Iraq's Progress

Can’t the Iraqis All Just Get Along?

Well … no. So here are seven ways to reduce ethnic and religious tension before they start killing each other.

Iraq’s great hatreds, manipulated and in some cases suppressed by Saddam Hussein, are flowering again. Religious Shiites are now lording it over the Sunnis who have long dominated them: Some are trying to turn Iraq into a Shiite theocracy. Independence-craving Kurds are expelling Arabs in the north. And Iraqis of all stripes are settling scores with the Baathists officials who used to trample them.

Hatred is deep. It’s ornery. It resists rhetoric, education, antibiotics. No one who’s not smoking something really expects Iraq to cure its resentments and ease into California-like tolerance. But even if Iraqis aren’t going to love each other, you can discourage them from killing each other. Iraq will almost certainly experiment with the various traditional methods for minimizing tensions: Federalism will defuse conflict by granting self-government to ethnically homogenous regions. Proportional representation could guarantee every identity group a voice in national political affairs.

There are also several newer ideas that might help discourage opposing groups from slaughtering each other. Here are seven of them.

1. Stop Milosevics before they start. Violent separatist demagogues are going to pop up in Iraq: Shiite radicals who want to abolish rights for non-Shiites, Kurdish extremists seeking to “cleanse” Iraqi Kurdistan of Arabs. Some of these demagogues will be popular. (Some may even win early elections.) But the United States must squash them. The occupiers must “immediately remove from public office or power anyone who is advocating violence,” says University of Colorado professor Roland Paris, author of the forthcoming At War’s End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict. Arresting—and even exiling—these would-be Milosevics may incense their followers, but it will prevent violent separatists from gaining a toehold in the government. Government legitimacy made it easy for monsters like Milosevic in Serbia and Tudjman in Croatia to implement their murderous ideology. Toppling Iraqi extremists may not diminish their ambition to persecute rival ethnicities, but it will deprive them of the means to carry out their threats and the bully pulpit they need to popularize their loathsome ideas.

2. Restrict the media. Freedom of the press is essential to a democratic Iraq, but it has a dark side. As the past decade has shown, in divided nations the press tends to break into ethnic camps: a Bosnian press, a Serbian press, a Croatian press. These ethnic media outlets often become vehicles for extremists. They act as loudspeakers for separatist politicians, spread rabble-rousing rumors, and even—as in the case of Rwandan radio stations—help goad people to murder.

How to counter this prospect? One way is to fund non-ethnic media outlets, which can persuade citizens there is a less provocative way to learn the news. George Soros and the BBC have funded such alternative media in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Another possibility is media regulation, an idea that will inevitably horrify Americans but may help Iraq. In order to receive a TV or radio license in some of the Balkan states, for example, a broadcaster must pledge not to promote violence. In addition, a media commission monitors broadcasts and newspapers to ensure they are not violating the pledge. Such regulation in Iraq would block violent extremists from turning the media into a platform for their viciousness. (The Washington Post reports today that the United States may censor the TV station in Mosul. The commanding general, who saw the dangers of inflammatory television when he served in Bosnia, says the censorship is necessary to rein in Iraq leaders who have been using the airwaves to promote themselves and encourage violence.)

3. More lawyers, more doctors, more unions. In the immediate aftermath of the war, mosques have emerged as the leading community organizations in Baghdad as Iraqis regroup in safe, familiar sub-communities. In the north, Iraqi Kurds have firmly aligned themselves with Kurdish nationalist leaders. If this trend continues, Iraqi civil society could become dominated by identity politics (i.e., Islamic political parties will translate the mosques’ influence into government power). One small way to undermine the dominance of ethnicity and religion is for the United States to promote groups organized along different lines, particularly economic associations such as medical and legal societies, unions, and chambers of commerce. A medical society, for example, would connect Iraqis of all different backgrounds and rally them around non-ethnic issues such as the price of pharmaceuticals—building a foundation for non-ethnic politics.

4. Sports and sitcoms. In recent years, nation-builders have come to appreciate the importance of pop culture in restoring morale and minimizing societal divisions. Pop culture can forge national identity. Slate reader Michael Tharp, for example, proposes more emphasis on sports, particularly on Iraq’s national soccer team. The more Iraqis throw themselves together behind a cause—even one as trivial as soccer—the less they’ll fight among themselves. Another reader suggests the unifying possibilities of TV shows—particularly satirical ones. (What’s Arabic for “water-cooler conversation”?) This is not to say the United States should be parachuting sitcom producers to Baghdad or sending promising young Iraqis to comedy camp, but we should fund Iraqi cultural programming generously—and even encourage it to be irreverent.

5. Don’t throw out the Baaths with the bathwater. Reconciliation not only requires that Iraqis tolerate fellow countrymen of other religions and ethnicities, but also that Iraqis tolerate the Baathists who remain among them. Saddam Hussein enlisted millions—most of them willing—to help maintain his brutal rule. Almost all survived, and many have the talent and knowledge Iraq requires in order to recover quickly. It will be tempting for Iraq’s new rulers to toss all the Baathists on the street and turn a blind eye to revenge killings, but they shouldn’t. Of course, the United States and its Iraqi allies will need to root out the most villainous Baathists from important ministries—particularly those involved with the secret police, military, justice, and education—but they should be judicious in their treatment of the Baathists as a group. Punishing all the Baathists could cripple the government and turn the rousted officials into criminal “spoilers.” More important, an ethos of vengefulness may undermine the notion that Iraq must become a peaceful, tolerant, forward-looking society. That said, Iraq does need to purge the worst offenders, so ….

6. Don’t lose the files. Recent history has emphasized the importance of preserving the old regime’s records, particularly secret police dossiers. In East Germany, opening the Stasi files revealed the brutal truth about the Communist government, shredding any last bit of Communist credibility and confirming the wisdom of reunification. The Serbs, by contrast, were careful to remove files from Kosovo and Bosnia, says Daniel Serwer, who directs the Balkans Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace. As a result, Kosovars and Bosnians have never had a full reckoning of Serb crimes. (Some of the Baghdad looting, particularly the arson, may have been instigated by Baathists trying wipe out incriminating papers.)

The United States recognizes the importance of capturing Saddam’s files. It has seized 4.2 million secret police records, mostly from an Iraqi group that had collected them from the houses of former Saddam officials. (The Iraqi group, which was planning to use the docs to prosecute Baath leaders, surrendered the files reluctantly.) Eventually, Iraqis will be able to use the records to finger the really wicked guys, a process that will be much more precise, fair, and useful than simply purging all Baathists now.

7. Once the files are analyzed, establish a South African-style truth commission. In 1995, South Africa created its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the misdeeds that occurred during apartheid, assisted victims, and granted amnesty to those who confessed their crimes. The commission, which is wrapping up its work now, was by no means perfect: Too many crimes remain unsolved, too few of the apartheid regime’s thugs cooperated. Still, the process enabled South Africans to grapple with their miserable past without reverting to violence. (East Timor and Sierra Leone now have similar commissions.) A commission could help Iraqis catalog the crimes of the Saddam regime and identify the worst offenders. At the same time, it could dampen zeal for violent revenge.


Read the introduction to Iraq’s Progress and the new ideas for bringing democracy, law and order, civil society, and economic recovery  to Iraqand using virtual world games to reconstruct it.