The election in Iraq marks another milestone, but as we pass more and more of these milestones, the question inevitably arises: Are they really leading us somewhere, or are we going around in circles?
It matters little who gets elected to the upcoming parliament; nothing can work in Iraq unless a single man is given dictatorial powers until the current crisis is over. Iraq is in the midst of an emergency, and in any natural political system, a dictatorship would almost certainly have been achieved by someone or other in the time since the removal of Saddam Hussein. Iraq today, however, is not a natural political system, but a completely artificial one. This is not meant as a disparagement of what is called, out of courtesy, the Iraqi government, but only a recognition of the fact that it is a fabrication that could not last two days without the continuous support of American and allied arms.
The problem, however, is that this fabrication is one that current US policy has an interest in preserving. It has invested too heavily in it to see it swept away in the blink of an eye the moment we have turned our back, and thus we continue to hope that one day our fabrication will spring into life, the way Pinocchio did from the wooden puppet he had formerly been, and which is exactly what the Iraqi government has become, a wooden puppet, but one whose strings have all snapped, so that there is no one with the power to control it -- not a government in the making, but a government that is merely faking.
Had America set up a genuine puppet government, the way sensible empires do, we wouldn't have had this problem; though, of course, we would have had plenty of others, such as the condemnation of the world and the nightmare of making a prudent choice of puppets, and then trying to keep them from becoming new Saddam Husseins or, more probably, from being assassinated.
Thus the political situation in Iraq is so hopeless that the only way to solve it is to turn to common sense, and to reason our way out of the impasse into which, with the best intentions in the world, we have inadvertently wandered.
Our path is made easier by the fact that a great mind has already devoted its energies to contemplating precisely the problem that Iraq is facing today. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes lived during the period of the English Civil War. He experienced of the anarchy that ensued with the loss of legitimate authority of the King; he realized that once a legitimate authority had been liquidated, for whatever reason, it was impossible to resurrect it, and thus he confronted the same problem in England as the Iraqis are confronting in their land. Saddam Hussein's regime had possessed the most brutal kind of legitimacy, but it was legitimacy nonetheless: people obeyed and did what they were told to do by those in authority. But with the complete removal of both Saddam and his entire governmental apparatus, American policy in Iraq pushed the country into a crisis of legitimacy. If Saddam Hussein did not rule them, who did?
Our answer was that the Iraqi people could rule themselves. That's what we think happens in a democracy, though of course a moment's thought shows that no democracy is so absurd as to really allow the people more power than is absolutely necessary. But the Iraqi people could not rule themselves, and are not ruling themselves. This, however, is no reflection on the Iraqi people, since we have it on the authority of Thomas Hobbes himself that it is impossible for a people to rule themselves.
The reason he gives to justify this assertion is pure common sense. In any collective task, each person will invariably think that he has labored harder or played a more important role than everyone else. He will naturally think he deserves a larger piece of the pie -- or the oil wealth -- than his associates. Of course, he doesn't -- he is simply the victim of an illusion to which all human beings are prone. We all think we deserve far more than we do, and from this elementary observation, Hobbes concluded that no people could ever really govern themselves, since there will be a constant and continual dispute about how to divide up the honors or the pay check or the spoils among those who have cooperated on a common project -- and thus all common projects will inevitably come to grief because of the squabbling and bickering that the task of sharing brings in its wake. Hence, all human associations will be infected with the virus of self will, and this will doom them to centrifugal disintegration.
The only cure for this pathology, as Hobbes saw it, was to apply a bit more common sense. If men cannot cooperate because they quarrel too much, then give someone the power to make people put their quarrels aside and pursue the general welfare. But how can this be done? Who has that kind of power?
Someone who has the power of life-and-death over you has that kind of power. Therefore, if human beings are to stop their endless conflict over trifles, they must appoint someone amongst them who will have the power to execute them if they don't set aside their differences and focus on the task at hand. For Hobbes, the great motivator of human kind was fear of death, and it was this common fear of death that would keep a community under control. If the sovereign had the power to kill, then he had the power to command and to realistically expect obedience to follow.
Dictatorial is the right word for the kind of power that some single man must be given in Iraq if there is to be any chance at achieving political stability. There is no substitute for political stability, nor can anything of permanent value be done in a society that lacks it. That is why states of emergency are states of emergency: nothing else goes on during them, everything productive and useful grinds to a halt for as long as they last. That is why the only remedy for such a situation is the assumption of absolute authority on the part of someone. A state of emergency is not the time for parliamentary debates or the writing of constitutions or for the deliberation of committees; it is not the time for the sharing of power among the quarreling groups that must be compelled to unite in a common project. Nor can it be resolved by passing laws that no one obeys, or training a better security force that no one commands. A state of emergency needs a dictator.
For better or for worse, the office of the Presidency of the United State has this dictatorial option built into it, and it was used by Abraham Lincoln most conspicuously during the crisis of the Civil War. It was the option that Charles DeGaulle insisted on before he allowed himself to be placed at the head of the Fifth Republic -- again, in the midst of a civic emergency that had torn his country apart. Both of these men were great leaders, not in spite of their assumption of temporary dictatorial powers, but because they were willing to do what was absolutely necessary to keep their nation together.
