Why the US is losing in Iraq

Just heard a Marine interviewed on NPR about how they had planned to bring “democracy” to Iraq and thus needed to get rid of the tribal structures that have been there for hundreds of years. But they soon discovered the tribes are what runs Iraq, and that they really had no clue what they were doing.

There is just so much wrong with the basic assumptions the Marines made. They assumed existing social structures could be easily replaced, apparently didn’t even bother to research what structures were already there and how they could be used, and made the quite possibly erroneous assumption the existing tribal structures were not democratic. Then wondered why they failed.

So, they treated the local culture and structures as meaningless and insignificant, and only belatedly discovered that, gosh who would have thunk it, that Iraqis might actually possess brains and competence.

This reminds me of what I blogged yesterday, that when the Spanish took over what is now Malibu, they banned the Indians from doing their annual burnings, then spent the following decades trying to put out the much bigger fires that resulted because of their arrogant cluelessness.

Much of the attitude of the Marines here arises from the mistaken imperialist belief that only the culture of the invaders has anything worthwhile to offer.


  1. I’m reminded once again of how revolutionary it was wen Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne went to a village of untouchables in Sri Lanka in 1958 and asked them how they wanted to be helped. The result became for many years (until the rise of Reagan & Thatcher) one of the primary models for rural development.

    Likewise, when I worked with Catholic Fr. Niphot Thienvihan in Thailand in 1995, he sent novice priests and nuns to villages “not to convert them but to be converted by them.”

    Any theory that claims to know what’s good for another group is suspect–whether it be imperialism, religion, or socialism. Only a bottom-up approach is likely to yield peaceful and sustainable results.

  2. “Any theory that claims to know what’s good for another group…”

    Does “diversity” qualify as such a theory?

  3. How do you mean? “Diversity” is a word used in many ways, positive and negative, sometimes fuzzy, few of which are theories. Sometimes it means peaceful, parallel coexistence. Sometimes it means forced cultural acceptance of the habits of others (e.g. teaching Ebonics in schools or forcing unwilling students to learn multiple languages). Sometimes it means preventing people from killing or enslaving other people because they are different.

    While I agree that preserving the basic human rights of all people must occasionally come from outside (though when we’ve engaged in such actions, our motives have rarely been so pure), in general we should not impose diversity on another group. “Group” as I use it here refers to a cohesive commnity: at the national level, the group is our nation; at the religious level, it is our religion, etc. We have established, for example, that within our nation, segregation is unacceptable. So if a locale within our nation chooses to segregate, the government would be justified in taking measures to correct that.

    It’s hard to imagine an instance in which we would be justified in forcibly imposing diversity on another country, religion, or culture outside our own unless grave human rights abuses, such as genocide or slavery, were involved. Should we push China, for example, to integrate various ethnic groups within its borders? Or India to abolish caste? We can promote, but it’s not our business to pressure or force.

    Neither can we force, for example, the various Iraqi groups to live together peacefully. We (and/or others) can try to facilitate such an outcome, but it’s got to be their choice.

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