, of course, there is the demoralizing effect of living in a kleptocracy for over a generation.

Maybe we need to embed some Iraqi politicians with our military, hopefully the "can-do" attitude will rub off, and well as showing them how to administer stuff.

Posted by Mike Haran | July 26, 2007 12:22 PM

Seems to me that this is not a civil war but a war by proxy involving Suadi Arabia and Iran.The uneducated Arab peasant as usual is prey to the demogouges.The desert seems to breed personalities which teeter beween great excitability and down right hoplessness.Regarding the later I believe the Arabic word is Alakeefic -I dont care about anything.

Posted by viking01 | July 26, 2007 12:51 PM

One need merely visit that part of the world to realize that much of the Middle East Third World is like Liberalism here. A high percentage of the population sitting around waiting for something to come along to improve their plight, joining an occasional skirmish for a short term gain, then soiling their own nest if it doesn't go their way. Oil has provided the welfare check equivalent in that part of the world. Otherwise the importance of the region might rival Botswana.

Initiative is clearly lacking in the region just as in much of Africa. Colonialism provided economic structure and a concept of law yet as soon as those Western influences receded things went right back to primitive tribal conflict whether Zimbabwe and Rwanda or Iran and Syria.

I agree that Islam has held the region back while inspiring violence against whatever meets the definition of "infidel" at a given time. Not to mention the rolling stone nomadic culture which for centuries has defined opportunity not in terms of where they are today but the next stop down the highway. In a nuclear weapons age we cannot simply ignore their portable violence lest we become that next stop down the highway just as surely we were on 9/11/01.

Posted by docjim505 | July 26, 2007 1:36 PM

I've read similar observations (complaints?) by Americans regarding Iraqis in the past. As LarryD points out, much of this seems to stem from a religious belief that man is nothing more than a helpless pawn of Allah's; everything that happens, good or bad, happens in accordance with the will of Allah, and pitiful man can do nothing about it.

I have no doubt, however, that the problem is also due in large part to the enervating experience of living under a brutal dictatorship for decades. Look at the Russians: they are NOT a stupid people, but they seem destined (resigned?) to be the world's largest third-world country. Centuries of autocratic rule, whether by the Tsars or the commissars, seems to have killed the spirit of personal initiative and enterprise among many Russians. Look also at the two Koreas. One wonders what Germany would be like had the "Thousand Year Reich" lasted more than twelve years. And what about the permanent underclass we've been building in America with our Great Society, where literally generations of people are perfectly content to wait for the next welfare check, and whose only ambition in life is to figure out ways to get bigger ones?

How do you teach people to think and do for themselves? (hint: don't ask a liberal; the idea of working for a living offends them, and the idea that somebody might have more than somebody else because of hard work REALLY offends them) How do you teach people that life isn't a zero-sum game, that a bigger slice of the pie can be had through individual achievement and effort? (again, not a subject for polite conversation when liberals are around) How do you teach people that there's a bit more to life than nursing old grievances or wallowing in apathy? How do you teach people "can do"?

Posted by Thomas Jackson | July 26, 2007 1:53 PM

I served in Iraq and it amazes me that people don't understand that under a soviet style people's paradise with palm trees that Westerners wonder why people don't seem to have the same can do attitude as Westerners. Dah, because such ideas and methods got you strung up from the 14th of July bridge in Baghdad under Saddam. They was nosuch thing as a free market unless you sold green peppers from a market stall.

All enterprise was controlled and if you stepped out of line your food and fuel coupons were cut or eliminated and you straved. If you last long enough not to have a midnight visit to your family.

All decisions came from Saddam
and as in all police states those who acted independently of the master cylinder were perceived to be problems.

So the wise hunkered down, the able, talented and rash died.

Combine this with the unique Moslem "Insalah" attitude of not taking responsibilities for decisions or even making decisions you have managed to recreated the mindset you have in so many federal agencies where all decisions are made by the largest possible committee to evade individual responsibility and hopefully to avoid making any decision at all.

