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[casi] Iraq: Oiling the wheels of a tribal society

Before rushing in to establish a new government system for an essentially
tribal Iraq, planners should abandon failed notions of "nationalism" and
"self-determination" and look to ideas that have worked, and which involve
making full use of the country's oil wealth.

Nov 20, 2003


Oiling the wheels of a tribal society

By Reuven Brenner

Austrian Karl Renner (1870-1950), who was foreign minister after World War I
and also the first president of the new Austrian Republic (1945-1950),
suggested a solution to rising nationalism within the Habsburg Empire. Some
of his recommendations - though neglected at the time - are worth a closer
examination. They lead toward an alternative way of looking at the situation
both in Iraq and the Middle East, and toward solutions not considered at

Renner argued that the economic sphere should cross national boundaries, and
that there should be a central, supra-national government - anticipating
features of the European Community (although two World Wars and many smaller
conflicts later). He also suggested redrawing the empire's maps around
countries homogeneous in language. According to him, this could have solved
the nationalist problems in nine-tenths of the Austrian Empire: native
language stood as proxy for ethnicity in the empire.

In places where people were too intermingled to be separated, special
provisions and institutions were to guarantee equal rights and an impartial
administration. Renner's precise idea was that each individual, irrespective
of his domicile, should be a member of one ethnic organization which would
have agencies all over the empire - much like the Catholic Church, once it
became independent of the state. Renner was not successful in carrying out
his ideas. United States president Woodrow Wilson's policies and principles
were just one of the many obstacles he faced. Since the Wilson principles
are still among the obstacles that keep solutions in the Middle East out of
sight, let's take a closer look at them, and see if they can be overcome and
allow one to perceive an Iraqi solution from a new angle.

A possible solution is to first offer each Iraqi citizen an immediate stake,
by committing to distribute a fraction of oil revenues, an equal sum to
every Iraqi man, woman and child, with the remaining funds being managed by
a properly structured trust fund. This idea roughly follows the very
successful Alaskan model. Once this is done, powers can be delegated to
lower, tribal levels. This sequencing gives a greater chance for rebuilding
Iraq and the Middle East on sounder foundations. By looking at a sequence of
historical events, we'll see why.

As Mark Twain wrote, history may not repeat itself, but it sure rhymes. Let
us see what rhymes, and what does not.

Ethnic groups within arbitrary borders
I do not know how the conflicting territorial claims of Romanians, Greeks,
Serbs, Albanians, Turks and others would have been settled if they had been
left on their own at the end of the 19th and beginning of this century. But,
as with Iraq during the 20th century - born in 1920 with arbitrary borders
drawn in the sand - they were not left alone.

Russia declared war on Turkey in 1877, on behalf of the Bulgars (shaping
Bulgaria's borders), and later Germany helped Turkish ambitions (shaping
Turkish borders). In 1908, Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, which
Serbia wanted and thought it could get with Russian support. But the
Russians could not help because they lost the war with Japan in 1904-5. In
1912, another Balkan crisis arose as a consequence of the successful war
which the Christian states of that peninsula (Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria
and Greece) fought against the Turks.

This crisis, too, was solved without a general European war. Even when the
victors quarreled over the spoils and a second Balkan war broke out (1913)
that pitted Serbia, Greece, Romania and Turkey against Bulgaria, prompt
capitulation on the part of Bulgaria prevented widening of the conflict.

Despite such evidence of failure of putting nationalist principles for
guiding political actions, the principle of "self-determination" and the
legitimacy of "nation-states" triumphed after World War I, probably the
culmination of nationalism going awry (race was yet to be invented as
another misguided political principle). These principles still prevent
perceiving possible solutions in the Middle East, in Iraq in particular.

Principles and demography
The demographic map of the world shows that ambitions based on nationalist
principles are in conflict, since ethnic groups either do not live in
compact territories or their territories became part of bigger entities
because some great powers in the past drew arbitrary lines in the sand.

