- Ayaan Hirsi Ali misuses Samuel Huntington
- The ‘oil curse’ explains Iraq power struggle better than Sunni-Shiite divide
- Now is the time to discuss the one-state solution
- Bayoumi and Arraf discuss Midnight on the Mavi Marmara with GRITtv
- ‘NYT’ finally lets its readers know that 2SS is all but over
- ‘Jewish voter’ meme is journalistic mystification
I’ve wasted too much time over the past couple of decades trying to figure out Iraq by reading about the theological differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. I should have paid even more attention to the growing body of fascinating research into the peculiar – and sometimes violent – nature of nations that depend mainly on exporting oil.
In 1997, a remarkable professor at Stanford named Terry Lynn Karl published The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States; since then, she and others have elaborated on her original findings. If the arrogant Bush administration and their cheerleaders in the mainstream press had looked into her work back in 2003, the history of Iraq might have been different.
Professor Karl noticed that even though petro-states earned billions of dollars for their oil exports, almost none of them were able to use their earnings for sustained, balanced growth. Instead, they ended up in chronic economic crisis, with collapsing agriculture, nonexistent manufacturing sectors, very high unemployment, enormous debts to Western banks, growing political instability, and in some cases, ferocious violence. Number-crunching economists like Paul Collier came up with an astonishing finding; most of the oil producers would have been better off if oil had never been discovered on their territory at all.
What is remarkable is that this “oil (or resource) curse” characterizes countries that otherwise appear quite different: Venezuela, a Catholic nation in South America, has many features in common with Nigeria, in Africa, or Islamic Iran.
Karl and the others have worked to explain the paradox of plenty, and a short summary cannot do justice to their theory. It does turn partly on how governments finance themselves. Over the centuries, European governments, and later the United States, consolidated power by taxing their people, (at first largely to pay for wars). It took time, but the people who paid the taxes insisted on their governments being accountable. Governments gradually grew responsive, even eventually democratic.
In some of the third world, the same halting process is underway. But in the oil producers, the relationship between governments and people is quite different. Petro-states do not have to tax their citizens. Instead, nearly all their revenue comes from oil companies – 95 percent in Iraq’s case. The petro-state is what professor Karl calls a “honey pot” – an external source of money to be raided, not the site of genuine, long-term political bargaining.
So small ruthless groups (like Saddam Hussein’s fragment of the Baath party) seize control of the petro-state, much like pirates boarding a fleet of gold-bearing galleons. Saddam’s rise was parallel to the Shah of Iran consolidating control across the Persian Gulf, or the succession of generals who ruled Nigeria. Saddam’s (mis)use of Arab nationalism, and later of Islamic symbols, was not altogether irrelevant, but the source of his income was more important than ideas in shaping Iraq’s political system.
At first, the petro-dictators thrive, particularly when oil prices are high and they can buy off some of their people with populist spending, including grandiose infrastructure, and repress the rest with a lavish military/police apparatus, with many thousands of informers. On the surface, Saddam Hussein appeared to preside over a terrible but effective totalitarian state. In the international arena, his control of big strategic oil reserves, along with billions of well chosen arms purchases from big Western manufacturers, earned him immunity from criticism, including that warm visit on December 22, 1983 from Donald Rumsfeld, Ronald Reagan’s special representative.
Over time, though, this iron control weakens. In the Introduction to Oil Wars, professor Karl and two colleagues, Mary Kaldor and Yahia Said, point out that by the 2000s the Saddam Hussein regime was starting to disintegrate from within, following the same pattern as other petro-states – in part because the world oil price had fallen. They explain, “. . . there were important indicators of loss of government control, even before Saddam Hussein’s removal, including underground movements and parties, efforts to create new public space, and especially the growing resistance of both Sunni and Shi’ite mosques, which began to develop a strategy of ‘quiet strangulation’ of the regime reminiscent of the Catholic Church in Poland and Chile.”
Of course, the American invasion interrupted all this. Karl and her colleagues do not speculate, but it is possible to imagine an Iraq transforming itself from within, not entirely unlike the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites in eastern Europe. Any change in Iraq would certainly have included terrible violence, but it would not have been complicated by the American invaders, who found themselves in an impossible situation as both the targets of certain Iraqi factions and as prospective allies – in some cases by those very same factions.
It is possible that Iraq would have been less violent if Iraqis had been left to make their own history. At least one thing is certain; thousands of young American service men and women would still be alive, and thousands more would be uninjured.
