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Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Good rant from Salam, a blogger in Baghdad about the war.

What is bringing on this rant is the question that has been bugging for days now: how could "support democracy in Iraq" become to mean "bomb the hell out of Iraq"? why did it end up that democracy won't happen unless we go thru war? Nobody minded an un-democratic Iraq for a very long time, now people have decided to bomb us to democracy? Well, thank you! how thoughtful.
I hope my efforts get support for democracy in Japan doesn't mean that we want someone to bomb us. Someone joked with me yesterday that the US should bomb Japan to democracy since Japan seems to be re-arming and we have a rogue regime. (Once again, this is only a joke...)
The entities that call themselves "the international community" should have assumed their responsibilities a long time ago, should have thought about what the sanctions they have imposed really meant, should have looked at reports about weapons and human rights abuses a long time before having them thrown in their faces as excuses for war five minutes before midnight.
To end this rant, a word about Islamic fundis/wahabisim/qaeda and all that.

Do you know when the sight of women veiled from top to bottom became common in cities in Iraq? Do you know when the question of segregation between boys and girls became red hot? When tribal law replaced THE LAW? When Wahabi became part of our vocabulary?

It only happened after the Gulf War. I think it was Cheney or Albright who said they will bomb Iraq back to the stone age, well you did. Iraqis have never accepted religious extremism in their lives. They still don't. Wahabis in their short dishdasha are still looked upon as sheep who have strayed from the herd. But they are spreading. The combination of poverty/no work/low self esteem and the bitterness of seeing people who rose to riches and power without any real merit but having the right family name or connection shook the whole social fabric. Situations which would have been unacceptable in the past are being tolerated today.

Salam also thinks the human shields should go home.


Severe economic depression seems to be the real cause of a rise in extremism throughout history... Of course, this makes perfect sense, since economic well-being easily engenders apathy -- they're just flipsides of the coin of human motivation...

The trick is... how do you get people into a system which can help them gain economic prosperity, when economic depression brings extremism, which brings them deeper into depression? Clearly a vicious circle...

I can't say for sure, but control by a foreign power, or a powerful minority, implementing a system open to prosperity, may be one of the only solutions since the society itself becomes hostile to the ideas necessary to gain that prosperity...

I don't have enough information to state this as a fact, but I think Salam would argue that the sanctions caused the economic depression and that with political support and no sactions, maybe they could fix themselves. I think his point is that Iraq is traditionally resistant to extremists.


Experience in Iran shows that foreign intervention increases social discord which increases political / religious extremism. This was not helped by the anti-democratic measures taken by foreign powers when (semi) democratic institutions lead to populist governments that are strongly nationalist, socialist, religious or in any form interested in placing the needs of the country in front of that of the foreign power. I'm specifically thinking of the Mossadegh premiership and the subsequent coup by the CIA. This was a watershed in the rise of extremist Islam in Iran, a multi-faith, mult-ethnic and nominally secular country in the brief periods in modern times where it wasn't being occupied or put in turmoil by foreign powers with their own interests.

The other factors that led directly to a rise of extremism in Iran was the aggressive economic modernasation programmes employed which displaced existing social and economic structures. The "White Revolution" although an ambitious programme made many traditional communities and the clerical order that represented them turn violently against the Shah.

The point is that often the economic or social policies required to quickly turn things around are in themselves devisive. In fact, as Stalin and countless other dictators have illustrated rapidly changing the economic structure of a country causes many problems and requires an unevenly firm hand to quash dissent.

Westerm economies and societies have had centuries to develop along the lines you see now with many awful man-made disasters punctuating their assent. It is now imagined that we can deliver the economic, social and political benefits of the Western world to countries far removed from their foundations, in a matter of a few years and at the point of a foreign gun.

I find that a seriously buggy proposition with zero precedence to back it up.

I also find it strange that where we advocate (free) market solutions to economic development and see the dangers of centrally planned economies, we find no contradiction in applying centralised nation building on the political and social fabric of entire nations.

Why do we expect to receive anything but dissent followed by harsh repression in return? And can we not already see in clearly marked spots in the world that this is a cycle that goes on for decades with questionable long-term results?

War is the simplest, bluntest tool which gives the most immediate feedback. However, as a tool for nation building it is as effective as me taking a hacksaw to remove the splinter in my hand.

Very interesting comments. I agree with you for the most part.

But assuming all this is right, how should the developed world go about trying to improve things in the middle east? It would seem that, based on these arguments, such areas would require centuries to change gradually from within, just as the west has...

Ofttimes I think that this would be the best long term solution, but it would be difficult to convince people in the developed world that any efforts they make towards ameliorating the hardships in these areas, or towards modernization, could very possibly bring turmoil and more extremism... It would be difficult to get the west to take a more hands-off approach...

What do you think should or could be done in this regard?

To quote T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame): "Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way, and your time is short."

and from the main page of Salam's Baghdad blog: "the West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do."--Samuel P. Huntington

Obviously it looks like it will be difficult to get the west, under the direction of George Bush, to take a more hands-off approach.

A population that is about 50% children in Iraq is going to be held accountable for failing to unseat the despot ruling them, because the west is tired of waiting. So in the process we're going to show them how it's done with an onslaught of 3000 so-called precision weapons to be dropped in a 48 hour period. That works out, by the way, to 1.04 bombs exploding per minute every minute for two days and nights.

I'm sure this will be a lesson in civic responsibility they will have a hard time forgetting. While they're hunkered down and waiting out the firestorm I'll bet they'll be agonizing over how to handle soft money contributions in the next election.

Trevor you asked "What do you think should or could be done in this regard?"

