Thursday, June 17, 2004

This must be symbolism’s golden age. War-torn Iraq’s political leaders demand foreign workers trying to rebuild that country be subject to the Iraqi legal system.

Do you have any idea of the Iraqi legal system? Are you prepared to risk your freedom, and perhaps your life, to find out?

Obviously, subjecting foreign workers and entrepreneurs to a wholly different legal system from what they are used to creates yet another obstacle to recruiting people with skills and experience urgently needed to get Iraq back on its feet as a functioning society. But the symbols of sovereignty are apparently more important than the substance of a restored economy and society, at least to some Iraqi politicians.

Sovereign rulers of many countries have allowed some people to live under a different set of laws, when that served a larger economic or social purpose. For centuries, many towns and villages in Eastern Europe lived under German law, even though the native populations in the surrounding countrysides lived under the laws of their Slavic rulers.

German immigrants brought many skills and industries to Eastern Europe, and local officials saw those economic benefits as more important than the symbolism of sovereignty. The Ottoman Empire also let various foreign peoples live under separate rules, to attract them and the benefits they brought.

Many American and other foreign civilians working in Iraq have already left because of the terrorist attacks continuing to plague the country. Working under a legal cloud of uncertainty that can disrupt and even end their lives can only have a negative effect that will cost Iraqi efforts to rebuild.

Countries with little else have often placed an inordinate value on the trappings of sovereignty and nationhood.

Some years ago, Malaysia switched its educational system from the English language, widely understood there, to the indigenous language — which has nothing like the scientific, economic, medical and other literature available in English. Nor is the Malay language anywhere near as widely used as English in world commerce, aviation, or other fields.

Belatedly, scientific and technical fields in Malaysia are resuming teaching in English. The cost of not doing so turned out to be too high. Substance is making at least a partial comeback against symbolism.

Other countries have indulged in costly symbolism in many ways. Small Third World countries have created their own national airlines, though neither the volume of air traffic nor the incomes of the people are enough to make these airlines self-supporting. But these countries want to be more than a stop on British Airways’ or American Airlines’ international routes.

Other Third World countries such as India for many years kept out foreign products and discouraged foreign investment, ostensibly to prevent “exploitation” but at least partly for the symbolism of economic self-sufficiency. During the past dozen years, however, India has moved away from such expensive symbolism and has seen its economy begin growing robustly.

In normal times, perhaps Iraq could go through various phases of symbolism and come out on the other side with a clearer sense of a need to avail itself of whatever knowledge and skills other countries can offer. But these are not normal times.

Iraq is trying to rise from the ashes of war and create a kind of government very different from whatever has existed there before — or indeed, anywhere in the Islamic Middle East — while still trying to fight off internal terrorist attacks.

Iraq needs all the help it can get, from whatever sources can supply it, just to survive as an intact nation through all this. We can only hope substance will prevail over symbolism on the issue of subjecting foreign workers to Iraqi laws. But the track record shows that symbolism carries a lot of weight in politics.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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