Monday, October 08, 2007

The risky way of making cultural discoveries

We're now approaching the point where nearly everyone realizes that the actions in Iraq over the past four and a half years -- apart from the military and political toll -- have been an unmitigated cultural disaster. An article in the Washington Post brings the point home once again, pointing out the deluded nature of the most recent official strategy of the AmerIcan occupation.

Here's a sample from the article:

Humam Hamoudi, a prominent Shiite cleric and parliament member, said any future reconciliation would emerge naturally from an efficient, fair government, not through short-term political engineering among Sunnis and Shiites.

"Reconciliation should be a result and not a goal by itself," he said. "You should create the atmosphere for correct relationships, and not wave slogans that 'I want to reconcile with you.' "

One can find two of our classic tools of cultural analysis right there: task- vs relationship-orientated cultures and the status of time. Hamoudi identified "short-term political engineering" as something alien to his culture, seeing it implicitly as central to US culture.

The first step in cultural enlightenment for the invaders was to discover that military domination and the imposition of one's own system of law and order doesn't quite work. That is, law can be imposed, but order doesn't necessarily follow. (US culture would work a lot better -- even inside of the US -- if the core value were "trust and order" rather than "law and order", law being simply the formalization of trust).

The second step in cultural enlightenment is what we are now seeing, absorbing the lessons from the reaction of the local culture against the newer strategy of "short term engineering" that replaced radical destruction. The last two years have remarkably resembled the dance scene in West Side Story, where the social worker played by a smiling, optimistic John Astin tries to get everyone to mix and have fun. "Bright ideas" about democracy and "mixing" are just that, both "bright" and "ideas" against a dark background of concrete conflict.

I expect the next phase of analysis (following continued failure) will be to realize -- as hinted in a Newsweek article yesterday -- that the current celebration of deal-making ("let's make a deal" * is a fundamental AmerIcan reflex that is worlds away from diplomacy despite superficial resemblance ) considered an inspiring model by Bush and Patraeus and heavily vaunted in the media, is just another artefact of AmerIcan that makes no sense in Iraq. American deal-making isn't so much haggling or horse-trading -- traditional in the Middle East -- as fixing the "right price", making the sale and expecting the customer as well as the seller to respect the sales contract.

Here's a sample from the Newsweek article:

The U.S. military discovered too late that Iraq's tangled network of tribal leaders is a major key to security. Yet over the past year, "government from the bottom up" has become one of Ambassador Ryan Crocker's favorite catchphrases. As violence has declined in Sunni enclaves like Ramadi and Fallujah in recent months, commanders have
tried to replicate the apparent success of the region's Anbar Salvation Council elsewhere. Last summer American military commanders spent millions of dollars on "concerned local citizens" programs—essentially paying off tribal sheiks to keep their followers from planting roadside bombs.

Isn't there something fundamentally appalling about the number of things that are "discovered too late" on the part of a nation that has put itself in the position of teaching others how to behave?

Finally, when will the AmerIcans -- including the Democratic presidential candidates -- realize that culturally speaking the visible presence of occupying authorities (and their soldiers) as purveyors of a new social order, or even simply as mediators, is the principle obstacle to any spontaneous and home-grown reconciliation or stabilization? That too is cultural. So long as one is aware of the interfering Other in the midst of all of one's decision-making processes, the element of trust,
without which understanding can never be achieved, will be absent. The sad reality, however, is that so long as the question of who exploits Iraq's oil goes unresolved, the AmerIcans will be there, proposing one culturally inappropriate solution after another and "discovering too late" the cultural truths they hadn't anticipated.

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