power and legitimacy

Tuesday, January 20th, 2004

In British Lit we talk a lot about leadership, authority, and power and soon in English Composition. How does one get these and keep them–at many levels: argument, poetry, action. In a recent article in the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria writes about the growing issue between the US administration and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq. He begins this way:

There really should be no contest.

On one side is history’s most awesome superpower, victorious in war, ruling Iraq with nearly 150,000 troops and funding its reconstruction to the tune of $20 billion this year. On the other side is an aging cleric with no formal authority, no troops and little money, who is unwilling to even speak in public. Yet last June, when Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani made it known that he didn’t like the U.S. proposal to transfer power to Iraqis, the plan collapsed. And last week, when Sistani announced that he is still unhappy with the new U.S. proposal, L. Paul Bremer rushed to Washington for consultations. What does this man have that the United States doesn’t?

Legitimacy. Sistani is regarded by Iraqi Shiites as the most learned cleric in the country. He is also seen as having been uncorrupted by Saddam Hussein’s reign. “During the Iran-Iraq war, Sistani managed to demonstrate that he could be controlled neither by Saddam nor by his fellow ayatollahs in Iran, which has given him enormous credibility,” says Yitzhak Nakash, the leading authority on Iraqi Shiites.

Characterizations aside, this developing interplay is interesting as the conflict continues and moves toward other resolutions. Will the deadline for elections be met? Will a tranfer of power play out the way it has been envisioned and articulated. Zakaria concludes:

A power struggle has begun in Iraq, as could have been predicted — and indeed was predicted. Sistani is becoming more vocal and political because he faces a challenge to his leadership from the more activist cleric Moqtada Sadr. “Al-Sadr does not have Sistani’s reputation or training as a scholar and thus presents himself as a populist leader who will look after Shia political interests,” Nakash says. It’s turning into a contest to see who can stand up to the Americans more vociferously and appeal to Shiite fears. The Iraqi Shiites are deeply suspicious that the United States will betray them, as it did in 1992 after the Persian Gulf War, or that it will foist favored exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi upon them. Sistani recently told Iraq’s tribal leaders that they should take power, not “those who came from abroad.”

The tragedy is that while Sistani’s fears are understandable, Washington’s phased transition makes great sense. It allows for time to build institutions, form political parties and reform the agencies of government. An immediate transfer would ensure that the political contest will overwhelm all this institutional reform. But Washington lacks the basic tool it needs to negotiate with the locals: legitimacy. (This is something well understood by anyone who has studied the lessons of Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.) Belatedly it recognizes that the United Nations can arbitrate political problems without being accused of being a colonizer.

U.S. policymakers made two grave mistakes after the war. The first was to occupy the country with too few troops, creating a security vacuum. This image of weakness was reinforced when Washington caved to Sistani’s objections last June, junked its original transition plan and sped things up to coincide with the U.S. elections. The second mistake was to dismiss from the start the need for allies and international institutions. As it turns out, Washington now has the worst of both worlds. It has neither enough power nor enough legitimacy.

The question of legitimacy comes charged with all kinds of baggage and pressures we can’t see but must infer from surfaces. Who can distribute resources effectively and why? How do we learn who to please for some gain, who to step on without loss? Importantly, who can lay claim to decision-making? Not enough power and not enough legitimacy, Zakaria writes. There’s a dance going on here.


8 responses to “power and legitimacy”

  1. Rina says:

    Zakaria is certainly entitled to his opinion.I’ve read accounts by other Middle Eastern writers where their opinions have been more optimistic.***shrugging my shoulders***Damned that we did. Damned if we hadn’t.I don’t know what to tell you except that I find foreign policy to be more of an art than a science.Roadmaps and gameplans are…pretty things.When I was doing research for my paper on Winston Churchill two semesters ago, I came across a book or two that argued that the Nazis should have been left alone. That the Nazis were England and France’s creation for imposing harsh sanctions after WWI…and that if they had been left alone a balance of power would have eventually come about.***geeked out look on my face***Okay.Whoever wrote those books are certainly entitled to their opinions.Speaking of nationalist sentiment…I’m kinda waiting to see what’ll come from the Serbians. They’re the only one’s who have actually been able to see Milosevic’s trial at the Hague. They have great animosity for Americans for the “collateral damage” and humiliation that they suffered…they have become strongly nationalistic in the years since the war.I think, last I heard, Milosevic stood a chance to win a seat in parliament while he sits in a prison cell. Don’t get me wrong…M is a P.O.S. in his own right…I just find it funny (peculiar) what we are willing to tolerate or not.Legitimacy is such a rational idea.

  2. Neha says:

    Rationality? Surely you jest. I’m seething over this one. Grr.

  3. Rina says:

    Oh no.I might have been a bit sarcastic but I wasn’t joking.Well…it depends…what are we talking about here…Hereditary legitimacy?Principle legitimacy?Accepted rules or standards legitimacy?I think that the idea of legitimacy requires a certain amount of reason and that the fog of battle has still not cleared in Iraq…as far as forming a new government and changing a culture without changing a culture.That last part didn’t sound so reasonable, did it?So, words like legitimacy sort of crack me up a little.Neha? I believe I just read recently that you’re from the Middle East…Ta sha rafna!I haven’t been to a lesson in a few months…please don’t get fancy with me :-)What are your thoughts?

