The Iraqi Concept of Time

CondiriceCondi Rice and her British counterpart, Jack Straw landed in Baghdad to lay down the law, but of course there is no law in Iraq at the moment, so they settled for a very sound slap on the wrist of interim prime minister Ibrahim al-Jafari.

JackstrawThat’s another problem at the moment. While Iraq disappears beneath their newly-elected feet, not only is there no law, there’s no government either. It’s rather like the current climate between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Except for the fact that we have a country that functions best when Congress is in recess and the Iraqis don’t.

David Ignatius points out in his regular Wednesday column in the Washington Post, that Americans are getting impatient about Iraqis forming a new government.

That’s not really true, David. The administration may have its pants on fire, but most Americans haven’t a clue what their own politicians are up to, much less the flap between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. We want our boys home, but whether or not an interim prime minister becomes agreed upon or not isn’t even on our horizon.

The Middle East is much like the Balkans to Americans . . . unfathomable. Which is perfectly natural and not necessarily a shortcoming in our worldliness. The Middle East is unfathomable to Middle Easterners as well. Iraqi prejudice is an amalgam of thousand year-old slights wrapped in who had power over whom in the past half century.

The Sunni minority that held all political power under Saddam is now faced with an elected Shiite majority and all those old wounds and inequities are coming ‘round to haunt the democratic process. The Kurds just wish the world to recognize that their parts of northern Iraq and eastern Turkey used to be a country and leave them to the re-establishment of Kurdistan.

IbrahimaljafariThe newly-elected are stumbling about in a pitch-black gloom of mutual hatreds and distrust, identifying one another by touch, blaming the darkness and afraid to light a light. Meanwhile, Iraq stumbles toward anarchy. Winning trumps all cards, even as there is less and less to win.

It might be simpler had the British not drawn all these Middle Eastern lines of sovereignty, nearly a century ago, snug in their drawing-rooms between weekend pheasant shoots and evening brandy. Brits were the world-power in those colonial times and they cashed-in nations the way lesser players might throw in the cards on a losing poker hand.

“Harruuumph! All right, old man, have it your way. Put the damned border over there and, for God’s sake, let’s move in for dinner. I understand Lady Eleanor serves up a smashing rack of lamb.”

Now we are the world-power, Pax Americana. No sense Condi looking in Straw’s direction for sympathy, history and the errors made in its inexorable march aren’t worth much at the moment of negotiation. Condi wants these wayward Iraqi factions to get it together and produce a government. Her boss is way out on the limb he backed himself unto and Americans do want out. They want their fighting men and women back home and out of harm’s way.

Complicating things, there is an election seven months away. Isn’t there always?

Zalmay_khalilzad"We need to be patient to get it right," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told Ignatius in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Their concept of time is not the same as ours. While we press them to hurry up, the American people also need to be patient."

Good point, Zalmay. Their concept of time is what keeps the wounds of a thousand years fresh enough to prevent coalition government. But in the mean time, outside the Green Zone where all this dithering and fluttering is going on, Iraqis in Baghdad are getting slaughtered. And elsewhere as well, in the cities where Sunni and Shiite live side by side, each morning brings new and more grisly evidence of men dragged from their homes in the night and executed.

Not shot. Executed.

IraqiresistanceWhile George Bush anticipates the November elections and Jack Straw ponders Britain’s historic errors, while Zalmay preaches patience and Ibrahim insists upon his election, families are leaving Baghdad by the thousands. Running like hell before dad is shot by the guy next door or whatever band of lunatic sixteen-year-olds, brandishing Kalishnikovs and kicking in doors, come rampaging down the street at night.

All governments are tough, slow, inequitable and frustrating.

Democracy is the most ragged of them all, particularly when it’s a new-learned skill and the only available template is dictatorship. But Condi and Jack are right. Iraq can’t wait for Ibrahim al-Jafari to satisfy his ego, won’t survive while Sunni and Shiite jockey for position. The wealthy and the skilled are already gone, the brain-drain well advanced. It’s no longer about a time-line for American withdrawal.

It’s about there being a country left to govern.

Read more of my musings on the war in Iraq at my personal web site.

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