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[casi] Incompetence and/or criminal indifference: US in Iraq

Incompetence and/ or criminal indifference: US in Iraq


The Structural Disaster in Iraq

by Michael Doliner
June 23, 2003

Much maligned when even noticed, the dull bureaucrat is crucial to the
functioning of the modern state. Without his colorless but steady
performance of duty opportunists would bleed the state's vast power for
personal gain, and services would not be delivered. After its recent
destruction, Iraqi's bureaucracy will not be easy to reconstitute. Without a
bureaucracy Iraq will not be able to function as a modern state, and this
lack will prevent Iraq's reconstruction and the development of its oil
wealth. Any remotely competent politician should have anticipated this
problem. That the Bush administration did not can only be attributed to
incompetence or worse, an indifference to Iraq's fate after they destroyed

Max Weber, in his Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, translated by Girth and
Mills, outlines the characteristics of bureaucracy. Modern officialdom
operates in fixed jurisdictional areas, with regular activities discharged
as fixed duties, with a fixed chain of authority, and with methodical
provision for fulfillment of these duties. Weber goes on the write,
"permanent and public office authority, with fixed jurisdiction, is not the
historical rule but rather the exception." There can be large political
structures without it where the positions are temporary and their
distribution personal. In those conditions the person holds the power, the
office does not bestow it. Inevitably, in such conditions, those in power
seek to gain from their position, for they hold it only as long as their
patron holds his. Furthermore, the patron chooses them for their loyalty,
not for their administrative skills. It is upon this loyalty and not these
skills that their survival depends. In the modern state even the ruler is
the first official of the state, carrying out his official duties for the
benefit of the state, not for his own benefit. Although a president, for
example, holds great power, when his term is over he must relinquish it.
With the loss of the office the power vanishes. "Public monies and equipment
are divorced from the private property of the official. This condition is
everywhere the product of a long development." The office holder chooses to
sacrifice the possibility of personal gain for the security of his position.

Now it might be questioned whether or not Iraq actually had a modern
bureaucracy before the war, given that Saddam Hussein obviously appointed
friends and family members to high offices. This happens everywhere, even in
the United States. In all states both personal and institutional loyalties
exist. What is important is that the officials, once installed, operate in a
way characteristic of officials rather than vassals. This was true of Iraq,
perhaps only because Saddam's rule was so long. Anyway, it seems at least
possible that the old ministries could have been transformed into
semi-modern ones. Had they been retained and a new government installed the
retained officials, given the alternative of unemployment, might have been
persuaded to attach their allegiance to the new government. That allegiance
would not have been personal, but institutional. The new government could
have replaced incompetent officials later. To be sure, the transformation
might not have worked, but it had a good chance, and that was the only
chance. A competent occupying force would have protected the ministries and
attempted such a transformation, especially since it was a key part of the
reconstruction of Japan under American occupation. In both cases there was
no other choice.

For once such a bureaucratic structure is destroyed, it is extremely
difficult to reconstruct. Weber emphasized the long time it takes for a
modern bureaucratic system to develop. He examined the transformation of
feudal structures into modern ones in which administrative skills gradually
became more important than personal ties to the ruler. The situation in
Iraq, where a functioning state is suddenly thrown into chaos, was not
something Weber contemplated. However, we can see some characteristics that
would make it extremely difficult to reconstitute a bureaucracy under these
conditions. Weber points out that the bureaucrat trades the benefits he
might gain from exploiting his position for security." The relatively great
security of the official's income, as well as the rewards of social esteem,
make the office a sought-after position." The official enters into a career
in which he moves up a hierarchical ladder. The stability of the whole
structure is essential to persuade him to sacrifice the possibility of
immediate gain for these long-time benefits.