In what was once Yugoslavia, about 9 million Serbs, 4.7 million Croats and
10 million others: Albanians, Hungarians, Slovenes, Macedonians,
Montenegrins and Bosnian Muslims intermingle. In what has been for the last
74 years Czechoslovakia, 10.5 million live in the Czech Republic, 5 million
in Slovakia, of which 600,000 are Hungarians. (This demographic distribution
is already the result of the expulsion of 2.4 million Sudeten Germans in
1945). In the midst of Azerbaijan (whose majority is Muslim), there is the
Nagorno-Karabakh enclave of about 150,000 Armenians (who are Christians). In
the South of Armenia, at the Iranian border, there is Nakhichevan, which
belongs to Azerbaijan, though there is no territorial continuity. The former
Soviet Union's five Central Asian republics - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - all have mixed, intermingled

Such demographic patterns are neither unusual, nor typical of only
communist, Ottoman, British or Russian empires. Switzerland's population
consists of a 65 percent German-speaking majority, Eighteen percent French,
10 percent Italian and 1 percent Rhaeto-Romansch speaking population, who
share a pleasant existence, and shared it even when France and Germany were
at each other's throats. In 1910, what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire with
its 52 million people, did not share a pleasant existence. It consisted of
23.9 percent Germans, 20 percent Magyars, 12 percent Czechs, 10 percent
Poles, 4 percent Slovaks, 5 percent Croats, 3.8 percent Serbs, 7.9 percent
Ruthenians, 6.4 percent Romanians, 2.6 percent Slovenes, 2 percent Italians
and 1.2 percent Mohammedan Serbo-Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In what defines the borders of Iraq today, there are the Shi'ites in the
south, the minority of Sunni Arabs concentrated in the Sunni triangle, and
the Kurds (who happen to be Sunnis, too, but disliking their Arab
counterparts), in the north.

What can adherence to the principle of "self-determination" imply when
looking at such patterns?

President Wilson's administration did not raise these questions when
committing itself to the idea of "self-determination" after World War I. Nor
were they addressed years later when the idea found its way into the United
Nation's 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law, with a
predictable unsatisfactory distinction between the right of
self-determination and the right of secession.

Whatever Wilson's personal views, his administration's interest in
"self-determination" was pragmatic and two-fold (though based on disregard
of the overlapping ethnic map of Europe). The administration hoped that the
new nation-states emerging from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
would counterbalance the strong German nation-state. At the same time, the
administration hoped that nationalism as an idea of linking people,
establishing loyalty and achieving international recognition of political
legitimacy, would prove to be a strong competitor to the communist doctrine.
After all, the latter also sought to re-link people, demand their loyalty,
and obtain political legitimacy. But unlike nationalism, it was based on the
notion that there is an insurmountable animosity between classes: allegiance
to the social class should dominate those of ethnicity, religion, language
and culture

Wilson's administration miscalculated. The policy prevented neither German
nor communist aggression. Adherence to the abstract principle of
"self-determination" also showed that the creation of small nations did not
solve the problem of other smaller ones, which now found themselves within
new borders. They were just called "minorities", so as to deflect their
claim to nationhood and self-determination. Language, too, can be an
effective weapon.

The internationally recognized principle may even have made things worse by
raising expectations of any group which had any grievances, and which could
now appeal for assistance to the Great Powers in the name of
"self-determination". Such expectations could only start conflicts or
prevent them from being settled quickly.

Jumping many decades, this brings us to Iraq. During the Cold War, the West
needed the Middle Eastern countries in their fight against communism.
However, the large oil resources, and the eventual cartel prices, had as a
consequence allowing these countries not only to buy arms, but also, once a
ruthless politician got to power, to use the money and the arms internally,
with minorities bearing the burden. The consequences were similar to those
in Europe almost a century ago. The new countries fought one another
constantly, as did minorities within these countries.

What are the solutions?
Whether or not Renner's principles could come eventually to life in the
Middle East and elsewhere, and provide a permanent solution for ethnic
rivalries, I do not know. They seem plausible, since they mean
decentralizing and de-politicizing culture and religion. Having institutions
along the lines he advocated gives smaller roles to government, and more to
voluntary organizations, dispersing powers. Renner's solution reminds one of
the separation between church and state. However, since among Islamic
countries only Turkey achieved that, and there are no Mustafa Kemal Ataturks
on the Islamic horizon, Renner's suggestions seem at present a very long,
very distant shot.

But have there been any political-institutional arrangements that have been
not just offered, but tried, that succeeded in diminishing ethnic, religious
and linguistic conflicts?

One system that has been pursued with obvious success is the melting pot of
the federal US government - an example of a state creating in the course of
time a new, large tribe with the most open financial markets in the world.
When its financial markets were closed to some groups - Afro-Americans
prominent among them - symptoms of aggressive "tribalism" surfaced within
the US too.

