The best ideas for "civilizing" Iraq.

The best new ideas for rebuilding a nation.
May 2 2003 4:11 PM

Iraq's Civil War

Building civil society in Iraq is even more important than building democracy. Here are six new ways to do it.

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4. Womanize. Recent research in economics and social science suggests that women are a better investment than men. Investing in women-owned business has proved hugely successful in the world of microcredit (more on this in the next article). Harvard President Larry Summers has for years been emphasizing the huge long-term returns of investing in the education of girls. Women's rights groups, women's education, and all kinds of women's activism hugely benefit both civil and political society. Women's involvement tends to moderate political extremism. Encouraging female-centered civil society groups would help undermine the male-dominated elites that have done so much damage to Iraq.

5. Don't hold elections too soon. It's tempting to push a rebuilding nation to democracy as fast as possible, but the quicker the elections, the weaker the civil society. In the early days of any recovering society, the most extreme and most visceral groups will hold sway—the organizations that have the strongest religious, ethnic, or ideological affiliations. Early elections ratify the power of the extremists: In Bosnia, a too-fast vote put the most unpleasant Serb, Croat, and Muslim candidates in office, calcifying ethnic divides.

Delaying elections gives time for other, less nasty kinds of civil ties to form. Business and professional associations spring up, uniting people with shared economic interests. Other kinds of interest groups—human rights activists, environmentalists, or property rights advocates—get a chance to promote their agendas. These new groups give people a reason to vote that's better than ethnic identification.

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Early elections also tend to crush civil society because they concentrate power in political parties, says the U.S. Institute of Peace's Daniel Serwer. If elections are quick, political parties become the vehicle for anyone who wants to do anything since everyone is competing for a share of the electoral influence. If elections are put off, citizens do things on their own, starting NGOs and associations to serve their own interests. Later elections leave more space for the growth of a pluralistic society where all kinds of institutions—not merely political parties—serve a variety of social functions and compete for citizens' attention.

6. Remember: Not all civil society is good civil society. University of Colorado professor Roland Paris, author of the forthcoming At War's End, notes that civil society also includes separatist, authoritarian, and extremist groups. The KKK is as much a part of American civil society as Habitat for Humanity. In Iraq, we must be on guard for theocratic groups—extreme Islamist mosques, schools, and political parties—and ethnic cleansers—Kurdish groups that want to roust Arabs and vice versa. The nasty groups will find it just as easy as the nice ones to organize on the Internet and exploit flattened hierarchies.

The American occupiers will need to distinguish among three kinds of civil society groups: those that should be banned, those that should be tolerated, and those that should be encouraged. The first group includes nascent terrorist organizations and extremist theocrats tied to Iran. As an earlier piece argued, the American occupiers must suppress groups that promote violence and religious dictatorship. The second group includes most mosques, peaceful anti-American political parties and NGOs, and even the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, which, after all, might be a useful secular counterweight to rising Islamist organizations.

The groups we should encourage are those that make a broader appeal than simple identity politics and that discourage violence. For instance, as Slate reader Margot Main suggests, the United States should make friends with new labor unions since they bring together people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. And we should be doing everything we can to help human rights groups, environmental groups, chambers of commerce, and professional associations.

The best way of all to guarantee a vigorous civil society is to transform Iraq from a command economy that lives and dies on oil revenues into a diverse, free market. The next installment in Iraq's Progress will explore all sorts of new ideas about reviving the Iraqi economy, from oil trusts to Hernando de Soto's insights about property rights.

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Read the introduction to Iraq's Progress and the new ideas for bringing democracy, law and order, economic recovery, and religious harmony to Iraqand using virtual world games to reconstruct it.

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