Monday, March 28, 2011

Paging Nelson Mandela... As Played by Morgan Freeman

Although on rare occasion assuring us that he doesn't see the solution to the world's problems as lying in the hands of "magic men", Thomas Friedman sure does like his magic men.
The final thing Iraq teaches us is that while external arbiters may be necessary, they are not sufficient. We’re leaving Iraq at the end of the year. Only Iraqis can sustain their democracy after we depart. The same will be true for all the other Arab peoples hoping to make this transition to self-rule. They need to grow their own arbiters — their own Arab Nelson Mandelas. That is, Shiite, Sunni and tribal leaders who stand up and say to each other what Mandela’s character said about South African whites in the movie “Invictus”: “We have to surprise them with restraint and generosity.”
So we don't need this Mandala - we need this Mandela? No, I don't want to overstate Mandela's ties to leaders like Castro and Qaddafi, nor to underestimate his important contribution to post-apartheid South Africa. But I do want to emphasize that he is a man, flawed like any other man, and that if you confuse the real man with a film depiction and his real words with those penned by a screenwriter you are likely to end up revealing yourself as having a superficial, celebrity-driven understanding of some of the key issues Friedman repeatedly pretends to be analyzing - issues on which, in some circles and despite what often seems like a concerted effort to establish the opposite, he's regarded as an expert.

Let's take a look at the lessons Friedman claims we learned in Iraq:
First, we learned that when you removed the authoritarian lid the tensions between Iraqi Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis erupted as each faction tested the other’s power in a low-grade civil war. But we also learned that alongside that war many Iraqis expressed an equally powerful yearning to live together as citizens.
Right. Because prior to Iraq the world had never seen anything like that before in a multi-ethnic society under authoritarian rule. Remove the "authoritarian lid" from a nation like Czechoslovakia and the idea that the nation might split on an ethnic basis is unthinkable. Remove the "authoritarian lid" from a nation like Yugoslavia and it's all peace, love and understanding. Remove the "authoritarian lid" from a nation like colonial India, and it's unthinkable that it would be ethnically partitioned. (And I'm only scratching the surface with these examples.) This was completely new.
For all of the murderous efforts by Al Qaeda to trigger a full-scale civil war in Iraq, it never happened.
But for the massive occupying force and the efforts it made to separate ethnic groups from each other, and to protect the Kurdish population and effectively turn it into a state within a state, there would be no ambiguity for Friedman to spin into his denial of history, or his attempt to suggest that the only reason for a "full scale" civil war would be meddling by al-Qaeda.
What was crucial in keeping the low-grade civil war in Iraq from exploding, what was crucial in their writing of their own Constitution for how to live together, and what was crucial in helping Iraqis manage multiple fair elections was that they had a credible neutral arbiter throughout this transition: the U.S.
Neutral in what sense? The sense of a Model T Ford - "We're neutral about the color of car you choose, be it black, black or black." Contrary to Friedman's suggestion, U.S. forces will not be quitting Iraq by the end of the year, and it's a safe bet that a sufficient force will remain in place for the indefinite future to attempt to preempt a return to civil war, any attempts at succession, or any efforts to violently overthrow the government. Even coming almost eight years after Bush's similar proclamation, Friedman's suggestion of "Mission Accomplished" remains premature.

Friedman suggests that a neutral arbiter is necessary to ensure a transition from authoritarianism to a more democratic regime, suggesting that the U.S. served that role in Iraq and that the Egyptian military is serving that role in Egypt. He rhetorically asks, "Who will play that role in Libya? In Syria? In Yemen?" Friedman doesn't want that role to be filled by the U.S., at least outside of Iraq, so he suggests, that the nations of the Middle East "need to grow their own arbiters — their own Arab Nelson Mandelas." (As played by Morgan Freeman.) This raises an interesting question, what would have happened had Mandela been imprisoned in a nation that had no history of democracy (flawed, though it was), and no democratic institutions?1 Can Friedman come up with a magic man who has come out of a quarter-century of imprisonment as a "terrorist" and "enemy of the state", and peacefully assumed power not to expand a society's existing democracy but to totally reinvent a kingdom or dictatorship into a progressive democracy? Because that would take some real magic.
1. Or, resorting to another oft-referenced archetype, if Gandhi had not been British-educated, and had not come to power in a British colony in which the institutions of government were not destroyed by the colonial power on its way out the door?

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