Muqtada al Sadr and the Difference Between Democracy Promotion and Dignity Promotion

For a while, there was quiet. Not total quiet mind you, not the silence of a tomb, but the relative quiet one hears; the soft ringing in the ears after a cacophony of roadside blasts.

This is what Iraq had achieved as of late. The violence had dimmed down to a dull thrum and in the absence of relentless death tolls being reported upon by the mainstream media, those whose political fortunes are tied to success in Iraq had sought to fill that media void with spin of success in Iraq.

If only that’s how things worked.

Then fighting broke out in Basra and Baghdad, a result of the success of the surge, as put forth by the Pentagon. This so-called success was the result of an Iraqi government carrying out its own operation in southern Iraq, and meeting face to face with the forces of the Mahdi Army.

That they were taking the fight on their own and not with the assistance of the US military was supposedly the token success here, a test drive, so to speak, for Nuri al-Maliki and his ability to impose force to quell opposition.

As Walter Pincus reports (h/t Cernig), the move by the Maliki-led Iraqi government was less a police action and more a dig for power, or an attempt to stamp out a potentially powerful political foe in Muqtada al Sadr. If successful, it would have been a huge boost to both Maliki and those in DC who depend upon success in Iraq.

However, one big picture item that must be addressed is the simple existence of the operation. Given that the entire point of the surge originally was supposed to be political reconciliation, it strikes me that this move, taken a year after the surge was put into place, points to an utter lack of political reconciliation.

What’s worse, as James Joyner explains, Maliki failed. They did not, as Maliki promised, take this thing to an utter victory; they instead had to travel to Iran, where Muqtada al Sadr is currently engaged in theological study, to broker a peace.

Juan Cole has the basic points of al Sadr’s translated conditions of reenacting the cease fire:

We have decided the following:1. Cancel the armed manifestation in Basra and all over the governorates.

2. Stopping the illegal and random raids and arrests.

3. Demanding the government to apply the General Amnesty law and release all the prisoners that was not proved to be guilty and especially the prisoners of Sadr movement.

4. We announce our innocence from any one who caries the weapon and target the government and services apparatuses and establishments and parties offices.

5. Cooperating with the government apparatuses in achieving security and condemn criminals according to the legal procedures.

6. We assure that the Sadr movement doesn’t have any heavy weapons.

7. Working on returning the displaced people that moved due to security events to their original places.

8. We are asking the government to take care of the Human rights on all of its procedures.

9. Working on achieving the constructional and services projects all over the governorates.

[Signed and stamped Muqtada Sadr 22/Rabi Awal/1429]’

It is a curiously empowering moment for Muqtada al Sadr who had the opportunity not only to flex his muscle in standing toe to toe with Maliki’s military forces, but also to engage in magnanimity and display a more politically adept approach as well. The repercussions should not be understated.

For some time now al Sadr has been attempting to become a more viable force politically as opposed to acquiring power through brute strength alone, and last week’s events greatly facilitate such aspirations. This may seem like a good thing — political action is by any accounting more beneficial than violent action — but is Sadr’s rise within Iraq’s political sphere necessarily a good thing?

I am reminded of one of the very few rational thoughts that our president has expressed. It was during his 2006 State of the Union Address where he said, “Democracies in the Middle East will not look like our own, because they will reflect the traditions of their own citizens.”

It’s a given that democracies of different cultures will not necessarily mirror our own, but that does not mean that these differences will be beneficial to the people in those other cultures or to the world. One instantly looks to the election victories of Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Hamas for the Palestinians, for examples.

We can’t know what Muqtada rising to prominence within the Iraqi government would look like, but what we know of him gives us a less than flattering view. To the benefit of those who are notably worried about Iran, it would seem that al Sadr is pointedly nationalistic, and is at least for the time being not likely to forge a new “Axis of Evil” with Tehran, but we also know that Muqtada is definitely anti-American as well and our further presence in Iraq following a rise to power by al Sadr could reap terrible results.