However, at the same time, new organizations came into being, such as the
civil rights movement that started to restore trust between the many
"tribes" living under the US's federal umbrella. These new institutions were
also successful in transforming governments into a source of capital for
these marginalized groups, when financial markets remained closed, offering
them hope and a stake in the system. The debate today in the US asks whether
or not capital markets have now been opened sufficiently to members of these
groups, and thus whether government should no longer single them out for
preferential treatment, whether at universities or for obtaining government
grants. But forget about the US model for the Middle East: it's not in the
cards. The ethnic tribes in the Middle East are not about to melt (how long
have the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland been fighting?), and they do
not have the maze of institutions needed to support open financial markets.

Countries such as Canada, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland have pursued other
solutions. Though they have each faced conflicts of their own, their
problems pale in comparison to those other multi-ethnic states such as
Russia, the Balkans, the Middle East and several African and Asian states.
It is no accident that the Western states have on the whole found the more
stable solution. They had open capital markets, more checks on government
power, a wide variety of voluntary organizations dispersing power, and
bringing about greater accountability. They also allow experimenting with a
wide variety of new organizations. Whereas some other countries around the
world have such institutions, most those in the Middle East, Iraq in
particular, do not.

What can be done?
First execute an idea that has been in circulation for a while, modeled
after the Alaska public trust fund, which would offer each and every Iraqi a
fraction of oil revenues. The other portion would be invested and could not
be spent without well-defined voting procedures. This arrangement would
ensure that people had an immediate stake in the new Iraqi system, and
incentives to both prevent sabotage and cooperate. The oil revenues could be
managed by an international trust fund.

With this arrangement in place, Iraq could be roughly remodeled along the -
for the moment - unique Swiss lines, where the French, the German and the
Italian-speaking have each carved out territorial entities. There is one
Italian Canton (Ticino), many German ones, a few French, the last French
one - Jura - having been carved out from the German canton of Bern in 1974,
through a series of votes because of the French minority's dissatisfaction
with the German majority's misallocation of funds. Once the revenues from
oil having been solved first, and allocated proportionately among the
tribes, a major potential obstacle for delegating powers to lower levels has
been eliminated, since there is less to redistribute on the central
government level. And, as noted, the groups living now within Iraq's
borders, do live in rather geographically distinct territories.

With revenues from oil being widely dispersed, the chances of much funds
going for rebuilding centralized military and police powers are diminished.
"Power" has been dispersed and brought closer to the people. Whether or not
such dispersion of financial clout will lead to developing - bottom up - a
"canton"-like federal arrangement as in Switzerland, or lead to a breakup of
Iraq along ethnic lines - time would tell. Both solutions seem more stable
than what the world now faces.

If the tribes do not see eventual advantages of staying together, so be it.
The separation of Slovakia from the Czech Republic did not end in any great
disaster. If the ethnic groups now populating Iraq can't get along, and will
end up fighting, the resulting instability can be more easily contained,
since none of the groups would have as much financial (oil-generated) clout
as Saddam Hussein had. The best scenario would obviously be if these
tribes - now having stakes in stability because of shared oil revenues
administered by impartial outsiders (some Swiss, maybe?) - slowly find ways
of making deals, and trade and live together. But even if one is prepared
for the worst-case scenario - of the three major tribes not finding a modus
vivendi and breaking up within the anyway artificial borders of what now
defines Iraq - the harm is minimized.

Ideas have long lives. Embodied in institutions, they outlive their
usefulness - and bring about instability. Ideas, which were initially useful
in fighting misgovernment by foreigners and which were a response to growing
mistrust among the increased population within each European "tribe", were
transformed into deeds and institutions. These institutions sustain myths,
create habits, which are then exported to other countries. Habits of thought
slowly harden into character - with the origins of thoughts and events that
set this sequence in motion, long forgotten.

Oil money sustains both dictatorships and much outdated institutions and
character traits. This is why the crucial first step in achieving stability
in the Middle East is to disperse the funds among people living within the
now recognized borders, rather than let it flow through the hands of
unaccountable and corrupt rulers and governments. Unless the people within
the present Iraq borders are given such tangible stake in the future,
"democracy" and "constitutions" will become nothing but empty promises and
worthless pieces of paper, with the vast majority of people mired in poverty
and ignorance.

After all, keep in mind that for decades Latin American countries had
beautifully written constitutions and people voted. Yet Latin America stayed
poor and unstable.

Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill's Faculty of Management. The
article draws on his last book, The Force of Finance (2002).

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