- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

No one expected Iraq’s reconstruction to be an easy task, yet after a few months in the trenches it has proven even more difficult than anticipated. While nearly every political quarter is offering opinions on the procedure and the timetable to transfer sovereignty, a proven model for success seems to have been innocently overlooked.

The model is a former colony that gained independence by reliance on a militia of farmers facing a superior force of well-trained,well-disciplined and well-equipped European troops. Consider a former colony that established a successful representative government, created a constitutional regime and devised a Bill of Rights. Consider a former agricultural economy that industrialized, promoted commerce and created an impressive service sector without neglecting agriculture. Would that experience present a useful model for Iraq?

If the model fits our aspirations for Iraq, it could not possibly be more familiar to us. That model is indeed the United States of America. It would be ironic if we ignore the vast heritage we share with the less-developed countries. Those countries have often viewed the United States with a sense of inspired admiration. The urge to send their young to the United States for an American college education should be enough to highlight the sentiment. It is not unreasonable to argue that the hard feelings expressed by the developing countries stem from their perception that the United States has betrayed its former colonial brethren by making common cause with colonial interests.

All current planners and commentators want for Iraq an effective central government, a fair constitution, a representative republic and adequate safeguards to protect minorities. What seems overlooked is that our model did not begin with a strong central government or a federal constitution to impose governance upon every state, every town and every village. The path of our model to success was indeed the opposite. Government began at the localities. Self-governing villages and towns became the building blocks of state governments and inspired state constitutions. The states and their representatives in turn constructed the federal government and the U.S. Constitution, and did so through trial and error.

Most Iraqis maintain strong attachments to their tribes and local origins. Ethnic, tribal and rural loyalties of the Kurds in Northern Iraq are well-publicized. Arabs of the south and central regions have similar attachments. Rural societies have reason to fear political domination of major cities with concentrated populations. Striking a political balance between major cities and the rest of the country will go a long way to allay rural concerns, but may not be enough. Rural self-government, however, may instill sufficient confidence in the population to persuade it to buy into a national government. Iraq’s aspiring national leaders may not support rural empowerment, as it will challenge their own. Yet, the road to cohesion must start from small localities, where everyone knows everyone else and opposing a fairly elected government of aldermen (inevitably tribal sheikhs and local notables) by sabotage or assassination would be impractical, if not unthinkable.

Such self-governing villagers will not require external security forces for their internal safety and will enable coalition troops to become less visible. Rural governance may require advice, training and assistance. The assistance should come in the form of construction materials and equipment to avoid fostering dependence.

Self-governed, self-secured villages and towns could initiate drafting provincial constitutions and establishing provincial governments before contemplating a national government. National governments of most former colonies after independence failed, perhaps because they tried to impose order on their nations, rather than allowing governance to take root from within.

To be fair, many post-colonial national leaders had admirable intentions. Good intentions, however, are not reliable shields against riots, coups, revolts and violence. Experiencing the responsibility of self-governance at the lowest levels of society may provide the self-confidence, self-respect and loyalty necessary to preserve the national government. Vermonters will get together in their towns and villages in March to vote on all local concerns — from property taxes and school budgets to salaries and snow removal in a single day every year. Showing the town meetings at work to the Iraqi sheikhs may be more than instructive. It will be an eyeopener for all of us.

Fariborz Mokhtari is a professor at the National Defense University.

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