The current intricacies of Iraq still elude me, though — as I’ve admitted in previous posts about Iraq. But in general I tend to be a bigger picture kind of guy. I tend to be fascinated by root causes more than present specifics, and one thing that haunts me to this day is a scene from the documentary, No End In Sight.

In this film we go all the way back to when Saddam Hussein was in power, and America was limiting his power through economic sanctions. Those economic sanctions were passed straight down towards the Iraqi citizens who saw their quality of life — indeed, their ability to maintain any quality of life at all — suffer. As a result, many turned to radical Islam.

Muqtada al Sadr was one of the clerics around whom many rallied, particularly those living in the decrepit Sadr City ghetto.

This is what we talk about when we discuss creating fertile recruiting grounds for terrorists and extremists. Peddlers of radical ideas and the means to enact those ideas are likely to find followers everywhere, but nowhere is their search for new followers likely to be more rewarding than in those places where everyday life is characterized by desperation, where all other options on the table lead to more hunger, more hardship, and less dignity.

We have a similar problem here in America, and we see it wearing colors of red and blue. Urban gangs such as the Bloodz and the Crips were born from inner city slums, worlds apart from the white picket fences and manicured lawns that embody the American dream. There the streets were (are) hard, and the homes were (are) broken. Along with the lawlessness that comes from donning the blue and red comes the sense of family and belonging and ultimately security that trying to walk a different and more peaceful path fails to provide in a world where peace and stability don’t seem possible.

This, as an epidemic of human existence, can’t be ignored, and when it is ignored, or when vital needs are withheld, the seemingly extreme becomes acceptable and is in fact embraced.

Thus, when one looks at the problems posed by inner city gangs, yes law enforcement is a necessity, but it isn’t the complete answer, only a fraction.

Turning our eyes to Iraq, the formula does not change much. Why are extremists fighting with extremists for the control of a country? One has to look at the state of the country before our occupation; this was the genie we let out of the bottle when we pulled out the cork that was Saddam Hussein (This is not to say that Saddam was good, just that he was a dictator who served as a stopper for another, different kind of violence and oppression).

This is why I have become increasingly fascinated with the Obama foreign policy team’s dedication to “Dignity Promotion,” over what is becoming the increasingly failed approach of current and past American regimes of “Democracy Promotion.”

At its very heart, it recognizes one simple fact; that most people don’t do evil things because they are themselves evil. This assumption is a greater flaw in the thinking of the Bush administration and its allies. Yes, there are those who are evil and do evil deeds, but their followers are not necessarily such, or at least did not start out that way.

The bottom line is simple. Whenever a group of people come together to elect a government, there is always the risk that they will elect someone that is a danger to themselves and the world around them. We as Americans should know this very well. But what has occurred in Iraq is far from that–it is instead a situation where the populace had so little “Dignity” (if we are to quantify dignity by living conditions, the availability of food, shelter, and security, education, and a reasonable control over one’s life and circumstances) that by the time we came in and promoted democracy upon them, they were in the thrall of that special environment that fosters the kind of mindset particularly susceptible to terrorism and extremism.

In other words, one could say that at least in some respects the overall health of Iraq was not ready for democracy. But this is the kind of result we should expect to see in an overly aggressive Democracy Promotion global strategy. By contrast, Dignity Promotion essentially focuses on improving the overall societal health of a nation’s citizenry, particularly in those instances where the government is failing its own people, and if, when their situation has improved beyond the designs of terrible dictators, they should revolt, and should establish their own form of self-governance, they will be ready.

Even better for those concerned with US interests, there is a much greater probability that the new governments in place will be friendly to the United States than if we had simply deposed a despot without a second look at the people we were “liberating” and the conditions we were liberating them to.

More from memeorandum: Washington Post, Jules Crittenden, Swampland, McClatchy Washington Bureau, D-Day, Liberty Street, missing links, TPMMuckraker, Independent Liberal, At-Largely, Babylon & Beyond, American Street and Firedoglake. The Daily Dish, The Newshoggers, Washington Monthly, The Belmont Club, New York Times, Commentary, The Seminal and Abu Aardvark

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