Working with the Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq

The LA Times story cited below as evidence of the Bush Administration’s willingness to subordinate even success in Iraq to the needs of the re-election campaign raises a fascinating and disturbing substantive point I hadn’t thought about.

The decision to ban all Ba’ath party members (rather than just the party leadership) from public-sector jobs and participation in politics means that the urban, educated Sunni population is largely without an existing nucleus of potential representatives. That puts them at a big disadvantage in the struggle for power with the majority Shi’i and the Kurds.

Apparently the response to this dreamed up by the occupying forces is to work with the traditional tribal and clan elites and try to groom them as the new political leadership for the Sunni minority. Not an unreasonable move, on its face.

But note the likely unintended result (this is my thought, not reflected in the LA Times story itself): it will tend to disempower the educated, modernizing urban elite and empower instead the rural traditionalists.

Ba’athism, before it turned into a mere machinery of totalitarian rule, was a secularist movement. The Ba’athists resembled, in social terms, the supporters of the Shah in Iran, while the tribal leaders look a lot more like the supporters of the Ayatollah.

So if our goal is to produce an Iraq that looks more or less like Turkey, we need to be careful about how much of an edge we want to give the tribal leadership over the urban middle class.

I just wish I could be confident that someone in the CPA, or in Washington, had thought this through carefully.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: