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Belgium and Baghdad

This Fareed Zakaria column complaining about the slowness of political progress in Iraq put me to mind of this article I read last week about Belgium.

What’s the connection between a small, stable democracy in Europe and a big, unstable proto-democracy in the Middle East? It may not be obvious at first glance. But it seems that not so far beneath Belgium’s placid surface lurks some major discord. In fact, it has taken Belgian politicians nine months since the last general election to finally settle on a new prime minister. That is largely due to frictions between the Francophone majority and the Fleming minority.

As the Financial Times reports:

These frictions between the country’s regions were at the heart of an embarrassing 192-day political impasse after the election. At the height of the post-poll deadlock, the longest in the country’s history, there were fears that Belgium might even split in two.

If even boring old Belgium finds it hard to reach an amicable accord between differing ethnic groups, imagine how much harder the task is in Iraq, where it’s literally a matter of life or death. Zakaria is right that ethno-sectarian tensions remain a major problem in Iraq, though I think he is wrong to say that the situation has “not improved much.” While he can quibble about the details, there is no doubt that the Iraqi parliament has passed some important reconciliation laws. Even without the passage of a hydrocarbon law, moreover, the central government still manages to share oil revenues with the provinces (though it’s true that government at all levels has problems actually spending its money).

And then there is undeniable fact that some 90,000 men, mainly Sunnis, have joined the Concerned Local Citizens groups to protect their neighborhoods against terrorists. There is no question that tensions linger between these groups and the Shiite-dominated central government. But the situation is still much better than it was a year or two ago when many of the CLC members were actively fighting against the government and its American protectors.

Zakaria is undoubtedly right that even in a best-case scenario, Iraq will require a long-term presence of Americans “in the loop” in order to safeguard the very tenuous progress being made toward a modus vivendi among the competing factions. But that beats the alternative, which is an all-out civil war. The experience of Belgium should make us realize how much patience is required when dealing with deep-rooted tensions and how agonizingly slow political progress can be. That is not, however, an argument for throwing up our hands in despair, as the Democratic presidential candidates seem to be doing.


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