Washington The tangibles of war are the realm of armies that capture towns, beachheads or hilltops. The intangibles of conflict are the work of thinkers such as Ghazi Yawar, Iraq's interim president. Happily, Yawar is crisp of mind and phrase.
Take the issue of nationalism. Saddam Hussein "worked systematically to erase" Iraqi identity over the course of three decades and replace it with an inflated and sinister version of Arab nationalism, Yawar said in an hour's conversation with Washington Post journalists last week.
Yawar, who is a candidate for Iraqi national assembly elections scheduled for Jan. 30, says the vote will show that the dictator failed. "Even if we are Arabs, we cannot have any identity but an Iraqi identity," he added in a phrase rich with significance for war and peace in the Middle East.
An Iraqi identity that is not bound up with perpetuating the long progression of wars that Saddam started, supported or invited will change the face of the region. It also will contribute decisively to redefining the nature of Arab nationalism, which is under enormous historical pressures to adapt or die.
Yawar is aware that his government must do more than physically defeat Baathist die-hards. Winning also means dismantling a deeply ingrained stereotype of Arab nationalism that was formed early in the 20th century, when colonial powers swept into the region, and which still holds sway.
An instinctual love of revolt and fighting, inflexible clan loyalties and an unquestioning rejection of Western influence were traits emphasized by "Orientalists" (in Edward Said's term) such as T.E. Lawrence and others who sketched the Arabs as ignoble savages who would not and could not adapt to international norms -- and were therefore perversely admirable.
The tragic tangibles of today's conflict in Iraq -- casualties, destroyed towns, reports of inept and corrupt local and international officials -- have brought Lawrence and other colonial-era analysts back into vogue, for understandable reasons.
But to suggest that Arab character is immutable from one century to the next or that it is somehow impervious to global trends is to engage in a reverse romanticism that denigrates an entire people. It is to adopt a view of human nature that is rooted as deeply in racism as in history. In this view, Arab countries will never be more than "tribes with flags."
Saddam lived on the other side of the same coin. He placed the brutal imperatives of tribal life at the center of his malignant, redefinition of nationalism. "The Arabs" were simply one large tribe that needed to avenge past defeats by destroying Israel and Iran, and lining Saddam's pockets in the process. Iraq today is a giant crucible of forces that battle to perpetuate or change this concept.
The commitment to change comes through clearly in the words of Yawar, a civil engineering graduate of George Washington University as well as a notable of the Sunni Shamar tribe. He rejects the notion that Iraqi nationalism is the driving force of those who bomb and behead to destabilize the government and the election.
"They are not 'insurgents,' they are terrorists who are trying to undermine the government, terrify the people, drive everybody insane" to regain power, said Yawar, who estimates that 80 percent of the followers "and 100 percent of the leadership are Saddam loyalists. ... They say 'we have to live and you have to die.' This is murder," not nationalism.
Yawar is now the stabilizing fulcrum of an interim government that is in disarray as Prime Minister Ayad Allawi maneuvers to undermine the schedule for the Jan. 30 election and thus prolong his tenure. Asked about Allawi's suggestion last week that the voting should be stretched out over three weeks, Yawar dismissed it by summing up the importance of that vote for Iraqis, Americans and the world community:
"We don't have another solution, really. ... We must make this work." The interim government's legitimacy and its existence, his comments suggested, depend entirely on delivering the elections, on schedule.
Those elections should help move Iraq along from the present unforgiving battle for tangibles -- a battle that over the long term cannot favor a foreign invasion force -- toward the struggle of ideas that must follow.
There is no guarantee that the elections will bring stability, or that the creation of a government that puts Iraqi interests before inflated "Arab" interests is in fact achievable at an acceptable cost to Americans or Iraqis. But Yawar makes clear the devastating consequences for global stability of not trying in Iraq to change both history and stereotypes.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.