Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Going Tribal II: The House of Tribes

The previous installment highlighted Robert Kaplan's (It's the Tribes Stupid) bottom up approach to stabilizing Iraq, beginning with tribal loyalties. It also highlighted Adrian's excellent post (How to Attack a National Identity) that looked at combating AQI and sectarian collectivism by focusing on tribal identity.

The above were keystones in my own vision of The Surge and how, while successful tactically, it did little to accomplish the American strategy of recreating a stable Iraqi state. Given the American strategic goal in Iraq (defined by the infamous Benchmarks) of national reconciliation and political cohesion the Surge, by utilizing a hard focus on tribal fomentation against the likes of AQI, seems antithetical to the overall strategy. On one end America demands and designs national political resolve, on the other we empower tribal politics and encourage social fracture.
In essence, American tactics and political goals suffer a hefty gap and what's needed is something to bridge that gap and bring the top down political rebuild and the bottom up tribal empowerment together.

Enter Karasik and Schbley's House of Tribes:

Our proposal envisions revamping the Iraqi constitution to create a federal branch with two houses: a lower house comprised of all political parties and dealing with daily political, social and economic issues; and a higher House of Tribes, based on tribal affiliations, not provinces. This would introduce a check and balance system that would benefit all Iraqis and set the stage for pure Iraqi reunification. The governance scope of this higher body would be the same as the lower.

Tribal leaders should not be defined by geographic location but by their constituencies. Each tribe should have an equal number of representatives. In recent discussions with regional Iraqi tribal elders, Sunni and Shiite tribes sought a compact that would end violence and promote stability. They see other Gulf Arab countries, specifically the United Arab Emirates, as a model for federal development. Such an effort could enhance U.S. policy towards Iraq by diminishing the notion that Washington is taking sides.

Overall, a balance of power is missing from Iraq today, making the government weak. The Awakening Council is a first step, but not a long-term solution, because it is only a temporary entity, and is not fully inclusive. This contributes to splits and conflicts among tribes. Creating an institution for tribal leaders would provide them an incentive to participate in the political process and open the door to full integration of tribal forces into the Iraqi security and police forces. A House of Tribes could usher in a form of democracy, unique to Iraq, which heals and brings peace.



Chirol said...

Definitely an interesting suggestion. Could also be a model for afghanistan and other countries trying to move upwards away from tribal politics.

Dan tdaxp said...

Reading the first part of your post, I was prepared to reply with "tribalism can be seen as a form of federalism."

You're clearly a step ahead of me!

Very clever link!

Kotare said...

This proposal seems to me like yet another naive attempt by outsiders, in this case Americans, to graft an alien political system onto Iraqi society. In any case, it ignores the fact that a great deal of power in Iraq rests with groups other than political parties and "tribes".

subadei said...

chirol, yep.

dan, there's a first time for everything ;)

Peter, interesting, which groups? I've got more questions but let's clarify that bit first.

kotare said...

Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi army is the main one. In Basra, Fadhila, which is powerful in the oilfields. Also, the Mujahideen Shura Council, Sunni nationalist groups, and Ansar al-Islam (in northern Iraq).

I don't profess to be an expert on Iraq, but I know enough to think that, like the federal models which seemed to have been in vogue a while back, Karasik and Schbley's House of Tribes concept says more about their understanding of American representative politics than it does about Iraqi politics.

Adrian said...

Tribal structures and authority has often been used by imperial/occupation forces to control societies with tribal elements. The track record is not good. Like Peter says, tribalism is only one element in Iraqi society. The notion of elevating tribal leaders (as the UPPER house) above the rest of society strikes me as a very bad idea, especially if this is imposed on Iraq by outsiders.

Dan tdaxp said...

"Tribal structures and authority has often been used by imperial/occupation forces to control societies with tribal elements. The track record is not good"

What is the track record?

Adrian said...

Short-term success, long-term failure. British and French colonialism, the Pakistanis in FATA, US in Iraq (with the long-term being undecided so far obviously) and what I've been studying in depth, France and Mali and Niger in the Sahara.

Dan tdaxp said...

"Short-term success, long-term failure. British and French colonialism,"

Could you be more specific than that? The British and French held many colonies for centuries, and still have very good relationships with several of them.

