Steven Vincent and Nascent Iraqi Democracy

Murdered journalist Steven Vincent got to know many Iraqi people first-hand. His freelance articles and blog entries offered reasons both for hope and for concern about democracy in Iraq.

According to him, one thing to be concerned about was the misguided multi-cultural relativism displayed by the American and British troops. A blog article describes a meeting Vincent arranged between his Iraqi friend Layla and an Air Force captain in charge of awarding small-change contracts:

I’d wanted to introduce Layla to the Gary Cooper side of America, and I felt I’d succeeded. Instead of the evasive, over-subtle, windy Iraqi, fond of theory and abstraction, here was a to-the-point Yank, rolling up his sleeves with a can-do spirit of fair play and doing good. “I want to have a positive effect on this country’s future,” the Captain averred. “For example, whenever I learn of a contracting firm run by women, I put it at the top of my list for businesses I want to consider for future projects.” I felt proud of my countryman; you couldn’t ask for a more sincere guy.

Layla, however, flashed a tight, cynical smile. “How do you know,” she began, “that the religious parties haven’t put a woman’s name on a company letterhead to win a bid? Maybe you are just funneling money to extremists posing as contractors.” Pause. The Captain looked confused. “Religious parties? Extremists?”

Oh boy. Maa salaama Gary Cooper, as Layla and I gave our man a quick tutorial about the militant Shiites who have transformed once free-wheeling Basra into something resembling Savonarola’s Florence. The Captain seemed taken aback, having, as most Westerners–especially the troops stationed here–little idea of what goes on in the city. “I’ll have to take this into consideration…” scratching his head, “I certainly hope none of these contracts are going to the wrong people.” Not for the first time, I felt I was living in a Graham Greene novel, this about about a U.S. soldier–call it The Naive American–who finds what works so well in Power Point presentations has unpredictable results when applied to realities of Iraq. Or is that the story of our whole attempt to liberate this nation?

Collecting himself, “But should we really get involved in choosing one political group over another?” the Captain countered. “I mean, I’ve always believed that we shouldn’t project American values onto other cultures–that we should let them be. Who is to say we are right and they are wrong?”

And there it was, the familiar Cultural-Values-Are-Relative argument, surprising though it was to hear it from a military man. But that, too, I realized, was part of American Naiveté: the belief, evidently filtering down from ivy-league academia to Main Street, U.S.A., that our values are no better (and usually worse) than those of foreign nations; that we have no right to judge “the Other;” and that imposing our way of life on the world is the sure path to the bleak morality of Empire (cue the Darth Vader theme).

But Layla would have none of it. “No, believe me!” she exclaimed, sitting forward on her stool. “These religious parties are wrong! Look at them, their corruption, their incompetence, their stupidity! Look at the way they treat women! How can you say you cannot judge them? Why shouldn’t your apply your own cultural values?”

It was a moment I wish every muddle-headed college kid and Western-civilization-hating leftist could have witnessed: an Air Force Captain quoting chapter and verse from the new American Gospel of Multiculturalism, only to have a flesh and blood representative of “the Other” declare that he was incorrect, that discriminations and judgment between cultures are possible–necessary–especially when it comes to the absolutely unacceptable way Middle Eastern Arabs treat women. And though Layla would not have pushed the point this far, I couldn’t resist. “You know, Captain,” I said, “sometimes American values are just–better.”

And in a recent New York Times piece, Vincent demonstrated that the British military has shown the same attitude when training Basra police officers:

In May, the city’s police chief told a British newspaper that half of his 7,000-man force was affiliated with religious parties. This may have been an optimistic estimate: one young Iraqi officer told me that “75 percent of the policemen I know are with Moktada al-Sadr – he is a great man.” And unfortunately, the British seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

The fact that the British are in effect strengthening the hand of Shiite organizations is not lost on Basra’s residents.

“No one trusts the police,” one Iraqi journalist told me. “If our new ayatollahs snap their fingers, thousands of police will jump.” Mufeed al-Mushashaee, the leader of a liberal political organization called the Shabanea Rebellion, told me that he felt that “the entire force should be dissolved and replaced with people educated in human rights and democracy.”

Unfortunately, this is precisely what the British aren’t doing. Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination: in my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society. Nor did I see anyone question the alarming number of religious posters on the walls of Basran police stations. When I asked British troops if the security sector reform strategy included measures to encourage cadets to identify with the national government rather than their neighborhood mosque, I received polite shrugs: not our job, mate.

This is a dangerous approach to creating democracy. Some of President Bush’s speeches have suggested that democracy springs forth when people are free. While freedom is a necessary condition for democracy, it is not sufficient. Also necessary is a commitment to certain principles, principles not apparent in many of the religious groups dominating the Iraqi political scene. It seems that President Bush and the coalition troops falsely assume that those principles are universal: although they recognize cultural differences, they fail to see how deeply those differences run.

The Iraqis need to be educated in those principles, but if Vincent’s examples are representative, that education isn’t happening. And it’s not going to happen, as long as the educators adopt an anything-goes cultural relativism.

Recently, I attended a workshop organized by the Research Triangle Institute, an American NGO. Ostensibly an all-day seminar in democratic principles, the program instead stressed simple, almost childlike concepts such as “understand that you are useful,” “be aware of your skills,” “compromise,” and — rather alarming, I thought — “be calm when you lose.” Alexis de Tocqueville this wasn’t.

“Before the elections, the Governing Council was appointed by educated elites who chose capable people,” former Basra governor Hassan Alrashidi griped to me at the meeting. “The elections have brought in people whose main qualifications are their loyalty to the religious parties.” Countering Alrashidi’s point was Ahmed al-Harazi, chief of RTI’s Local Governance Project for southern Iraq: “The West has had democracy for a thousand years, we’ve had it for two. I think we’re doing pretty good.”

That last quotation is an example of the hope Vincent found among the ordinary Iraqis. Now if only the coalition nation-builders would nurture that hope, by boldly distinguishing between good and bad in political theory.

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  • Il Filosofo » In the Red Zone on October 9, 2005 at 12:57 am

    […] Steven Vincent authored In the Red Zone almost a year before he was murdered in Basra, Iraq. When I read about his death, I knew I had to read the book. A freelance journalist (actually a former art critic), he wrote articles from Iraq that were published in the National Review and The New York Times, among other periodicals. Unlike other journalists, he wasn’t whisked between safe zones in armored convoys. Instead, he rode unarmed with Iraqis, staying in their hotels and getting to know them first-hand. Though the book draws conclusions, it’s much more of a personal reflection than a political commentary. But those personal reflections and experiences revealed to me just how complicated and fascinating Iraq is. […]