I think an ethical foreign policy based on fairness to all sides; an acceptance of international bodies for international solutions; the recognition of the sovereignty of nation states; a reduction on the dependence on oil imports in the US; arms controls particularly to non-democratic states and promoting truly free markets (not the one-sided hash that is the current Washington Consensus) etc. would all improve the situation.

However, fundementally we need to look beyond simple solutions to complicated situations. There are few easy answers (look at the Irish peace process). We need to move beyond this black-and-white depiction of the world and promote diversity in approaches. We need to part from our own arrogance in assuming our Western solutions are the only path to progress, peace and prosperity. If the Western model is so good, surely it will promote itself without the use of force? So the question is why hasn't it?

A further example, the current situation in Iraq and the US policy is supposed to push democracy in the region. In Iran, this is exactly the reverse of what is happening. The current climate of fear has given a new lease to conservative Islamists in Iran to push a reactionary and repressive agenda. This has set back the reformist agenda by years. I suspect it will get a lot worse shortly.

Consensus building and painstaking, slow reform backed by international aid and higher ethical standards would be a far more effective tool. However, they don't give the gratification to a hysterical American public cowering in fear of terrorism. Hence, we're locked into the same cycle that has persisted in the Middle East for a century now. Unfortunately, these cycles are about 20 years long and it will be many years before we realise how badly things have gone. And by that time I suspect the next generation of terrorists will have acquired the WMDs we are trying to prevent them from obtaining.

Thanks for your thoughts... :) I think that the things you suggest are definitely good approaches. We would seem to be on a much better path if we could follow these initiatives without giving in to fear of devastating terrorism (which I feel may be inevitable though, since 9/11). A number of questions come to mind other than the obvious ones though:

How is "the recognition of the sovereignty of nation states" to be practically applied? In other words, what is the value of sovereignty of questionable legitimacy (dictatorships, etc) when compared to other important issues? Maybe it is much more important than the Bush administration believes. I'm not entirely sure about this.

How are "arms controls particularly to non-democratic states" to be enforced? This brings us to the issue of the seemingly confusing and loose system at the U.N. It looks to me like the process involved in actually enforcing resolutions depends too much on diplomacy and not enough on clearly defined procedures and responsibilities within the U.N.

I do think that our systems would promote themselves if information about them is readily available, but in some states the lack of access to information is just the problem... Maybe working toward more open exchange of information would be a key to unlocking the democratic aspirations of the people.

I'm in particular (and regretful) agreement with you about Iran. It seemed like we were just getting to the cusp of a wonderfully natural political evolution before the infamous "axis of evil" speech. It very well may be that this war is meant to geostrategically preempt the development of a powerful and more democratic Iran (or Persian bloc) -- divide and conquer...


On the matter of sovereign states I have been somewhat disappointed in the hypocracy applied in determining the legitimacy of nation states. First, the assumption that undemocratic states are not sovereign is wrongheaded in my view and simply leads to unnecessary conflict. Whatever the political system *currently* employed within a nation, surely the right of a nation to organise as it sees fit would be a starting point. I'm no fan of dictators, e.g. I hate the Islamist regime in Iran, however, does that make Iran as a nation less entitled to choose its own destiny, to progress towards democracy in a manner of its own choosing, driven by its own people?

External pressure from the US and others has generally two forms: economic sanctions and war. Neither methods benefit anyone but the antidemocratic parties within a nation, be they monarchist, totalitarian, religious, communist or whatever. If the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client states has shown anything, bankrupt ideologies will bankrupt themselves in due course. Using such blunt tools as sanctions or war simply locks the cycle of conflict.

In the West autocracies were replaced by democracies because of the changing demographics in society and because of the learned benefits of free(er) societies. These lessons are known to people everywhere today. However, when faced with external threats of violence evolutionary progression towards these states from their current situation is made impossible.

How for example, do you turn a country which has suffered wars and intervention for a hundred years; has an unemployment rate of 40-45%; an illiteracy rate of 70% but a growing middle class overstretching the infrastructure for economic / educational progress into a democracy? I tell it can't be done overnight.

Arms control is a huge issue which I don't feel qualified to add much on. It would seem to me that Europe and the US have a history of selling arms to Third World countries with very little barriers put in place by the international community. International laws prohibiting such sales and their enforcement by developed nations would be a start but may already exist and is simply circumvented. However, the political will to curtail such industries is never there because so much of our economies depend upon these transactions. In the USA you can't even stop handarms being sold, so what politician in Washington would seriously take on the arms industry? It is issues like this which require international laws and non-partisan international bodies with real teeth to enforce them.

Information sharing and the progress of information is obviously a good first step. I'm constantly amazed by the people I've communicated with over the past few years thanks to the Internet and equally amazed at the information that is readily available.

However, that being said I've yet to see such increases in knowledge being either widespread in our developed societies nor how they will impact the political fabric of our states. I'm, hopefully wrongly, of the opinion that in our monetized political systems such utopian visions that "the truth will out" are misguided. Our political institutions are as far removed from the masses and the masses so easily manipulated I remain sceptical about the value of information about unlocking the democratic aspiration of people in the West let alone elsewhere.

As a tool for self-expression and communication the Internet has been of real value in Iran. However, ultimately those who would hold up progress hold the guns. Some will soon be sitting next door in Iraq and some are in Iran under the auspices of the Revolutionary Guard. These forces of conflict mean the path for democratization in Iran took another step back.

On your final thoughts: Most educated Middle Eastern people I've spoken with are of the opinion that the West has a policy of intervening in the region through force every 20 years to start the cycle of devestation in the region to avoid these nations from reaching their aspirations. This may be wrong but the historical evidence is certainly there.

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