Likewise, if you're being specific that tribal politics was typical of British and French colonialism, as opposed to other European colonialism, then it's a ringing endorsment!

Adrian said...

How about I flip the question and ask you to provide me with an example where coopting tribal authority did something more than allowing the central government to do something more than manage violence and play tribes off against each other?

Dan tdaxp said...

The classic examplar would be the tribes of Democratic Athens. Once patriotism to the city metastisized the tribla system was reorganized, but that's obviously a sign of success, not failure.

Within the British Empire, a sort of neotribal example would be the Empire's handling of the Maroons.

More broadly, Machiavelli noted that divide-and-conquer strategies work as far as maintaining peace, but present a weakness when it comes to war against other states. In situations like Jamaica or (perhaps) Iraq, though, conventional warfare is prohibited by the hegemon, which means the dangerous comes from SysAdmin-take events.... where a divide-and-conquer strategy might well be useful.

Ortho said...

Dan writes, "Within the British Empire, a sort of neotribal example would be the Empire's handling of the Maroons."

Could you please be more specific? What do you mean with the qualifier "neotribal"? Where and when in the British Empire? 18th-century Jamaica?

Dan writes, "In situations like Jamaica or (perhaps) Iraq, though, conventional warfare is prohibited by the hegemon, which means the dangerous comes from SysAdmin-take events.... where a divide-and-conquer strategy might well be useful."

Could you please explain this interesting statement a bit more?

Dan tdaxp said...


"Could you please be more specific? What do you mean with the qualifier "neotribal"?"

Maroon people emerged after contact with western forces. Often when we say "Tribe" we are referring to some group that existed since the distant past. Everyone agrees that the Maroons came to be after their ancestors fled plantations.

"Where and when in the British Empire? 18th-century Jamaica? "

That is what I was thinking of, yes.

"Could you please explain this interesting statement a bit more?"


Machavelli's criticism of encouraging factions was that it made rule easy in easy times, and hard in hard times. That is, the foreign power could govern through the factions, because most of the times those factions were seeking to undermine each other, but once an enemy army appeared, the weaker faction would support the invader, so a dire situation would become even worse.

However, Machiavelli's criticism presupposes that a conventional force could actually threaten the security of the governed state. If one's conventional forces are strong enough to deter that, that downside is covered.

stephenpampinella said...

Great post and comments. But, the ideas of a House of Tribes sounds a lot like a power sharing strategy of governance based on consociationalism, advocated by scholars like Arend Lijphart. In conflictual societies, Lijphart suggests that the only way to end conflicts of identity is to politically recognize those identities and give them access to government institutions. The problem though is that this can reify and even strengthen those identities. This was how the post-Tito Yugoslavs sought to maintain the unity of that state, by parcelling access to state institutions based on ethnic-group identity, and not a civic-individual identity. In the end, it only served to reinforce ethnicity and provide an institutional circumstance that reproduced communal discourses at the expense of a national Yugoslav identity. If this were applied in Iraq, I think it might only make the tribes stronger.

- Arend Lijphart (1977) Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

Kotare said...

Dan - I'm not sure that the ten "tribes" of classical Athens, which as I understand it were more akin to electorates, were the same thing as the tribes that we are talking about (extended kin groups, often divided into sub-groups - clans and their equivalents - based on common descent from an eponymous ancestor or ancestors).

To move slightly back towards the topic of Jay's post, the notion of a tribal council sitting atop a democratically elected lower house seems ludicrous. Who governs? The people through their elected representatives, or un-elected tribal chieftains? We're talking about two different systems of political organisation here. More a House of Cards than a House of Tribes.

Jay - I'm intrigued to hear your "interesting questions".

Dan tdaxp said...

Stephen has a good point, and surely tribalism is worse than a common national culture. Tribalism isn't a preferred system of government, but rather one that is better than available alternatives.

Kotare is correct that the 10-13 tribes of post-reform Athens were not tribes in the Iraqi sense. But the 3-4 tribes that composed Athens from the liberation from Crete to the reforms of Solon were. If Yugoslavia shows how tribal governments can fail to create a common body politic, Athens show how they can succeed. Kotare's criticism of an upper House of Tribe reads nearly identicaially to criticism of the (UK) House of Lords of the (US) Senate, if written 150 years ago.

