The U.S. brought no shortage of misconceptions into Iraq, but surely the longest lasting has been what you might call: Founding Fatherism. This is the belief that peace will come to the country when the nation's political elites gather at a convention hall and make a series of grand compromises involving power-sharing and a new constitution.
The Bush administration has been pushing the Iraqis to make this sort of grand compromise for years — to little effect. The Democrats happily declare that there has been no political progress in Iraq because this grand compromise is the only kind of political progress they can conceive of.
The grand compromise model would be appropriate if Iraq were a Western country living in the shadow of the Magna Carta. But Iraq is not that kind of country.
As Philip Carl Salzman argues in "Culture and Conflict in the Middle East" (brilliantly reviewed by Stanley Kurtz in The Weekly Standard), many Middle Eastern societies are tribal. The most salient structure is the local lineage group. National leaders do not make giant sacrifices on behalf of the nation because their higher loyalty is to the sect or clan. Order is achieved not by the top-down imposition of abstract law. Instead, order is achieved through fluid balance of power agreements between local groups.
In a society like this, political progress takes different forms. It's not top down. It's bottom up. And this is exactly the sort of progress we are seeing in Iraq. While the Green Zone politicians have taken advantage of the surge by trying to entrench their own power, things are happening at the grass-roots.
Iraqis are growing more optimistic. Fifty-five percent of Iraqis say their lives are going well, up from 39 percent last August, according to a poll conducted by ABC News and other global television networks. Forty-nine percent now say the U.S. was right to invade Iraq, the highest figure recorded since this poll began in 2004.
More generally, the Iraqi people are sick of war and are punishing those leaders and forces that perpetrate it. "A vital factor in the security improvement is public backlash against the chaos and extremism of the past five years," declared Yahia Said of the Revenue Watch Institute in written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
And, as one would expect, the local clans have taken control. Iraqi politics have become hyperlocalized, Colin Kahl, a Georgetown professor and Obama adviser, has observed. The most prestigious groups in Iraqi society are tribes and Awakening Councils. Many of these councils earned legitimacy by fighting during the height of the violence and have now come out in the open as local authorities.
These groups have created a fluid network of fragile truces. They squabble over money, power, ideology and sectarian issues. But they have incentives to keep the peace. Sunni leaders have come to realize that they can't win a civil war against the Shiites. Shiite militia leaders recognize their own prestige and power drops the more they fight.
As Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations observed in his Senate testimony last week: "This does not mean sectarian harmony or brotherly affection in Iraq. But it does mean that cold, hard strategic reality increasingly makes acting on hatred too costly for Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias."
The surge didn't create the network of truces, but the truces couldn't have happened without the surge. More than 70,000 local council members are paid by the Americans. They rely on the U.S. military to enforce bargains and deter truce-breaking. Thanks to these arrangements, ethno-sectarian violence dropped by 90 percent between June 2007 and March 2008. That's the result of political progress, not just counterinsurgency techniques.
It has become common to belittle these truces. After all, they are not written by legislators on parchment. And indeed there's a significant chance that they will indeed collapse and the country will devolve into anarchy.
But in certain societies, this is the way order is established, through what Salzman calls "balanced opposition." As long as the network of truces holds, then the next president (Democrat or Republican) will have an overwhelming incentive to nurture the fragile peace.
That will mean drawing down U.S. troops at a slow pace, continuing the local reconstruction efforts, supporting local elections and reaching an informal agreement with Iran and the Saudis to reduce outside interference. Iraq will look like a lot of places in the world: a series of cold and fragile understandings, with occasional flare-ups (like in Basra), but no genocide and no terror state.
At this week's hearings on Capitol Hill, Democrats will declare that the surge has not produced political progress and therefore the whole thing is for naught. That's wrong. There has been political progress. It just doesn't look the way we expected it to.
c.2008 New York Times News Service