Tribe and State

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Arnold Kling reads Philip Carl Salzman’s Culture and Conflict in the Middle East — which describes farming peasant cultures as easy to “shear” and tribal livestock-raising cultures as always feuding, but with a flexible “us vs. them” mentality — and draws his own conclusions about Tribe and State:

The culture of balanced opposition creates an almost Newtonian dynamic. Any aggregation of power tends to result in an equal and opposite aggregation of power. This makes “nation-building” a very frustrating enterprise. The more assertive the central government seeks to be, the more united will be the opposition to it.

If Salzman is correct, and a tribal culture of balanced opposition prevails in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, then it is unlikely that a democratic central government will emerge. Instead, a decentralized tribal order can be maintained, as long as tribes can be sufficiently separated to minimize friction and conflict. This might be possible in much of Afghanistan and parts of Iraq, but it seems unlikely in Baghdad.

The other way to maintain order is through severe repression. That is the way that small cliques have been able to govern in many Arab countries, including Syria as well as Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Over the past eighteen months, the United States in Iraq has been pitting local tribes against Al Qaeda insurgents. Thus, we have been getting “balanced opposition” to work for us rather than against us. Working with local tribes helps our military combat the elements in Iraq that we fear the most–those associated with Al Qaeda. However, it is unlikely in the long run to produce stability.

In the countryside, Iraq may achieve a stable order based on tribal separation. In Baghdad, tribal equilibrium is too fragile, and some other solution will be needed. From this distance, I cannot see where such a solution might come from. Rather than providing comfort to the hawks, reading Salzman increased my fears that the U.S. could be mired permanently in conflict in Iraq. For every insurgency we defeat and every conflict that we quell, new ones will keep popping up.

Leave a Reply