Thursday, December 20, 2007

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up in Iraq

Sully points to a hopeful sign of progress in Iraq- ordinary Sunnis and Shia joining in neighborhood patrols to improve security in Iraq. This is indeed a hopeful sign- it is an important example of "bottom-up" changes to the situation in Iraq, which I have argued are the only way the situation will ultimately improve in Iraq.

Money quote:

There are now an estimated 72,000 members in some 300 groups set up in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces, and the numbers are growing.

While Sully finds this to be good sign, he says that "it cannot substitute for national decisions."

To a certain extent he is right, but he seems to miss that such national decisions cannot happen without the demand for those national decisions from the general population. Peace cannot be forced upon the people simply by political leaders coming to agreements; as I said in my earlier post, if that were the case, Israel and Palestine would have been at peace for the last 10 or 15 years.

Explaining this in a different way: politicians are elected (in democracies) or propped up (in dictatorships and oligarchies) with the support of particular interest groups. If they do not have the support of those interest groups, they will be unable to accomplish much or anything at all, and will eventually find themselves out of power entirely. While the politicians can influence the interest groups and even control the leaders of the interest groups, they have no ability to directly control the thoughts and actions of the interest groups themselves (they can, however, indirectly do this, but only to the extent they have the support of other interest groups like the military, police, and paramilitary capable of using sufficient physical force to control the actions of civilian interest groups).

If the interest groups who support the politicians decide they want a push for national reconciliation, then the politicians will make an earnest effort towards national reconciliation (to do otherwise would mean an end to their power)- but this effort will be partly unnecessary, since the people committing the violence will have already decided to reconcile. Effective (as opposed to ineffective) political reconciliation is thus more of a trailing indicator than it is a cause of inter-group reconciliation.

Peace in Iraq will be a long process, and the indispensable Omar's metaphor of "eating an elephant" is entirely appropriate. Importantly, Omar suggests that a loss of support for radicals like al-Sadr and the Association of Muslim Scholars amongst their own groups has defanged them such that they can now be dealt with head-on. In other words, the interest groups that had propped up al-Sadr and the AMS have turned against them (and are now apparently involved in conducting neighborhood patrols with members of other groups), along the government to go after them with relative impunity as well.

Iraq still has a long, long way to go, and to a certain extent I still think a rapid withdrawal is necessary (for other reasons). But there's no denying that things have improved in recent months; I think they would have improved more if the "surge" was more meaningful, but there's also no denying that Gen. Petraeus understands the principles of "bottom-up reconciliation" more than anyone else previously in his position or similarly important positions. He deserves a ton of credit for changing our strategy in Iraq.