Politics & Policy

Exporting Switzerland

The model Iraq needs to follow.

After a brief, almost bloodless war we have an ethnically and religiously divided nation. Mischievous neighbors on all sides can claim common cause with one or more of the major ethnic and religious groups vying for power. The largest ethnic faction has strong cultural ties to a powerful and expansionist neighbor, and is feared by other great powers nearby. Certain groups within the country are taking orders from religious authorities outside their borders in an attempt to impose a state reflecting their theology. Other nationalist radicals and many minorities are determined not to allow the creation of anything other than a secular state, because that’s the only way to guarantee their own security.

Iraq 2003? Nope. Switzerland 1847.

I bring this up for a few reasons. First, I’m a big fan of Switzerland. I’ve been there a couple times now. The first time was on a trip for the U.S.-Swiss Foundation and — as this column makes clear, I stay bought — I see absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t have me back again. And speaking of staying bought, the next time I was in Switzerland was on my honeymoon. Second, Switzerland is a conservative’s sort of country. Historically free-market and free-trade (though today less than it should be), pro-gun and pro-defense, Switzerland was seen as a “sister republic” by the Founding Fathers. America’s original Articles of Confederation were based on the Swiss “league of friendship,” which loosely held together sovereign states. Later, the U.S. Constitution became the model for the Swiss constitution in 1847.

But the main and obvious reason why I bring up Switzerland is that I am flummoxed by the fact nobody else has done so in all the talk about rebuilding Iraq. Switzerland is peaceful now, but it was formed by warring tribes of Germans, Italians, French, and Romansch, and divided along religious lines in a strategically vital region of Europe not unlike Iraq’s place in the Middle East. It seems to me the Swiss model is almost precisely what the Iraqis need. Militarily, Switzerland is a threat to no one but invaders; its neutrality and armed pacifism are a matter of national pride, as is its desire to be a force for good in the region and the world. It’s rich, stable, improbably happy — and, yeah, just a little boring in the eyes of the rest of the world. In a sense, History has ended in the Swiss Alps, and that’s the way everyone likes it. Who would be crying in their beer if we could say the same thing about Iraq?


The beauty of the Swiss model is that it is far more of a federal system than ours (though far less of one than the one we should have). Forgive me if I take two seconds to wax lyrical about the joys of federalism. This is the system — not theocracy, not benevolent dictatorship, and certainly not pure democracy — which guarantees the most happiness for the most people. Why? Because federalism contains virtually no ideological, metaphysical, or theological assumptions about how other people should live. I’ve used the example of college dorms before, but it’s been a couple years so if you remember this schtick feel free to skim ahead.

Say you have a college campus with ten dorms. Let’s assume it’s not an all-women’s college or a historically black college, because as we all know students at these schools don’t need the benefits of “diversity.” Instead, let’s assume it is your typical campus-that-looks-like-America. So you have the usual distribution of blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians, as well as generic stoners, jocks, study geeks, Dead Heads, funnel-pounders, religious students, and foreign students. If you set one policy for the entire dorm system — say, no parties past 10, no loud stereos past 8, no playing those odd games with unusual scoring in the hallways — you could upset a plurality if not a majority of the students. If you put the policy up for a vote, a multiracial coalition of jocks, stoners, funnel-pounders, and Dead Heads (or are they Phish freaks today?) could out-vote the study geeks and religious and foreign students and put in a 24-hour party-like-it’s-1999 policy. That would breed the resentment of the kids who just wanted to read while the rest of the dorm was whupping it up like Robert Downey Jr. on parole.

But a federal system would solve these problems. If each dorm were allowed to set its own policies, reflecting the priorities and attitudes of the people directly affected by those policies, you would have more students living exactly as they wanted to. Hence, happiness has been maximized.


The same goes for Iraq. If the Shiites in the south want to govern their own affairs, much as the Kurds already have in the north, that’s fine. In a federal system, only those decisions which cannot be made at the most local level get pushed upstairs. In the south they want to kick it Shia style. That’s cool. But why should they tell the Sunnis in central Iraq or the Kurds in northern Iraq how to live their lives? And, it should be remembered that the Shia are hardly monolithic. There are relatively secular Shia. There are hyper-religious Shia and there are Shia who claim to be very religious but who are actually religious-nationalists of a different sort, eager to create an Iran-dominated Shia zone. Like the Jesuits from abroad in Switzerland, Iranian Shia are stirring up trouble (see Michael Ledeen’s outstanding article from Tuesday).