  4. ersinghaus says:

    When I was doing research for my paper on Winston Churchill two semesters ago, I came across a book or two that argued that the Nazis should have been left alone. That the Nazis were England and France’s creation for imposing harsh sanctions after WWI…and that if they had been left alone a balance of power would have eventually come about.

    ***geeked out look on my face***

    Okay.

    Whoever wrote those books are certainly entitled to their opinions.

    There are two issues you raise here, one not necessarily dependent on the other. The Nazis could have been left alone, ethical, moral and strategic ssues aside (although History of the Great Powers is a good one to consult; this position would definitely have shaped European and American alliances in lots of different ways, as well as the Korean and Japanease dynamic. But you also need to distinguish opinion from argument; opinion as interpretation of fact and logic leads to argumentative and authoritative point making. We disagree or agree with interpretations based on good data, whether derived through inductive or deductive logic.

    With what conclusions do you disagree in Zakaria and on what evidence would you counter it?

  5. Rina says:

    My computer just crashed.Or locked up…or crashed…I dunno computer jargon…all I know is that my post just went straight to hell.***strung out look on my face***I just lost my response.I have these words in my head…Someone left the cake out in the rain, I don’t think that I can make it ’cause it took so long to bake it and I’ll never have that recipe again…What is that?Why?

  6. Neha says:

    I’m a middle-eastern? That’s such a happy thought. But no.. I’m an Indian who spent a good chunk of my life in the United Arab Emirates. Oh what the heck. I might as well be an Emirati.

    I have what most people would call a naive world view. It’s very liable to be dismissed with the brush of a hand and a scoff. As far as I’m concerned, fighting, invading, and money are all pointless. But very clearly, we can’t survive without either one. I confess.. I was never in favour of moving to the States, so my judgment is clouded on some occassions. Especially when America goes up in arms, much like the imperialists of yesteryear. That’s about all the sarcasm I can weave in.

  7. Rina says:

    Ah. When you had mentioned the dessert, I just assumed.

  8. Rina says:

    I really should withold my comment until I read Zs book, The Future of Freedom…but that probably won’t happen until the summer.So, some quick thoughts from the gut…I’ve read up on Z, he’s a smart guy…he received his B.A. in history from Yale, his Ph.D.(?) from Harvard in international studies (which explains his internationalist sympathies) or some such thing and that is all fine and well but…I don’t really buy his legitimacy argument.I read a book review on FoF and the author of this review commented on how Z points out that most successful democracies evolved out of benevolent autocratic rule (whether it was their intention to bring democracy to their nations is another story…I’m totally paraphrasing, I’m trying to get this thought out before the gods find out what I’m up to and shut my computer down again.Autocracies, even when they weren’t legitimate anymore, lasted as long as they did because they had power. Power: meaning wealth, meaning leverage, connections, influence.This legitimacy argument reminds me of the word gravitas from a few years back…it sounds like a talking point to me.All of the governments of all of the rogue nations of this world don’t have legitimacy, they have power…they exercise brute force to hold on to that power…they don’t have legitimacy.Legitimacy.Not even the Catholic Church has legitimacy anymore…but they have power, wealth, influence.In the case of Sistani, I think the planners are trying to do the right thing by listening to insiders and working with them to develop a culture of freedom and give the invisible hand a nudge to get to work…but if Sistani goes rogue, he could end up in the cell next to Hussein…power trumps legitimacy. We didn’t get to where we are because our leaders are pantywaists…and luckily there are checks and balances to maintain balance for when the occassional pantywaist comes along.Iraq is fragile right now. The key is flexiblity more than legitimacy. It’s almost as if Z is setting up a strawman argument. Of course his predictions are going to come true. Geez, give the guy a medal. Setbacks in the beginning are inevitable.It could take a generation or two before we see a truly brighter day in Iraq.As I’ve been snooping, I came across an article or interview (dunno which) with Z where he is said to have stated that the key to freedom is to increase the wealth of the middle class, to grow the middle class by building the infrastructure where the middle classes can ‘earn’ their wealth.He got this part right, this is why I don’t understand his shortsightedness on other issues…it doesn’t add up.Even in England it took about two generations before the rise of respectable society (the middle classes) gained a stronghold…and they had the Magna Carta and a strong tradition of liberty.I don’t understand his lack of patience and pessimism.Now to Zs degree in international relations…this explains his support for U.N. intervention. I’m not a supporter of the United Nations…I have a laundry list…don’t get me started…I can spend a lifetime on Rwanda alone. Anan should be brought up on criminal charges for what he stood down and allowed to happen.In another blurb on Zs book, someone stated along the lines that Z doesn’t think that democracy can flourish in Muslim nations because of their fundamentalist faction and that it can be dangerous…What’s that all about? I’m not even Muslim and I’m offended.As I said, I really need to read this guy’s book and get a better feel for him because in my quick estimation, something stinks.