Wednesday, September 03, 2003

In the course of his New York Times op-ed piece, former oil executive and self-proclaimed Mideast pundit Donald Hepburn, inadvertently makes an important observation about the current situation in Iraq:
Iraq will need long-term loans from the World Bank, the United Nations Iraq Development Fund, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Arab Development Fund, the European Union Aid Program and others. Yet few of these organizations will be keen to make loans until Iraq has a new constitution and an elected government that has put in place effective legal, arbitration, banking and fiscal systems.
Now, where did these organizations get the idea that a country is an unfit borrower without all the fancy trappings of modern Western governments? In fact, these bodies lend buckets of money all the time to corrupt autocrats and brutal juntas running their countries ruthlessly into the ground. Far from being concerned about democratic legitimacy or well-structured institutions of governance, these lenders have only ever cared about the likelihood that if they sink a bucket of their cash into somebody's coffers, they will be paid back (more or less) on time.

And that's the problem--in order to have that confidence, the lenders need to see somebody at the top who is (a) willing to commit to repayment, (b) likely to stick around when the due date arrives, and (c) enticed by an incentive (like the prospect of further loans) to live up to the commitment. Right now, in Iraq, there simply isn't anyone who meets these criteria, and there likely won't be until the country has a new constitution and an elected government etc. etc. Why? Because the US has promised all this, and now cannot establish a plausible long-term governing authority based on anything less.

In other words, it is not really the absence of stable democratic rule in Iraq, as its (unfulfilled) promise, that's holding up the capital flow that could bankroll the country's reconstruction. Perhaps, then, the chorus of perfectionists who consider anything short of Switzerland-on-the-Euphrates a disastrous failure on the part of the American occupiers should consider the consequences of their position for the ordinary Iraqi, desperately hoping for some kind of effective government to end the chaos and begin the rebuilding in earnest.

Not that I wouldn't love to see Iraq join the club of vibrantly open, democratic societies, of course. But between that depressingly distant ideal outcome and the nightmare of Saddam Hussein, surely there's a lot of room for pragmatic compromise. And it's worth asking (as I already have, in fact) how many American--and Iraqi--lives are worth sacrificing for the sake of making "perfect" the enemy of "good enough".

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