The military should be responsible for governing these areas. State, AID, and their related and equally nasty agencies have never developed anything of note nor are moved by the reakitieis on the ground so much as by the wiay the wind is blowing in DC. The waste and fraud that these agencies create is legendary, especially due to the cluelessness and corrutpion of the upper ranks. The American people would be shocked if they realized how hopelessly ineffectuve and corrupt these foreign relations agencies are.

Posted by Eric | July 26, 2007 3:48 PM

If all this you are saying is true, how is it that Turkey has a functioning democracy, and has been that way for a long time? Eastern Europe is moving along economically after years of totalitarian rule, as well. Those people identify with their countries, and their ancestors identfied with those countries, over long periods of history and many types of governments.

Iraq wasn't even a country until the 1930s, and most of the Kurdish north doesn't want anything to do with Baghdad. In that kind of environment, if there is an Iraqi citizen whose ancestors didn't identify with modern Iraq, and only held together in fear of a dictator for years, how much "can do" attitude do we expect the citizen to have on behalf of the country? Is it realistic to think it should magically appear once we show up? I really don't think it will EVER appear, no matter how long the military stays.

Posted by jkl | July 26, 2007 4:53 PM

What Yon observes he could also see in the poverty stricken areas of the USA. The Democrats pander to this attitude to get elected-you know the story: "You are poor because the white man is rich! We will fix that and send you his money!"The Republicans try to say that if you work hard (that can do spirit) you can do anything you put your mind to. Needless to say, after trillions of dollars spent on the "war on poverty" with little to show for it, the results speak for themselves.

Posted by richard mcenroe | July 26, 2007 8:34 PM

Eric -- I'd like to be there if you ever equate a Turk to an Arab to his or her face. Let me know in advance so I can charge up the camcorder.

Posted by amr | July 26, 2007 9:02 PM

Last year a friend of mine who had contracted in Iraq told me this story. Power plants needed inlet air filters. They had been trying to extend their life by cleaning them for years. The result was degraded electrical production. A central facility had filters but they were afraid to send them to the outlying plants. They might need them and did not want to be responsible for not having any if their region needed them. The punishment for not providing power to Saddam’s favorites could be fatal. In this environment making decisions becomes something to avoid. All of the people now in charge have grown up with the reprisal image firmly implanted in their minds. And now they know they or their family can be killed for doing something that helps make the Americans look successful. And that hand of death could come from Shi’a insurgents, Sunni insurgents or al Qaeda terrorists. I wonder how leaders in small town America would act if they had to contend with similar circumstances. Heck, the Democratic candidates are attending the Daily Kos sponsored debate but not the FOX proposed one with just some political threats being made. I certainly do not envy any leader in Iraq, local or otherwise, when they face the insurgents, the terrorists and the strong possibility that we will withdraw and leave them facing genocide.

Posted by Sabba Hillel | July 27, 2007 7:21 AM

LarryD you quoted "From volunteerism sprung another irrational idea amongst Muslim thinkers - occasionalism - that further prevented the development of rationalism within the Islamic tradition. Occasionalism is the belief that in the natural world, what is perceived as cause and effect between objects is mere appearance, not reality. Instead, only Allah truly acts with real effect; all seemingly natural observances of causation are merely manifestations of Allah's habits, for Allah simultaneously creates both the cause and the effect according to his arbitrary will. ..."

However, the same idea exists in Judaism (G-d recreates the world moment to moment )BUT the rules of nature are those that were created at the original creation. The problem is that the Muslims included the old pagan idea of a deity as an arbitrary dictator changing the rules at whim for no reason. Consider a city that would announce every day whether the traffic light that means stop should be green or red and changes at random.

While the universe would stop existing if G-d removed His "attention" from it, that does not mean that it works in an arbitrary fashion.

It is a problem of people who view the universe in a childish rather than an adult fashion. Children think that food magically appears in the refrigerator, toys come from Santa, and money is there whenever they need it.

That is the attitude that needs to be worked against.