The Washington Post Column

After the Card Game

To date, American troops have picked up the five of spades (Saddam Hussein’s half-brother) as well as the queen of spades (a former Iraqi prime minister). The ace of spades, Hussein himself, is still at large, however. So too are the ace of clubs (his son Qusay) and the ace of hearts (his son Uday). When U.S. military authorities issued a pack of cards featuring the faces of the 55 “most wanted Iraqis,” they literally turned the hunt for Iraq’s leaders into a game. That’s all very well — so long as everyone recognizes that the real work will begin only when the hunt-and-capture game ends. If it is to succeed at all, the “de-Baathization” of Iraq has to include not merely the arrest of a handful of bad guys but also the revolutionary transformation of the Iraqi political class, and probably the Iraqi economy too. To see what I mean, look around the world at the successes and failures of South Africa, Chile, Nazi Germany, Serbia and the Soviet Union, among others. From their experiences, we can draw up a very few, very broad rules of thumb.

Number one, and most important: The complex process of coming to terms with a tragic history cannot be just one big event, either a set of American-led war crimes trials like those of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, or a U.N. tribunal, like the one investigating Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serb dictator, in The Hague. Call it the First Law of Democratic Transition: The Iraqi national conversation about Saddam Hussein’s reign needs to become a permanent part of public life, informing the work of historians, writers and teachers as well as politicians. Archives must be carefully and systematically published; everyone should have the right to see his or her personal file; the discussion of torture, of prisons and of missing people needs to last years, not months.

After the fall of the apartheid regime, South Africa let ordinary people tell their stories to “truth commissions,” publicly sanctioned forums open to all. The commissions, which met for almost a decade, not only helped the victims feel they had achieved some kind of justice but also taught the rest of the country the truth about the past. F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid president of South Africa, claimed that he first heard there of the torture and beatings carried out in South African jails. True or not (and most thought not), de Klerk’s public admission helped the former white ruling class to accept its guilt, collective and individual, as well.

And this matters, as the Second Law of Democratic Transition goes like this: However apparently discredited a regime is, it’s only a matter of time before its functionaries begin to creep stealthily back into power. For this reason, the second most important goal of the U.S. occupation of Iraq must be to prevent the old regime from turning its material wealth back into political capital, as has happened in almost every country of the former Soviet bloc. Removing, as far as possible, the subsidies, export permits and other distortions from the Iraqi economy might or might not lead to faster growth, but it would certainly end the privileged position of those who owned the subsidized industries, those who wielded the export permits, those who benefited from the distortions. As far as possible, a new entrepreneurial class must be allowed to arise, for the sake of Iraqi politics as much as Iraqi economics.

Last but not least, the final rule of thumb — the Third Law of Democratic Transformation — dictates that as far as possible, the Iraqis themselves must “own” the transformation process. To see what I mean, look no farther than East Germany, a country that was effectively colonized by West Germany. True, East Germany has better roads and cleaner water than most of its ex-communist neighbors, but it also has painfully high unemployment and fewer indigenous businesses. Hungarians may be saddled with a murkier legal system, but at least they designed it themselves; Estonians may not get the same level of unemployment benefit, but at least they wrote their own tax code. The more the new Iraq is built by Iraqis, the more stable a place it is likely to be.

And here, of course, is where all my neat-sounding laws begin to contradict one another. After nearly a quarter-century beneath Hussein’s thumb, Iraq doesn’t have many “clean” judges who can conduct war crimes trials, or uncompromised scholars who can write new history books, or experienced capitalists without connections to the old regime. That means the American occupying forces need to turn over control of the country, as soon as possible, to the right mix of lower-ranking officials and businessmen, dissidents and exiles, people who are experienced enough to rule but untainted enough to be credible. For the United States, helping to find and form such a government is a task of immense subtlety, requiring time, intimate knowledge of the country and wide reserves of patience. It won’t be nearly as easy as dealing out a pack of cards, or even knocking down a house of them.