Building civil society on a foundation of sand

(Flickr Photo by ArmyMil)

(Flickr Photo by ArmyMil)

Donald Eberly’s new book “Liberate and Leave” has a thoughtful insider’s account of the challenges that the Bush Administration faced in trying to rebuild civil society in Iraq in the first two years following the ouster of Saddam Hussein.  Don was positioned in the Ministry of Youth and Sport (in the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, or later the Coalition Provisional Authority).  One would think that Ministry of Youth and Sport would be an apolitical spot, but this was a department that had been ruled with an iron grip by Saddam’s brother Uday Hussein before the Hussein regime was toppled.  Eberly writes:

“Ralph Waldo Emerson said that every institution is the lengthened shadow of a man. Uday Hussein’s grotesque shadow had lengthened across the nation and even lingered across the very job I was given.  I felt like I caught sight of his very shadow slinking away out the back door as I walked in the front.  I remain haunted by much of what I saw (personally as well as through eyewitnesses and official reports).”  [Eberly recounts later in the  book much of the terror perpetrated by Uday.]

The book gives one an account of life on the ground in Iraq during “Phase IV” that was about winning the “hearts and minds of Iraqis” through humanitarian assistance, reconstruction, and civil administration until the Iraqis could assume responsibility.  Eberly notes that the media tagged this effort a failure, but says that few note how extraordinarily difficult this phase was . One colleague analogized it to  “assembling a vehicle while driving.” There was so little to build on, and although the mantra was a light touch, Colin Powell, talking about Iraqi organizations, noted  “you break it, you own it”  (i.e., are responsible for fixing it). Eberly doesn’t discuss how little central planning went into this Phase initially among central war planners in the US, but he does highlight the key divisions and distrust between the State Department and the Department of Defense in the rebuilding of civil society.

Flickr photo of Boots of Iraqi casualties-by SoundFromWayOut

Flickr photo of Boots of Iraqi casualties-by SoundFromWayOut

Eberly’s efforts focused partially on reorganizing the Iraqi Olympic sports teams, from a place of torture for enemies of Uday, into a legitimate and well-respected enterprise.  (It had the support of Paul Bremer who “was himself an accomplished athlete.”)  They had to spend months holding new elections for the Olympic Committee since the old one had been a front and “tangled with corruption and abuse.”

Eberly highlights a central challenge: “We could use our power to eliminate people, but we could not use that same power to dictate who would replace them…We claimed the right to remove past sports officials, even though, under the IOC, sports are supposed to be independent of government.  However, we could not simply and arbitrarily put new people in place.”  How could they insure that new crooks did not get themselves re-elected?

They “assembled and circulated a list of respected Iraqis” to oversee this process, to give it a sense of legitimacy.  Eberly notes that the “entire episode proved to be a remarkable early experiment in democracy for Iraq.”    The book details the challenges to get even one woman on the committee, the challenges regarding the ethnic balance on the committee, and the threats to the legitimacy of the enterprise thrown up by Kurds.

It makes you realize just how much we take for granted in civic engagement efforts in the U.S. (from infrastructure to build upon, to citizen initative, to some sense of social and governmental trust, to the rule of law).  Eberly notes, for example, just how important the effort was to get US donors to contribute 80,000 soccer balls as an effort to build trust of the US-led civic redevelopers.

See also this earlier post on efforts to rebuild civil society in Iraq (“Human Networks in Iraq Trump Technology” and “Tough to Centrally Manufacture Social Capital“).

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