March 31, 2005

Cloud Of Unknowing

Rory Stewart's long essay in the London Review of Books is very much worth reading, if only for the following point. Everyone knows, or should know, that foreigners understand very little about how Iraq works—which is frustrating when we consider that much of the debate over whether to set a withdrawal date or not depends on what the Sunni "opinion on the street" really is. But, as Stewart points out, foreigners aren't the only ones who are ignorant:
Things are not much better when organisations rely on middle-class or English-speaking Iraqis for information. It is not only Ahmed Chalabi who proved to have little idea about the situation in Iraq. Saddam’s regime worked hard to fragment and isolate the population. Religious sheikhs in Karbala do not know how to assess the influence of a tribal sheikh; Baghdad intellectuals don’t understand the status of the mirjaiya, the most senior Shia clerics, such as Sistani. Giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to engineers and doctors in Basra to speak on behalf of Marsh Arabs is like hiring a London investment banker to represent the unemployed in Glasgow.
Useful bit of humility.

UPDATE: Also, count me in as thinking Stewart's grim assessment below is probably the most likely outcome for Iraq (which is what I sort of hinted at in this post):
But I am most sympathetic to Parenti’s account of street-level violence, one which implies that the outcome might not be a grand civil war between monolithic blocs of Shia, Sunni or Kurd, but anarchy at a localised level, with conflict between different armed factions, none of which wants visible or formal political power. The government may control the major cities, but rural areas will be marked by continual violence, disrupting people’s lives, enforcing traditional social codes, preventing the delivery of basic services. In other words, an Iraqi democracy could resemble democratic pre-Musharraf Pakistan, or the longest continuous democracy in Latin America: Colombia.
-- Brad Plumer 5:59 PM || ||