Ortho said...

Dan, thank you for answering my previous questions. I now understand the argument and comparisons you were attempting to make.

Dan writes, Kotare's criticism of an upper House of Tribe reads nearly identicaially to criticism of the (UK) House of Lords of the (US) Senate, if written 150 years ago.

Could you please make this analogy more specific? Or perhaps explain it a bit more and provide some evidence that supports it.

Stephen, good point. Does it come from your paper on how to dissolve "identity" through COIN?

Dan tdaxp said...

"Could you please make this analogy more specific? Or perhaps explain it a bit more and provide some evidence that supports it."

Of course.

Kotare criticized "a tribal council sitting atop a democratically elected lower house" as "ludicrous." His concern is that this takes power away from "the people" to "un-elected" representatives of special interests.

However, that was precisely the role served by the House of Lords, slowing down the reforms of the lower House of Commons, to reduce social friction and allow the Lords to gradually whither away over time. (Of course, the Lords would not have seen their view this way, just as Chiefs would not either. Still, if our strategy is forward looking, that would their be functional use.)

Likewise, the US Senate was formed as a "House of States," if you will, where un-elected Senators were elected by their respective Legislatures. While the progressive era reformed the process and made the Senators directly elected, there is still a large anti-democratic component to the Senate (Wyoming and California both having two votes), for similar reasons (slow down the demands of the large states, to reduce social friction).

subadei said...

Hi Peter,

Actually Dan's analogy plays better than mine but I'll toss it out there anyway.

I was actually thinking in more in line with the Roman republic and the power sharing (leveraging, struggling, etc.) between the largely patrician senate and the plebeian assembly. More specifically, the Comitia Tributa.

Michael said...

Kotare, going back to one of your first comments, I have to ask: What, aside from firepower, is the difference between Sadre's group and a political party? And given the rowdiness of electoral politics in American history (see GANGS OF NEW YORK), is firepower even a significant difference?

More generally, I think an important point is being missed in this discussion. The Surge devolved a fair amount of power to the tribal groups in Anbar. It could yet devolve power in the Shiite areas to tribal groups or to locally concentrated groups like Sadr's. And power among the Kurdish groups was already decentralized from the central government before we arrived in '03. If those local leaders, elected or not, are going to stay within a united Iraq, they're going to need a say in how things are run. This House of Tribes suggestion provides A means by which that can be done.

Anonymous said...

Incorporating tribes into the political structure could be a good way for
Gap societies to adapt as they are being challenged and transformed by increasing connectivity. These societies are going to need to develop modern political institutions. But as we know, pre-modern institutions like tribes aren't just going to disappear and so it may be practical to incorporate pre-modern institutions as part of the larger, modern government in a way that is appropriate to the local circumstances. The old idea of mixed government can provide a general concept and the Roman, British and American founding era can provide examples of how it has been manifested in different societies. Bringing in a party-based, proportional representation form of democracy may not be the right institution, so as people in the Gap cast around for ideas for creating a non-despotic government this might prove to be more relevant to their specific conditions.

subadei said...

michael, good points. However, while Sadr's kinetic resistance is centered on Baghdad (specifically Sadr city) what of the scope of his philosophy and the lingering effects of his fathers legacy? How far ingrained into the Shiite majority is this? In this respect I think Peter has a point. Muqtada al Sadr's presence would seem to transcend tribal loyalty and foster a sectarian division both on the street and in the Iraqi Parliament. If the House of Tribes strategy is to be applied well, al Sadr will have to become either a full fledged politician (and let go of his personal ambitions and armies) or be devolved in the sense you mention in your comments. Of course, given that he's a "native son" of sorts the tactics that encouraged the Anbar Awakening against AQI might not be nearly enough. Further, his death would likely inflame and unite Shia resistance.

subadei said...


Intriguing bit of commentary. We might call it transitional tribal authority. Indeed it could serve well to fill the chaotic void that stretches from suddenly decapitated (from whatever cause) oligarchies.

Michael said...

Or maybe Sadre would be better off running for the lower house as head of a Sadrist political party? If things were set up in the same way as the British parliament, that would put him in line to become Prime Minister.