Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Beyond the Food Crisis

It is amusing how many sources (not of which are particularly authoritative) a Google search can reveal for that old adage, "When you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." What may be less amusing is that most (if not all) of those sources are American, because it indicates the extent to which those with whom we refuse to communicate may have an idea or two worth noticing. This is evident is a report for Reuters filed this morning by Dean Yates based on another report just released by Refugees International:

The anti-U.S. movement of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is now Iraq's main humanitarian organization helping needy Iraqis, a relief group said in a report that is certain to cause concern in Washington.

In the report published on Tuesday, Refugees International said Sadr's Mehdi Army militia as well as other Shi'ite and Sunni Arab militias were expanding their influence by providing food, shelter and other essentials to Iraqis left destitute by war.

The findings underscore Sadr's mass appeal ahead of provincial elections in October and will cause concern for U.S. officials who see reducing the influence of the militias as one of the Iraqi government's key challenges.

Sadr's political movement will compete for the first time in the local polls and is expected to make gains at the expense of other Shi'ite parties supporting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

In other words, if you really want to win "hearts and minds," there is a lot to be said for "providing food, shelter and other essentials!"

We should not have needed Refugees International to tell us this, nor should we have needed them to tell us that the Mehdi Army is doing a better job then either the American presence or the Iraqi government being supported by that presence. However, in the wake of last week's Congressional testimony, it is worth nothing that neither the testifying subjects (General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker) nor those questioning them (nor, for that matter, the media reporting on the testimony) wanted to talk very much about the current state of the welfare (if any) of the general Iraqi population. Instead, the focus was on "security," particularly security within the "Green Zone," which has become a painful symbol of the isolation of American interests from the rest of Iraq.

Needless to say, this is news that has also been coming out of Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been reemerging in that same name of general public welfare. In both countries the officially "elected" government is perceived as corrupt; and that corruption is seen as feeding both personal gain and American interests. This is not to speak in favor of the Taliban (particularly in view of their past "legitimate" administration of Afghanistan) or the Mehdi Army; but it is to call attention to that last sentence in the quotation. If Sadr is serious about participating in the political process, then we should be paying attention to the extent to which he now seems to be more interested in butter than guns.

Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan was in any of the lists I cited of countries currently enduring food riots. This is probably less an indication of there being a food crisis and more an indication of the extent to which the food problem is competing with so many other problems. Sadr seems to have committed the resources at his disposal to feeding Iraqis in the same way that the institutions of capitalism have been committing their resources to those "37 countries" contending with "violent protests" over food. This could be the sort of ideological battle in which neither "side" loses. It could even provide a situation in which each "side" could learn from the other. This is, admittedly, a far-fetched point of view; but, given the way events have been playing themselves out in the first decade of our new century, the far-fetched seems to become a little bit more normative every day!

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