(Karl and her colleagues also remind us of an enormous truth, conveniently forgotten today by those who cheered on the invasion; the hawks promised that Iraq’s oil would pay for the war!)
Today, Iraq is still under the oil curse – which helps us to understand the endless, tedious articles about political factionalism and the failure to form a new government there. Karl, Kaldor, and Said argue: “Public debate is less about the long-term future of Iraq and more a competition for access to oil rents. . . This rent seeking cannot only be explained by the removal of an oppressive ruler. It is in part a result of the disappearance of any unifying idea – a commitment to a shared commons – combined with the belief that Iraqis can get rich both from oil and from the influx of billions of dollars of donor monies.”
The oil curse theory is not precise, and some critics, although recognizing its value, say it tries to explain too much. But the theory is clearly more helpful than all those Orientalist analyses that try to explain Iraq today as the consequence of the Sunni-Sh’ite schism more than a millennium ago. We don’t try and explain the recent Conservative victory in Britain by bringing up Henry VIII’s split with Rome, do we?
Noam Sheizaf is an Israeli journalist. This post originally appeared on his blog Promised Land.
Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now (APN), writes in the Forward against even talking about the one-state solution:
Anti-Zionists and some post-Zionists imagine a Palestinian-majority, secular, democratic state; some Israeli right-wingers envision Israel annexing the West Bank, using ploys to disenfranchise its Palestinian residents and finally getting rid of Gaza.
Those of us who care about the future of Israel and the Palestinians should be doing everything we can to capitalize on this realism and to realize the two-state solution, before the opportunity is truly lost. And we should be pushing back hard against casual talk about post-two-state paradigms — because the “alternatives” are just illusions.
I respect Peace Now’s work on the settlements issue in Israel, as well as APN’s lobbying for a more firm US approach towards Jerusalem (Lara Friedman herself is doing a great job on this issue). However, their insistence on regarding the two state solution as the only possible one is both mistaken and counter productive, even with regards to their own goals. Now more then ever, when the US is forcing the Palestinians to negotiate even when the two sides can’t agree what to talk about, it’s essential we discuss other approaches.
To me, it’s clear that even if you oppose it, the one state solution frames the debate better. The essential problem for the Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza is the lack of human and political rights, not the absence of an independent state. There are many ethnic groups in the world that are not independent, but he Palestinians are the only people without citizenship (not to mention under military rule). In the current international system, where rights go hand in hand with citizenship, this has a tremendous effect on their life. The Palestinian problem, at its heart, is a civil rights issue disguised as a diplomatic problem. An independent Palestinian state is a possible solution to this issue, but it’s nothing more than this.
Discussing the one state solution is essential, because is reminds Israelis that their choice is not between the status quo and two states, but between a joint state and ethnic separation. Right now, many Israelis might understand that, but it’s not a notion that shapes their political behavior.
Lara Friedman writes:
“…Still others are adopting a ‘variation-on-the-status-quo’ approach. They suggest that the current situation can be tweaked to be bearable for both sides, until Israelis and Palestinians evolve to the point where a permanent, conflict-ending agreement is possible. This idea is disconnected from reality.”
But the status quo is exactly what Israelis have been choosing for decades now, and will continue to choose as long as they can, because the cost of retreating is simply too high in the eyes of most of them, whether from security reasons or from ideological ones. In other words, faced with a choice between dismantling the settlements and leaving the West Bank or doing nothing, Most Israelis, and above all their leaders, will probably take the latter. On the other hand, if there was a clear choice between one or two state, things could have been different. So even from APN’s perspective, talking about one state might carry real political benefits.
Like many in the Israeli Left, Lara Friedman praises the Oslo agreement and deems the one state solution as something that will promote violence and prolong the conflict. But in the last two decades, it’s the two state paradigm that led to bloodshed. After Oslo ended in the second Intifada and the Gaza withdrawal resulted in Cast Lead, what guarantee we have that the next round will be better? Yet the one state solution is still considered the dangerous one.
Here is just a thought: imagine the Israeli left had spent the time it argued for separating the two societies in fighting against the military laws enforced in the West Bank, and demanding the Palestinians to be tried in civil courts. Wouldn’t that have made the life of Palestinians – and ultimately, Israelis – much better?
This leads me to the most important point, which is the false tendency to see the solution in binary, mutually exclusive, terms. It’s not either the one-state solution or the two states. It could actually both, or neither. We could have a federation or one state with two parliaments, or a federal system, or a regional one. The two states could be a phase on the way leading to a joint system, or the other way around – we could have a civil rights campaign that will lead to the Palestinians gaining individual political rights, and only after that collective ones. That’s the power of looking into the problems in terms of people’s rights (like the one state solution suggests), rather than states’: a whole variety of ideas opens up.
