IN THE NEWS
Years ago, I attended a conference of academics and policy professionals jointly interested in small wars. At the time, the State and Defense departments were using the term "low intensity conflict" to stuff some untidy conflicts--peacekeeping operations, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, etc.--into the same box. The result was far from perfect, and in many ways, illuminated more about the US government's discomforts with small, unconventional conflicts than anything common to the wars themselves.
In one memorable exchange, one of the policy types skewered one of the academic types with a question that has stayed with me ever since: "OK, I've been listening to you guys for days now. You have a lot of bright things to say, and you've clearly done your homework. But why should I give a rat's ass about any of it? What good will any of these fine papers you've written do me when I hit the office tomorrow?"
It's a great question--perhaps, in many respects, THE question behind this blog. If a theory can't help someone make a better decision, what good is it? And how well can military and civilian professionals function, if they're not aware of the implicit theories that shape their perceptions and actions--particularly if these theories might be wrong?
The "rat's ass" comment led me to trying the theory/practice format that you see in a lot of the posts here. Theory should inform practice, and vice-versa. If one isn't useful to the other, something is gravely wrong.
I'm raising the "rat's ass" question because of an adjective I've heard applied to the Middle East quite frequently, especially in the last three years: medieval. What, exactly, does someone mean by this description? Is it accurate? Is it useful?
I'll speak as someone who's a medieval history buff, as well as someone who follows current events. The short version is, The word might apply, but definitely not in the way most people probably use it. As always, there's a longer version, so please bear with me.
Clearly, what people mean by the term medieval is barbarous. For them, the world of suicide bombers, handless thieves, executed princesses, and wild-eyed jihadists resembles the caricature of the Middle Ages in Europe--a world of thumbscrews, judicial torture, burnt heretics, and crusade. There's a little truth in those notions, but a lot more untruth about the medievals--and about the Middle East today.
I've raised the often-voiced question, Why do they hate us? in several posts recently. I detect that often there's another, not-so-hidden question behind it: What the hell is wrong with these people?
At that point, you might posit some kind of "bad seed" explanation for the woes of the Middle East. Maybe it's a cultural defect, some dark instinct in Islamic or Arab culture that gets unleashed frequently. I'm not sure, if you ascribe to this view, what you do next. "Carthaginian peace" is out of the question, so what then? In other words, it's not just a bad theory because it's undoubtedly wrong, but it's also bad because it's practically useless.
Another explanation might be that Middle Eastern nations are either on a different track of political development than the West, or they're a few steps behind more "developed" nations along the same track we all travel. Social science from around WWII to the present day has preferred this kind of explanation, though there's yet to emerge a specific theory that everyone agrees is worth pursuing.
Before WWII, a great deal of political science focused on formal institutions--constitutions, electoral laws, etc.--to explain the stability of governments. If a government failed, there was some defect in the laws that stopped the rest of the mechanism from working. Government was a clockwork mechanism, whose efficiency and durability depended on the quality of individual cogs as well as the overall design.
The Nazi seizure of power threw political science into a kind of crisis, since the Nazis destroyed, among other things, the Weimar constitution, often cited as a paragon of constitutional wisdom. The clockworks seemed to be irrelevant--or, at the very least, they seemed to be part of a larger, functional entity.
This led to a flurry of explanations for why Weimar failed that all, more or less, depended on some larger societal factors. There were some "bad seed" advocates, searching for some deep, dark stain on the German soul. Sure, they said, Germany was the nation of Goethe and Beethoven, but it was also the nation of Spengler and Wagner. The mainstream of opinion about the Nazi seizure of power shifted to other explanations that seemed less condemnatory of all Germans, living or dead. The disruptions of rapid industrialization, a lack of cross-cutting institutions, insufficient time as a single state or a democracy to develop particular political habits--scholars rounded up these and other possible suspects for interrogation.
