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January 27, 2005


I just met a group of Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy who are looking for research projects on political participation (for their poli.-sci. seminar). Most of them will look at big data sets like the National Election Study and try to figure out relationships and trends. That's fine, but I encouraged some of them to consider interviewing service people who had done "nation-building" work in Iraq. During the discussion, someone mentioned an officer (probably in the Army rather than the Navy or Marines) who had become the de facto mayor of a Bagdhad neighborhood. I'm curious about what skills and instincts for political work people in his position feel they possess. They may have gained good skills and instincts from growing up in the US or from their formal military training. But I'd also like to know what they feel they're missing, and what they are learning from their service in Iraq. Do they think that they can use the political and civic skills they acquire "over there" after they get back home?

The Midshipmen I met today are not ideally placed to conduct this research, although a few seemed game to try. I may also try to persuade some Maryland undergraduates to interview people at the National Guard's 352nd Civil Affairs Command, located near our campus. This is a specialist unit that’s been assigned to Iraq. I believe at least one officer has also been an elected official in Prince George's County, MD. Whatever we think of the invasion and occupation, it should create opportunities to learn how to build communities and democracies.

Posted by peterlevine at January 27, 2005 04:02 PM


I really hope the U.S. military will not use the civic skills gained in Iraq back here at home. Especially those involved in being an unpopular, heavily armed minority governing an occupied majority against their will. Dangerous skills to gain in a republic.

Orwell's "Shooting An Elephant" is still a great little piece on the civic skills gained in colonial administration. I'm sure there are others somewhere in the British tradition. Perhaps Niall Ferguson is busy looking them up for the edification of Washington think tanks.

Not that the election in Iraq has no "civic" component in the sense of representation -- it looks like the opening move by the Shi'ite majority in its attempt to replace Sunni domination. The ways in which we will attempt to maintain American control or influence in the new government are another story, unfortunately one that I don't think we civilians will get much clear or honest information about.

Anyway, as is clear from the above I think it's naive to take our own rhetoric about "nation building" at face value. The fact that no one else in the world does indicates something. Doesn't mean it won't result in something positive eventually, though. India is more democratic than China today and the British motivations were certainly far from selfless. The natives are more restive and better armed these days though, we better watch out...

Posted by: Marcus Stanley at January 30, 2005 07:06 PM

P.S. Not trying to score easy cynicism points (well, OK, maybe a little...) but to suggest along with Orwell that the power differentials involved with colonial occupation (or proxy rule) corrupt civic participation at its core and cannot be ignored or waved away.

Posted by: marcus stanley at January 30, 2005 07:20 PM

... So then one of the most interesting questions is: How do modern Americans, mostly pretty young, react to the power differential they find in Iraq? Some of them have reacted by torturing and sexually humiliating prisoners of war. I am open to the possibility that many others are fairly self-critical and thoughtful. In any case, I'd like to know.

Posted by: Peter Levine at January 30, 2005 08:45 PM

One of the points of Orwell's essay (hate to keep relying on that, must be other good stuff on this topic) is that it's *not* a matter of being a good or bad person subjectively, the power differential creates its own logic. So Orwell is strongly anti-imperialist but his role turns him imperialist anyway. The occupier's power changes the way the population under his command reacts to him, changes their expectations of him and what he must do to control them (since his authority is not genuinely consensual). It therefore also changes how he reacts to them and how he must treat them. It's a good little piece -- google "Orwell" and "elephant" and it will pop right up.

I wouldn't blame individual young soldiers for Abu Ghraib, it was pretty clearly a higher level command decision. The institutional logic of trying to govern a hostile people creates the pressure for torture regardless of initial intentions. It is structural. U.S. great power interests in the middle east are another structural factor that complicates any simple belief that U.S. troops are "bringing democracy".

None of this means it not worth studying. In fact it makes it more interesting, since studying it would force you to ask interesting questions about the differences between top-down consultation and democracy, or the differences between elections and democracy. And it doesn't mean our intervention won't lead to genuinely greater democratization there either...though I wonder if it will be in spite of us as much as because of us.

Anyway, this obviously opens a whole can of worms so I'll stop commenting now. Good dropping in as always.

Posted by: Marcus Stanley at January 30, 2005 11:42 PM

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