Personally, I don’t consider myself either a two-state or a one-state person. I oppose the status quo, and I want to explore all other options.
After my Haaretz piece on the growing support for the one state solution in the Israeli right was published, I got many responses, both from Israelis and Palestinians. Curiously enough, the only person to criticize me from the Israeli right was one of those opposing the one state solution whom I talked to (he argued that his views were misrepresented in the article). Even more surprising was the fact that the Palestinians I heard were actually pleased with the piece. They didn’t share the settlers’ vision of one big Jewish state, but nevertheless, they tended to see it as some sort of recognition of their problem, and ultimately, a step in the right direction.
When I talked to Saeb Erekat, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, he expressed his commitment to the two state solution, but he didn’t rule out the idea of a joint state. “I am ready to talk about it,” he said, and made it clear that the real problem is the occupation, not the nature of the solution. In a phone call from Gaza, the PLO’s Sufyan Abu Zaydeh expressed similar ideas.
The only real opposition my piece got was from the Jewish left. A torrent of articles, letters to the editor [Hebrew] and comments came, calling the rightwing people I interviewed “frauds”, questioning their motives and blaming me for asking them the wrong questions. Reading these comments, I started suspecting that at least some of these supporters of the two states solution never had the Palestinians’ freedom in mind, but something else completely.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published missing the material after the jump. Our apologies.
Buy Midnight on the Mavi Marmara here.
In a story about the resumption of direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis today, the Times’ Ethan Bronner glumly concedes that the two-state solution is likely DOA:
Most Palestinians — and many on the Israeli left — argue that there are now too many Israeli settlements in the West Bank for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state to arise there. Settlement growth has continued despite a construction moratorium announced by Mr. Netanyahu.
Moreover, support for many of the settlements remains relatively strong in Israel. In other words, if this view holds, the Israelis have closed out any serious option of a two-state solution. So the talks are useless.
This is a significant development.
Anyone who has visited the West Bank and East Jerusalem can see that the idea of two states is all but utopian given the reality of Jewish colonization; but the ideal/fiction of two states must be endorsed in Washington and New York if you are going to be taken seriously, because saying otherwise means that you think the Jewish state is finished. I have known people to privately concede that the idea of a two state solution is crazy but publicly say that they believe in it–in order to be taken seriously. Yesterday on the beach here in Cape Cod, with my mom, I heard a leftwing friend explain to a rightwing friend that she is “for the two-state solution”– a good reminder of the fact that believing in two states is still an avant-garde position, in Jewish life, in complete defiance of the reality, that there is one state there, administered effectively by one side. Bronner’s statement opens the real hope that the Times will begin to inform its readers about the actual state of affairs in Palestine and allow them to start thinking of more creative ways to end the oppression and statelessness of Palestinians. As Noam Sheizaf does in the post above.
On a related note: Bronner quickly blames the end of the two state solution on the Palestinians, saying that they have repeatedly rejected Israel offers of Partition. I have some sympathy for this view—if I were Palestinian, I would think, if we hold out long enough, we will get a majority Palestinian state—but then wouldn’t you do the same thing in the same dispossessed situation?
Also Bronner quotes two Palestinians in the piece but, emphasizing the “Israeli perspective,” far more Israelis. I count four Israelis, including neocon Dore Gold– who despite working for Israeli governments makes $96,000 a year as a scholar of the American Enterprise Institute. The Times says that the piece includes reporting from Ramallah by Khaled Abu-Akr. Naturally I wonder if one or both Palestinian quotes were provided by him; and if Bronner interviews Palestinians; or if the fact that his son is now serving in the IDF makes it hard for him to get Palestinians on the phone? Just making trouble.
I’m at my parents’ house in Cape Cod and am reading the New York Times on newsprint and noticed that the usual fiction about Jewish influence in the political process appears twice in the same day. Both an op-ed on Obama’s failing traction among Jewish voters by Charles Blow and an analysis of the peace negotiations by Mark Landler and Helene Cooper insists on the significance of Jewish “voters” in explaining why Obama has given up on the ’67 borders. Blow emphasizes the Jewish vote in Florida. Cooper and Landler say:
He has always been viewed with a degree of wariness by some Jewish voters in the United States, and undertaking a high-profile initiative heading into the midterm elections could hold both opportunity and peril for him and his party.