Obviously, no one can provide such guarantees in today's Iraq where what
will happen tomorrow is anyone's guess. Given that conditions were already
appalling before the war, and many people were starving, it would be
extremely difficult to inspire someone to place long term considerations
over possible immediate profit. Without a stable state no guarantee of long
term benefits is possible. Here, the idea of a career in office is

Rules and duties bind bureaucracies to methodical activities that can be
carried out in specific locations. Because most of the ministries of Iraq
were destroyed in the war and its aftermath, it will not only be difficult
to find officials ready to adopt the modern bureaucratic way of life, but
also to provide the tools necessary for that life to be lived. Records,
computers, and other tools have been lost. Because everyone is now living
from day to day, any new equipment supplied will likely also be looted.
Stories of just this happening are coming out of Iraq's oil fields now. It
would not be surprising if the officials themselves took the opportunity to
loot their own ministries. Trying to rebuild these ministries in the present
desperate conditions would be like trying to fill a sieve with water. New
equipment will be looted, too, Without stability the bureaucratic life is
impossible, and corruption inevitable. On the other hand without a reliable
cadre of bureaucrats a stable regime is impossible. Instability breeds
corruption, and corruption instability. How can this vicious circle be

Without the presence of the United States Iraq, like Afghanistan, would fall
back into a feudal structure in which warlords controlled semi-independent
sections of the country. Subordination would be personal, rather than
through a hierarchy of offices. Such a structure is much less stable, for it
is wholly dependent upon personalities. Oil companies would be unlikely to
invest in such an unstable situation, and Iraqi oil would be unobtainable as
long as this situation continued.

For the United States to avoid this outcome it will have to produce
stability from the outside. First it will have to alleviate the near
starvation of much of the population. To do this the United States will have
to pay the salaries of the police and other bureaucrats and supply food for
everyone else. It will have to do this not as an emergency measure, but in a
way that persuades the population that a stable situation has developed.
This will not be easy, for distribution of this food will require the
bureaucracy that now no longer exists. Even if the US paid the police and
other bureaucrats, it would be difficult to keep them from corruptly
funneling off the food for sale on the black market. For only the long
presence of stability of official structures can produce a belief in
stability. Just bringing cash and food into Iraq will not be enough. The
police, uncertain of tomorrow, will take advantage of their position for
their own benefit. For as Weber points out, everywhere the development of
the dutiful bureaucrat takes a long time.

Could the United States bring in a bureaucracy of Americans to run Iraq?
That would be monumentally expensive, and in the end, futile. Only a system
that is essentially permanent, thus producing stability, will work. These
Americans would have to plan to stay for the long term in the face of open
Iraqi resistance. Not only would the US have to pay this army of office
workers, it would also have to protect them as well. Modern weaponry and
Iraqi nationalism will make any attempt to reconstitute the old colonial
foreign service enormously expensive, and probably impossible.

These Americans would have to be paid very well, but even so, they would
find it difficult to do their jobs. This bureaucracy would be only a thin
modern mantle over the seething feudal core of Iraqi society itself. It
would be difficult to prevent strongmen, once the food was distributed, from
expropriating it. The British Empire had compliant local leaders whose own
power had remained under the new rulers. The United States would need to
supply virtually every official needed down to the most minor. The Americans
in Iraq would be American officials relying on American stability for their
long-term benefits. Iraqis, of course, could not do this. Also, Iraq would
certainly resist such a colonial government, and the whole corps of
officials would become a huge security burden.

Such is just one of the structural difficulties of our present situation in
Iraq. Whereas the US is ready to abandon Afghanistan to its feudal future,
it will not want to abandon Iraq and its oil. I do not see a solution to
this. That the Bush administration has floundered about after the war shows
that they too have no solution. This can only bespeak incompetence or
criminal indifference.

Without a stable modern state, Iraq will inevitably return to a feudal
structure with warlords ruling fiefdoms through vassals loyal to them
personally. Such structures are highly unstable. Any reconstruction under
such conditions would require huge additional payoffs to the warlords and
their underlings all down the line. Redevelopment of the oil fields would
require the same large payoffs to warlords who may lose power tomorrow. Oil
companies will not do it.


Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He
lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.

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