The Roman Republic could never have survived, if it had not early on hit upon the devise whereby the Senate appointed a man of known and well-established trustworthiness to the office it called dictator, but only for a limited period of a month, during which he would have absolute power over the community. If the crisis continued, then he could be appointed for several months in succession, but obviously the whole point of this ingenious political arrangement was to severely limit what power any single dictator could accumulate by the mere fact of holding office over a long stretch of time. As Theodore Mommsen said in his History of Rome, the key to legitimacy is endurance over time: the more people get used to having a man in power over them, the more natural it will begin to seem to continue to have him there. Hence the Romans' cautious rationing out of dictatorial authority on the installment plan.
If such a system worked for Rome, might it not work for Iraq too? Simply have the newly elected parliament amend the constitution to read that, Under states of emergency as declared by the Iraqi parliament, dictatorial powers will be given to a single man to be appointed by the parliament for a term of office not to exceed so many months, or perhaps even, given the nature of the crisis, so many years. Or, alternatively, the parliament itself could terminate the appointment when it deemed the crisis at an end, though only by a substantial majority.
It is important to stress that the man appointed will in fact be a dictator. Though there is no need to use this much-abused word, there must still be no disguising the absolute power of the office, mainly because any disguise assumed by power is inherently dangerous: it is always better to be absolutely clear when you have given someone power, because then you know who you must keep your eyes on, and whose passion for power you must closely monitor so that it does not get out of hand.
At the same time, it must also be made clear that a Roman-style dictator is not an Oriental despot. The Iraqi "dictator" must be styled on the Roman model: it must be filled by someone who has proven his trustworthiness by having already handled high affairs of states without letting his access to power turn his head. Also, he must recognize that his emergency dictatorial powers are a public trust that the community has invested in him, a sacred office that he is obliged to fulfill, and not the prerequisites of a Sultan intent on robbing and torturing his subjects, a la Saddam Hussein. His only claim on power is the one that the common sense of the Iraqi people have given to him, and only then by an explicit and precisely defined convention -- a social contract, to use Hobbes' phrase.
This leaves two questions. Does Iraq have a man who could do this job? And if it does, will the people of Iraq, through their newly elected parliament, have the common sense to give him the dictatorial authority that he will need in order to solve the emergency crisis that is threatening to sink their future?
The only man in Iraqi who has proven himself qualified to assume such power is the former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. He is tough, he is pragmatic, and, if only the Iraqi people would see, he is a genuine hero -- a man who is willing to risk death in order to help his people become one people: one of those rare souls who proves that Hobbes was wrong in thinking that all of us can be controlled by the fear of death. Allawi obviously could not be, otherwise he would not be running for office in an Iraq full of men who went to see him dead, and who have already murdered a shocking number of his associates.
So this brings us with the second question. Will the people of Iraq, with the blessings of the US and the world, take the only concrete step that will allow them to achieve political stability, or will they be dragged from one milestone to another on a journey that has no foreseeable destiny except more of what they've already had far too much of -- a government of chaos driven by corruption?
As for the Bush administration, it cannot continue to follow a policy based on profound illusions about human nature. We have refused to play the role of Leviathan in Iraq, and our attitude toward the honorific government of Iraq has come close to what in parenting circles is called unconditional love -- love 'em no matter what they do. Tell them they are just doing great. Build up their self-esteem. When the government of Iraq announced that they would forgive insurgents for killing American soldiers, but not innocent Iraqis, did we scold them? Not at all. We continued to praise their efforts, and to look forward to new milestones.
If such a policy of unconditional love worked, either for nations or for parents, what a wonderful world it would be. Today, however, armed militias led by fanatics hold far more power than the Iraq parliament will ever exercise, and these militias have grown up because of the power vacuum that our good intentions left behind them. We have refused to rule Iraq ourselves, but, like the dog in the manger, we have refused to let anyone else rule it either. But Iraq, sooner or later, will be ruled by someone. The power is already lying in the streets, as Lenin put it, and it is rapidly being picked up by precisely those people who we least want to see in power in the Middle East. Our only chance to stop the spread of what might be called black market power is to put real power into the hands of someone who knows how to use it, and who is realistic enough to use it wisely.
We should not be calling for a time table for the withdrawal of our troops, but we should be demanding one for the cessation of our wishful thinking about Iraq. If the Iraqi people vote their trust in thugs like al-Sadr over a man like Allawi, then we must abandon our policy of unconditional love toward them, and go our separate ways. It is their choice who leads them.
In fact, if you think about, it has always been the choice of the Iraqis who leads them, and what invincible arrogance to suppose otherwise. And that is the lesson it is about time our policy makers in Washington learn. If a people drives out good men and chases after bad ones, who do you think will end up leading them? If they assassinate men who are decent, and rally behind cold-blooded murderers, whose fault is that, and what power on earth can hope to correct a fault so profound?
The policy of staying the course often proves fatal when you are pursuing a will-o-the-wisp. In chasing after the illusion, you are prone to lose your footing. Staying alive often means changing your mind, and sometimes it means changing it very fast.
Now is such a time.