Symbolism vs. Substance in Iraq

This must be the golden age of symbolism. In war-torn Iraq, its political leaders are demanding that foreign workers who are trying to rebuild that country must be subject to the Iraqi legal system.

Do you have any idea what the Iraqi legal system is? Are you prepared to risk your freedom, and perhaps your life, to find out?

Obviously subjecting foreign workers and entrepreneurs to a wholly different legal system from the one they are used to is creating yet another obstacle to recruiting people whose skills and experience are urgently needed to get Iraq back on its feet again as a functioning society.

But the symbols of sovereignty are apparently more important than the substance of a restored economy and society, at least in the eyes of some Iraqi politicians.

Sovereign rulers of many countries have allowed some people to live under a different set of laws, when that served some larger economic or social purpose. For centuries, many towns and villages in Eastern Europe lived under German law, even though the native populations in the surrounding countrysides lived under the laws of their Slavic rulers.

German immigrants brought many skills and industries to Eastern Europe and local officials saw those economic benefits as being more important than the symbolism of sovereignty. The Ottoman Empire likewise allowed various foreign peoples to live under a separate set of rules, in order to attract them and the benefits that they could bring to the country.

Many American and other foreign civilians working in Iraq have already left because of the terrorist attacks that continue to plague the country. Working under a legal cloud of uncertainty that can disrupt and even end their lives can only have a negative effect that will cost Iraq much needed help in rebuilding their economy and society.

Countries that have had little else have often placed an inordinate value on the trappings of sovereignty and nationhood.

Some years ago, Malaysia switched its educational system from the English language, which is widely understood in that country, to the indigenous language — which has nothing like the scientific, economic, medical and other literature that is available in English. Nor is the Malay language anywhere near as widely used as English in world commerce, aviation, or other fields.

Belatedly, scientific and technical fields in Malaysia are resuming teaching in English. The cost of not doing so turned out to be too high. Substance is making at least a partial comeback against symbolism.

Other countries have indulged in costly symbolism in many ways. Small third-world countries have created their own national airlines, even though neither the volume of air traffic nor the incomes of the people are enough to make these airlines self-supporting. But these countries do not want to be just a stop on the international routes of British Airways or American Airlines.

Other third-world countries such as India for many years kept out foreign products and discouraged foreign investment, ostensibly to prevent “exploitation” but at least in part for the symbolism of economic self-sufficiency. During the past dozen years, however, India has moved away from such expensive symbolism and has seen its economy begin growing robustly.

In normal times, perhaps Iraq could pass through various phases of symbolism and come out on the other side with a clearer sense of a need to avail itself of whatever knowledge and skills can be gotten from other countries. But these are nothing close to normal times.

Iraq is trying to rise from the ashes of war and create a kind of government that is very different from whatever has existed there before — or indeed, anywhere in the Islamic Middle East — while still trying to fight off internal terrorist attacks.

Iraq needs all the help it can get, from whatever sources can supply that help, just in order to survive as an intact nation through all this. We can only hope that substance will prevail over symbolism on the issue of subjecting foreign workers to Iraqi laws. But the track record shows that symbolism carries a lot of weight in politics.