The Structural Disaster in Iraq

by Michael Doliner

June 23, 2003


Much maligned when even noticed, the dull bureaucrat is crucial to the functioning of the modern state. Without his colorless but steady performance of duty opportunists would bleed the state's vast power for personal gain, and services would not be delivered. After its recent destruction, Iraqi's bureaucracy will not be easy to reconstitute. Without a bureaucracy Iraq will not be able to function as a modern state, and this lack will prevent Iraq's reconstruction and the development of its oil wealth. Any remotely competent politician should have anticipated this problem. That the Bush administration did not can only be attributed to incompetence or worse, an indifference to Iraq's fate after they destroyed it.

Max Weber, in his Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, translated by Girth and Mills, outlines the characteristics of bureaucracy. Modern officialdom operates in fixed jurisdictional areas, with regular activities discharged as fixed duties, with a fixed chain of authority, and with methodical provision for fulfillment of these duties. Weber goes on the write, "permanent and public office authority, with fixed jurisdiction, is not the historical rule but rather the exception." There can be large political structures without it where the positions are temporary and their distribution personal. In those conditions the person holds the power, the office does not bestow it. Inevitably, in such conditions, those in power seek to gain from their position, for they hold it only as long as their patron holds his. Furthermore, the patron chooses them for their loyalty, not for their administrative skills. It is upon this loyalty and not these skills that their survival depends. In the modern state even the ruler is the first official of the state, carrying out his official duties for the benefit of the state, not for his own benefit. Although a president, for example, holds great power, when his term is over he must relinquish it. With the loss of the office the power vanishes. "Public monies and equipment are divorced from the private property of the official. This condition is everywhere the product of a long development." The office holder chooses to sacrifice the possibility of personal gain for the security of his position.

Now it might be questioned whether or not Iraq actually had a modern bureaucracy before the war, given that Saddam Hussein obviously appointed friends and family members to high offices. This happens everywhere, even in the United States. In all states both personal and institutional loyalties exist. What is important is that the officials, once installed, operate in a way characteristic of officials rather than vassals. This was true of Iraq, perhaps only because Saddam's rule was so long. Anyway, it seems at least possible that the old ministries could have been transformed into semi-modern ones. Had they been retained and a new government installed the retained officials, given the alternative of unemployment, might have been persuaded to attach their allegiance to the new government. That allegiance would not have been personal, but institutional. The new government could have replaced incompetent officials later. To be sure, the transformation might not have worked, but it had a good chance, and that was the only chance. A competent occupying force would have protected the ministries and attempted such a transformation, especially since it was a key part of the reconstruction of Japan under American occupation. In both cases there was no other choice.

For once such a bureaucratic structure is destroyed, it is extremely difficult to reconstruct. Weber emphasized the long time it takes for a modern bureaucratic system to develop. He examined the transformation of feudal structures into modern ones in which administrative skills gradually became more important than personal ties to the ruler. The situation in Iraq, where a functioning state is suddenly thrown into chaos, was not something Weber contemplated. However, we can see some characteristics that would make it extremely difficult to reconstitute a bureaucracy under these conditions. Weber points out that the bureaucrat trades the benefits he might gain from exploiting his position for security." The relatively great security of the official's income, as well as the rewards of social esteem, make the office a sought-after position." The official enters into a career in which he moves up a hierarchical ladder. The stability of the whole structure is essential to persuade him to sacrifice the possibility of immediate gain for these long-time benefits.

Obviously, no one can provide such guarantees in today's Iraq where what will happen tomorrow is anyone's guess. Given that conditions were already appalling before the war, and many people were starving, it would be extremely difficult to inspire someone to place long term considerations over possible immediate profit. Without a stable state no guarantee of long term benefits is possible. Here, the idea of a career in office is ludicrous.

Rules and duties bind bureaucracies to methodical activities that can be carried out in specific locations. Because most of the ministries of Iraq were destroyed in the war and its aftermath, it will not only be difficult to find officials ready to adopt the modern bureaucratic way of life, but also to provide the tools necessary for that life to be lived. Records, computers, and other tools have been lost. Because everyone is now living from day to day, any new equipment supplied will likely also be looted. Stories of just this happening are coming out of Iraq's oil fields now. It would not be surprising if the officials themselves took the opportunity to loot their own ministries. Trying to rebuild these ministries in the present desperate conditions would be like trying to fill a sieve with water. New equipment will be looted, too, Without stability the bureaucratic life is impossible, and corruption inevitable. On the other hand without a reliable cadre of bureaucrats a stable regime is impossible. Instability breeds corruption, and corruption instability. How can this vicious circle be broken?

Without the presence of the United States Iraq, like Afghanistan, would fall back into a feudal structure in which warlords controlled semi-independent sections of the country. Subordination would be personal, rather than through a hierarchy of offices. Such a structure is much less stable, for it is wholly dependent upon personalities. Oil companies would be unlikely to invest in such an unstable situation, and Iraqi oil would be unobtainable as long as this situation continued.

For the United States to avoid this outcome it will have to produce stability from the outside. First it will have to alleviate the near starvation of much of the population. To do this the United States will have to pay the salaries of the police and other bureaucrats and supply food for everyone else. It will have to do this not as an emergency measure, but in a way that persuades the population that a stable situation has developed. This will not be easy, for distribution of this food will require the bureaucracy that now no longer exists. Even if the US paid the police and other bureaucrats, it would be difficult to keep them from corruptly funneling off the food for sale on the black market. For only the long presence of stability of official structures can produce a belief in stability. Just bringing cash and food into Iraq will not be enough. The police, uncertain of tomorrow, will take advantage of their position for their own benefit. For as Weber points out, everywhere the development of the dutiful bureaucrat takes a long time.

Could the United States bring in a bureaucracy of Americans to run Iraq? That would be monumentally expensive, and in the end, futile. Only a system that is essentially permanent, thus producing stability, will work. These Americans would have to plan to stay for the long term in the face of open Iraqi resistance. Not only would the US have to pay this army of office workers, it would also have to protect them as well. Modern weaponry and Iraqi nationalism will make any attempt to reconstitute the old colonial foreign service enormously expensive, and probably impossible.

These Americans would have to be paid very well, but even so, they would find it difficult to do their jobs. This bureaucracy would be only a thin modern mantle over the seething feudal core of Iraqi society itself. It would be difficult to prevent strongmen, once the food was distributed, from expropriating it. The British Empire had compliant local leaders whose own power had remained under the new rulers. The United States would need to supply virtually every official needed down to the most minor. The Americans in Iraq would be American officials relying on American stability for their long-term benefits. Iraqis, of course, could not do this. Also, Iraq would certainly resist such a colonial government, and the whole corps of officials would become a huge security burden.

Such is just one of the structural difficulties of our present situation in Iraq. Whereas the US is ready to abandon Afghanistan to its feudal future, it will not want to abandon Iraq and its oil. I do not see a solution to this. That the Bush administration has floundered about after the war shows that they too have no solution. This can only bespeak incompetence or criminal indifference.

Without a stable modern state, Iraq will inevitably return to a feudal structure with warlords ruling fiefdoms through vassals loyal to them personally. Such structures are highly unstable. Any reconstruction under such conditions would require huge additional payoffs to the warlords and their underlings all down the line. Redevelopment of the oil fields would require the same large payoffs to warlords who may lose power tomorrow. Oil companies will not do it.

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Iraq on Swans


Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.

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Published June 23, 2003
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