Home / Let’s Get Some Political Science 101 for the Slate Folks…

Let’s Get Some Political Science 101 for the Slate Folks…


While we’re on the topic of Slate contrarians, here’s Mickey reacting to the Korb/Katulis/Podesta op-ed:

When you write a sentence like:

the progress being made at the local level often undermines the stated goal of creating a unified, stable, democratic Iraq

you have to come up with, you know, an example. Maybe in the next sentence! Podesta et al. argue that Iraqi national reconciliation–and “constructive” intervention by regional powers–will only come when America withdraws. That may be true (though it seems tendentiously optimistic). But we can always withdraw. In the meantime, how does “progress at the local level,” including “declines in the overall level of violence,” actually hurt? Without that argument, the piece looks like positioning. …

Alright, let’s go slow and use small words, so that Mickey can understand. The central government is one among many armed, collective actors in Iraq. In most modern nation-states (and in Iraq prior to 2003) the central government is the most powerful armed actor; indeed, Weber’s defines the state as an entity that holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory. Now, central governments don’t always have a complete monopoly, and they don’t hold that monopoly at all times, but at least the idea that the state should be the predominant armed actor in a given territorial space is pretty critical to how a modern-nation state functions. Indeed, it’s one of things that sets a modern-nation state apart from a feudal situation, in which multiple legitimate armed groups exist in society with a centralized, first among equals leader (the classic feudal monarchy), or a warlord society, in which multiple armed actors exist within a territory without necessarily agreeing on any unifying principle.

The problem with the strategy in Iraq (and it’s not the Surge; the tribal strategy precedes the Surge by about six months) is that we are both arming and legitimating non-state actors; in these conditions, it is very difficult for the central government to assert authority, and thus to do any of the things (organize for collective defense, collect taxes, provide services, etc.) that a modern nation-state does. Also, the tribes we’re enabling are among the most conservative, anti-democratic elements of Iraqi society. This is why so many people tend to think that the tribal strategy, whatever its merits in terms of a reduction of violence (and I think it does have merits on this score) is fundamentally at odds with the idea of a unified, democratic Iraq. And that too may be fine; the democratic Iraq idea gave up the ghost a while ago, anyway. But it’s best not to pretend that the tribal strategy is contributing to the goals that were set out four and a half years ago.

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