The Comfort of Being Irrelevant

I had a chance to listen last night to an extremely interesting talk by Brendan O’Leary, who has been part of a consulting team (that included Karol Soltan) advising authorities in Kurdistan about the constitutional negotiations in Iraq.

O’Leary is the kind of political scientist that arouses my envy and my admiration but also the faint chimes of a historian’s skepticism. The combination of pragmatism, clarity, deep knowledge of places and situations, the muscular language of action and decision, the actual engagement with power as it is and might be, all of that present so attractively in the way a scholar like O’Leary presents the issues involved in a place like Iraq. Listening to it, so much of the weary weight of endless epistemological and entirely academic spats melts away, so many Gordian knots seem to fall to the floor sliced in two. It’s a break from counting various angels on the heads of various pins.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve heard similarly forceful presentations by political scientists or other experts who’ve been off consulting in some part of the world that I’ve reacted to with primal antipathy. I’ve never forgotten the talk I heard at Emory many moons ago by a noted political scientist who shall go nameless about consulting work he’d been doing on ethnic violence in various countries. Among his recommendations: raise the voting age in African nations to 30 because young men were usually the ones involved in ethnic conflict and make sure that police forces in Eastern Europe had bicycles so they could get to the scene of violent assaults against gypsies more rapidly. (Why? I remember thinking. So the police don’t miss out on their chance to join in the beatings?)

O’Leary impressed me in part because there was none of that kind of nonsense in his presentation or his posture towards the kind of work he does. If I felt the vague stirrings of historical and anthropological skepticism, it was in part simply because I have an inclination to believe that things can’t possibly be as clear as O’Leary portrays them (not that his views were simplistic or that his representation of the situation in Iraq is without complexity and depth), and because I can’t believe that electoral politics, constitution-making, party formation, formal negotiations and so on are actually where the real motors and mechanisms determing the future of Iraq or any society lie. It seems to me that all that is often a kind of baroque surfacing over deeper kinds of social structures. To consult with a government in good faith, I suppose you have to believe that government officials have choices that meaningfully affect general social outcomes, that formal negotiations can be transparent to results. A historian, looking more diffidently, with an indolent disengagement from the possibility of intervening in events, tends to see a lot of situations where negotiations were just another kind of Potemkin front lining a deeper stream of causality. But O’Leary’s views aren’t modular or transportable: he’s not doing what at least one Africanist political scientist does, trying to offer a one-stop shopping trip 12-step method for creating peace accords in all civil conflicts. What he’s offering is a very specific, very rooted reading of this particular political moment in Iraq.

The most startling, persuasive and unsettling thing I heard in his reading of the situation is that it doesn’t really matter what the United States does at this point, that both the positive and negative outcomes that O’Leary sees as being possible in the next year are not dependent on how the US participates in the negotiating process. (All of the scenarios that O’Leary described do depend on the continued presence of US troops until the conclusion of the constitutional referendum and subsequent elections, though.) The only thing O’Leary thought could change the situation entirely (for the worse) would be if the US ramped up its aggressive posture on Iran’s nuclear policy.

Considering that the one thing many of us who have been critical of the US’s management of the occupation have focused on is the alleged managerial incompetence of the United States, it’s definitely challenging to consider the possibility that from here on out, whether or not the US is incompetent on the ground in Iraq may be completely unimportant in shaping the long-term outcome in Iraq itself. In fact, though he didn’t say this, it even implies that past incompetence has been irrelevant.

It seems to me that US conduct in Iraq might still matter in determining the impact of the entire escapade on the US’s larger ability to shape events elsewhere in the world, that there might be general consequences not restricted to Iraq. But still, it’s a sobering thought that the kinds of errors, misconduct, mismanagement and incompetence that have fueled a lot of my own criticism of the war might basically be irrelevant even in the short-term political future in Iraq, let alone the long-term future. My historian’s skepticism kicks in again a bit there, that what happens in political negotiations is one thing, and what happens at the level of everyday consciousness another, that how Kurds, Shi’a and Sunni in Iraq feel about themselves, their communities, the world and the United States might yet be as important a long-term issue as whether Iraq has three provinces or five.

Nevertheless, it’s useful cold water poured over the heads of both passionately anti-war and pro-war Americans: that perhaps what we do now doesn’t matter, that Iraqis have already seized the reins of sovereignity, and that the ability of pro-war neocons (or anti-war feminists) to dictate that particular desired liberal outcomes manifest in the constitution or society of Iraq is more or less nil.

This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Comfort of Being Irrelevant

  1. barry says:


    I’d temper that feeling, because this administration has a proven track record of tunneling beneath whatever low expectations one has set. They’re the limbo champs.

    And right now Bush needs a distraction. I don’t think that the aid and reconstruction efforts in New Orleans (and Louisiana and Mississippi!) will go well, because this adminstration can’t resist the urge to screw it up, and it’s a huge freaking job which would strain an administration packed full of competant leaders, let alone one packed full of spinners, hacks and cronies. Right now this has primarily affected the poorer people, but all of those middle class people who did evacuate have no homes and no jobs. That’s rough now, and will only get rougher over the next year.

    Add to that the impact on the energy and grain logistics, and our chances of a cold recessionary winter look very good.

    This means that foreign adventurism will be looking better and better over the next year.

  2. Marcus Vitruvius says:

    Here is an important question: Can competence and incompetence even be defined, or have meaning, in a context of irrelevance?

  3. barry says:

    In the sense of true irrelevance, I dunno. In the sense of Iraq, I’m certain that the administration has the power to casually screw up things still more.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a good observation. The issue really is whether the conduct of the United States at this point is a significant variable in determining outcomes in Iraq. If you were to determine that it was, then the question would first be what outcome you could define as desirable, and then whether the contingent behavior of the United States was important in reaching that desirable outcome. If representatives and leaders of the United States want to reach a particular outcome and you think that their specific behavior is inhibiting them from reaching that outcome but that a different set of behaviors would enhance reaching that outcome, that’s incompetence. But if you judge, as I think O’Leary does, that what the Americans do at this point is largely besides the point, I’m not sure you can be incompetent or competent.

  5. joeo says:

    >Nevertheless, it’s useful cold water poured over the heads of both passionately anti-war and pro-war Americans: that perhaps what we do now doesn’t matter, that Iraqis have already seized the reins of sovereignity, and that the ability of pro-war neocons (or anti-war feminists) to dictate that particular desired liberal outcomes manifest in the constitution or society of Iraq is more or less nil.

    I don’t think this is cold water for the anti-war movement. The current focus of the anti-war movement is to get US troops pulled out. Set a timetable and stick to it. That is only strengthened by O’Leary’s position. History is going to show invading Iraq was a bad idea; not a good idea that was handled poorly.

Comments are closed.