Friday, February 23, 2007

It's Not the Culture, Stupid

The Foreign Policy Magazine blog (a good blog to keep tabs on, by the way) noted a theme in their recent coverage invoking Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations idea. Part of it, an essay by David Frum, is subscriber only (and I've never found Frum to be much worth reading anyway), but this column about Iraq by W. Patrick Lang is interesting. The conflict in Iraq is likely to drag out in some form or another for a very long time, but in a general sense the post-mortem is already well underway. No doubt we will see a great deal of debate over the narrative to take away from Iraq and what it means for our future.

Lang's take is that we underestimated the cultural differences between Americans and Iraqis. He and Frum (as excerpted in the blog post) believe that the neocons were fundamentally wrong in thinking that most people are basically like us. Lang points to the failure of democracy in Iraq, where voters cast their ballots based on tribe or sect rather than political policies. He notes that Nuri al-Maliki is not interested in serving the nation's best interests, but in promoting the interests of Shiite Arabs.

Lang's criticisms of the naiveté of neocon policymakers is on target, but I think his underlying analysis is off. Moreover, I think the idea that there are deep and permanent (or semi-permanent) cultural rifts between Western culture and the rest of the world is a dangerous one.

Maybe Tom Friedman does, as Lang charges, take the flatness of the world too far, but I think Friedman is more right than he is wrong. I look at my experience at Motorola where on a given day I would be working (on site or remotely) with people from China, India, Australia, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore, Taiwan, Israel, Russia, and Spain. Not many Arabs there, granted, but we had a tremendous diversity of cultures and no conflicts that I was ever aware of. People interacted with one another with virtually no regard for national, cultural, religious, or ethnic backgrounds.

The difference between that situation and Iraq is not, I think that the cultures are any less different, but that these were people in stable political and economic situations. It's not the culture that we failed to understand in Iraq, but the basic situation on the ground. Lang is right to assert that cultural identity now lies at the bottom of the conflict in Iraq, but the point is not that there is something characteristic about the Shiite, Kurd or Sunni cultures that is the problem, but that people are choosing tribal and sectarian identities over national identities (or Friedman's internationalist identity). When that happens the results appear to be the same whether the particular cultural identity is Sunni or Shiite or Serbian or Croatian or Pashtun or Tajik or Hutu or Tutsi. Looking specifically at the cultures is digging one level too deep -- the question is how do we keep people from going tribal in the first place?

What we failed to recognize in Iraq (despite strong warnings from many quarters) was the basic lack of national cohesion and the incredibly polarizing effect of US occupation (particularly without a UN mandate and a truly international coalition). The only particular significance of the culture in Iraq was the highly antagonistic approach of the US towards Arab and Muslim populations since 9/11. The BBC poll cited in the FP Mag blog post shows a broad international agreement that the differences between Islam and the West are political rather than cultural (and this Zogby/Gallup poll also highlights the political factors driving ever-sinking Arab opinions of the US). I've also pointed out on several occasions analysis to the effect that the US is at considerably less risk of home-grown terrorism (as compared to European nations) because Arabs integrate far more effectively here than in Europe. This should also illustrate that there is no inherent or fundamental incompatibility between Western and Arab culture.

I agree with Lang that we would benefit from learning more about foreign cultures. Lack of cultural understanding has been a problem in Iraq, particularly with respect to the winning of hearts and minds and understanding how Iraqis view American actions and policies. But I think we stand to make far greater gains by understanding foreign political and social situations. There's no reason why we can't do both, but if the take-away from Iraq is to throw up our hands and declare Islamic culture completely incompatible with Western government, economics, and values we'll be making a very serious mistake.

1 comment:

Henry said...

I agree that it is deeply problematic to make the assumption that there is something inherent about the character of the arab people that makes them fundamentally inaccessible to pluralistic politics. Further I don't see the tendency to vote tribally as anything anti-democratic. Surely we all recognize that Americans vote largely based on region, workplace, religion, etc. Could'nt the American parties be viewed as conglomerates of tribal affiliations? Finally I would remark that I think we need to look at least as hard at what we brought to Iraq as what we found there when analyzing our failures. Having recently read 'Life in the Emerald City' and 'State of Denial' my clear impression is that our probability of obtaining a desirable outcome in Iraq could have been vastly higher had we simply used more common sense in our strategy on the ground.