Monday, March 26, 2007

Iraq and De-Baathification

A hopeful sign from Iraq ... the Shiite prime minister and Kurdish president say they will introduce a bill to end the ban on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from government jobs.

It was a tremendous mistake for the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, probably its worst, to simply dissolve the Baath Party and declare de-Baathification as a goal of the new regime. It made it appear as if a large segment of Iraqi society, the party that had ruled Iraq and been a principal vehicle for social advancement for 35 years, had no future in a post-Saddam Iraq. So, from their POV, why not take up arms or nonviolently back those who pull the triggers? There were obviously many other factors in a large insurgency coming about, but this was one among others. Let's hope this isn't too late.

The problem, a universal one actually, is that you can't build a society from Year Zero. (Well ... the Khmer Rouge tried ... I don't recommend it.) Any viable Iraqi society will have to be built on what currently exists (there is simply no alternative absent time machines), and therefore it must somehow come to terms with the fact that too much blood is on too many people's hands, both from the Saddam era and from the last couple years of civil war, to insist on perfect moral purity. Sure, a ban on Baath Party members holding authority might be just (and at the very top levels, it'd be necessary). But that doesn't make it wise.

I say this not to make a moral equivalence between the Tikriti clan and the Kurds of Halabjah, but to note that at some point, a society has to temper justice with forgiveness, and sometimes, especially in the case of a regime sufficiently odious to have incriminated a large segment of the populace, the latter is more important. After all, all governments everywhere tend to attract the talented and highly-motivated, a group which all societies need. At some point, the trains DO have to run on time.

A few years ago, I saw a movie called AREN'T WE WONDERFUL, as part of a series of post-war films from West Germany. The 1958 movie followed two men through about 35-40 years of German history, starting just before WW1. It was quite strong-acted and pungently comic, but I didn't care for how the film ended, in a bit of soapboxing about all the ex-Nazis who now had prominent roles, in the government or business or military, in the new Federal Republic. Well ... the German Democratic Republic had as its founding myth that it was the social successor of all "progressive" and anti-Nazi forces in Germany. Did it do better, either in economic terms or freedom terms (there's another excellent German movie about the latter playing right now)?

I am convinced that one reason, among others, that the CPA first imposed a strict de-Baathification is fear of this sort of "Nazis in command" discourse, one that even a segment of the West German populace of 1958 was not immune to. After all "former Saddam party member now mayor of Al-Whatever" would make an excellent news headline in the morality play view of foreign policy (particularly since the MSM is structurally and ideologically opposed to the war and its success). AREN'T WE WONDERFUL, in fact, ends with one of the two men becoming a journalist and exposing the other's party membership during the Third Reich.

Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" is remembered as a condemnation of Eichmann the Obedient Functionary. But it should be remembered as well for its flip side -- that in another environment, an Eichmann COULD be an effective manager, overseeing steel or wheat production as efficiently as he did death production.

There are similar examples from history of an approach that tries to rebuild an unjust society without starting from scratch. Post-apartheid South Africa set up the Truth and Reconciliation Committee precisely to give the country's past a full hearing and provide some sense of justice, but without the mass purges or revenge pogroms that strict justice might require. White South Africans, and no doubt because of apartheid's unfairnesses and inequalities, were the existing country's best and brightest, and they had to be convinced that they had a future there. Post-apartheid South Africa, unless it were to go for revolutionary smashing would have to play the hand it had been (unjustly) dealt by apartheid South Africa. Again, history never starts afresh (see a joke about Maoist China here ... another example of that approach working SO well). As any Burkean could tell you, revolution can be the enemy of reform.

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