For this reason, it would be absurd to create one giant Shia canton in the south. That would in effect be declaring a separate country. Rather, the south should be divided up into nine or ten cantons — someone who knows more about the internal divisions there could figure that out. Dividing the community up would have several benefits. For one thing, it would allow for more experimentation and more freedom for different communities to live differently. But the most important benefit would be that it would create many leaders and many political parties with a vested interest in political competition. We should all remember that stuff in the Federalist Papers about how “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The more monolithic the Shia community — or any community — the fewer leaders it will produce.

As we all know, adding more politicians to a problem doesn’t solve much, but it does solve the problem of too few politicians. Politics is a market too. Ambition forces politicians to find the weaknesses of other politicians. They criticize failings, demand accountability. The Mark Greens, Ralph Naders, and John McCains of the world may be flawed, but it still helps to have people around demanding that we “open the books” and hold other politicians responsible for their decisions. Gitchy-goo liberals may think crusaders demand investigations because they are “tireless servants of the public good” — and maybe some of them are. But most of them are ambitious climbers. The brilliance of the American Founding was that it recognized both that men are not angels, and that a good government could be formed not despite this fact but because of it: Even leeches, when properly applied, can disinfect a wound.

If we slice up Iraq into a bunch of different cantons, each local area will produce its own politicians, who will inevitably point out the flaws of other politicians. That’s good stuff. The more bickering the better, because that forces honesty and accountability (something people who want more bipartisanship in America should realize). The full Shia community would still have representation at the national level, in the same way that western or southern senators and congressmen tend to vote in blocs here in the States.

Moreover, like the minority Catholics in 19th-century Switzerland, various ethnic groups have an vested interest in keeping the central government weak, because that gives local politicians more power and average citizens more say in the events that effect their day-to-day lives. If the ayatollahs and clerics of the south want Shiites to live by Shiite rules, they need to understand that a non-religious state is the best way to achieve that. Sure, it may sound nice to allow democracy to run the show, but that would mean millions of Sunnis and Kurds being forced to live under the yoke of someone else’s values.

Now it can’t be a 100-percent federal system, for three reasons. First, the country will fly apart and nobody in the region wants that. Lebanonization would not be a victory for anybody, save perhaps the Syrians. Second, a pure federal system doesn’t protect the rule of law and individual liberty enough. Remember, the democratic tyrannies of the South permitted slavery after all. To ensure that the Shia don’t oppress the minority Christians, Sunnis, etc., in their own communities, a strong bill of rights and legal system would be necessary. Shia customs would dominate in the Shia cantons, but there would be fundamental limits to what any state government — local or national — could do. And the last reason federalism would have to be tempered is that the oil industry and national defense should be run from the national government. (Resolved: If the original U.S. government had had oil revenues we might never have scrapped the Articles of Confederation — discuss among yourselves). It’s not Shia oil or Kurdish oil — it’s Iraqi oil. Similarly, the army would need to be a national institution, rather than a Raj-style police force that uses one tribe or ethnic group to crush another. The Iraqi state needs encourage Iraqis to see themselves as Iraqis. Not with a common sense of fear, as in the old regime, but with a common sense of pride and shared effort.

I realize that our government recognizes many of these principles in its plans for Iraq. But it also needs to explain these principles in terms everyone can grasp. People keep saying this sort of “state-building” is unprecedented. Maybe. Maybe not. But if it’s unprecedented, it’s unprecedented as a project of an outside government. And besides, it’s not unprecedented in the sense that a multi-ethnic, peaceful, prosperous, heterogeneous state can emerge from war. Switzerland did it, and we should explain that — to the Iraqis and to the world. Edmund Burke said that example is the school of mankind and it will learn at no other. Well, here’s the example Iraq needs. And if the Swiss want to help out, I would be glad to go back there and explain their own government to them over the course of several weeks.


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