By the Sixties, many historians, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists accepted the view that there was some kind of common track of development that all societies took in their development. They evolved or matured in slightly different ways, and often at different speeds, but they all evolved in a common direction. This wasn't a new view--a lot of the French philosophes of the 18th century, for example, had a similar view--and it was common to people on the left, right, and center of the political spectrum. Marxists had their versions, but so too did people who felt that democratic capitalism was the final destination. There were even some radical right versions of this thesis, such as the "modern societies are ungovernable, democracy is doomed" advocates of the 1980s.
Pick your thesis. Whichever one you like, from Huntington to Skocpol, they all felt that there were some forms that you might call medieval, some modern, and others before, between, and after these two.
In this spirit, I'll take a stab myself at identifying the political characteristics of medieval Europe:
- A social order predicated on explicit patron-client ties, ultimately perfected as the feudal contract.
- Nothing that you might call states in the modern sense. Instead, political authority was often limited to symbolic representation of the polity, leadership in war, and the power to tax and exercise other public fiscal instruments.
- The central government, such as it was, was dominated by powerful dynastic families. These family or clan ties often extended throughout society.
- In some cases, a body of electors wielded enough power to choose and remove top leaders. More commonly, these bodies acted more like advisory councils than legislatures.
- The central government negotiated with local leaders for their loyalty and support, often on a broader plane of the patron-client relationships seen, for example, between lord and serf at a local level.
- Religious faith often sanctified these ties.
- However, since religious authorities could withdraw their blessing from political leaders, declaring their authority null and void by command of God, there was an inescapable friction between temporal and spiritual authorities.
Does any of this picture apply to the Middle East today? Maybe.
The other day, I read the indignant comments of bloggers about Iraq's list of 43 newly-minted ambassadors to other countries. The names of these ambassadors have an oddly familiar ring. Since the sons (and one daughter) of the prominent families of Iraq dominate this list, the appointments look like blatant cronyism.
Yes, and...? It's hard to imagine an Iraq without the extended families, clans, great houses, call them what you will, playing a dominant role. Certainly the new/old Iraqi elites haven't hit the level of the Saudi royal family and its allied families (like the bin Ladens). Iraq is still a society in which family ties add a level of trustworthiness to political relationships, so it's not surprising to see this outcome. (On a side note, President Allawi and Foreign Minister Zehari were apparently at odds over the list before it was announced.) Saddam Hussein, who tried at times to 'modernize' Iraq, was himself "the man from Tikrit"--dependent not just on his own family, but allied families from the Tikrit region, to run the Iraqi police state.
None of these political realities make the Iraqis incapable of governing themselves, nor are they unworthy of a shot at a real democracy. However, if the Iraqi polity--the government, the political culture, the social and economic groupings, the whole enchilada--are not at the same stage of evolution as, say, Norway or Portugal, it's unreasonable to expect a monumental transformation of Iraq--just as it took time for England, say, to perfect its own "constitution" (in the Bagehot-esque sense of the word).
In fact, if you believe in some version of the political development thesis, it's to the credit of Middle Easterners that they've come as far, and as fast, as they has in the last century. And, of course, you can say that with no condescension at all--just give that credit where it's due, to reformers and revolutionaries alike.
After this long drive through medieval history, the last several decades of thinking in political history, and current events in Iraq, we arrive at where we started: the proverbial rat's ass. You can agree with my description of the Middle Ages, or not. You can see similarities between the Middle Ages and the Middle East, or not. However, if you agree with some part of this argument, you can see its utility in practice.
For example, what helped the development of European nationalism? One answer is, the armies of Europe. The army of a sovereign recruited soldiers from different regions of the same proto-country and gave them common experiences, skills, and habits--and, of course, common loyalties. Troops raised from Gascony, the Languedoc, Brittany, and Normandy learned to fight alongside one another, in a common cause, as Frenchmen. Similarly, someone interested in the future stability of Iraq might want to encourage the Iraqi authorities to "mix and match" their troop assignments, instead of maintaining units recruited from a particular region or sect.
That's an observation worth a bit more than a rodent's posterior, I think.