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A State That's Not a State

The U.S. can invent a 'sovereign' entity, but there's no guarantee that the creature won't become a monster.

June 28, 2004|Adam Hochschild | Adam Hochschild is the author of "The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey" (Penguin, 1990) and "The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin" (Viking, 1994). His "Bury the Chains," about the British antislavery movement, will be published by Houghton Mifflin in January. A longer version of this article appears at

About 15 years ago I traveled through one of the nominally independent "homelands" of apartheid-era South Africa. The white regime had come up with this control mechanism in a country where whites were vastly outnumbered. These homelands -- or Bantustans -- made up about 13% of the nation's land and were for the most part rural slums where blacks long had been crowded into eroded or less fertile areas that the white farmers didn't want.

I was driving across miles of veldt where farmers were trying to scratch a living out of unyielding land, interspersed with masses of shantytown shacks. Then suddenly, looming up out of this desolate landscape, was a huge office building, perhaps four or five stories high and 150 yards long, with a large sign saying "South African Embassy."

I remembered this building the other day when reading about the U.S. Embassy that will open in Baghdad this week, the largest in the world, with a staff of more than 1,700 people. In much the same way that the new U.S. Embassy will be considerably more than an embassy, the Iraqi state that will officially come into being Wednesday will, like the old South African homelands, be considerably less than a state.

The reality is that with nearly 140,000 American troops on Iraqi soil, most military power will not be in Iraqi hands. Nor, with Washington largely paying the bills, will the budget. Furthermore, American administrator L. Paul Bremer III has already appointed a number of people to crucial watchdog and regulatory commissions for five-year terms.

If the Iraq-to-be is not a state, what is it? We do not really have a word for the government of a country where most real power is in the hands of someone else. Pseudo-state, perhaps. From Afghanistan to the Palestinian Authority, Bosnia to Congo, pseudo-states are now spread out around the globe. Some of them will even be exchanging ambassadors with Iraq.

Pseudo-states are nothing new, and two notable collections of them had surprising fates near the 20th century's end. One group was the homelands of South Africa, four of which were formally independent -- Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Transkei and Venda. The so-called South African embassies evolved seamlessly out of the white administrations that formerly ran these territories, just as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is beginning life in the very same Republican Palace complex from which Bremer has run Iraq for the last year.

The South African government equipped the homelands with everything from foreign ministries to luxurious, gated residential compounds for Cabinet members. The territories were given flags, national anthems and the like.

But it was all an expensive illusion. No country except South Africa recognized the "independent" Bantustans as sovereign nations. And when a 1988 coup temporarily deposed Lucas Mangope, the president of Bophuthatswana, it was the South African army that promptly restored him to power.

As South Africa made its miraculous transition to majority rule in the early 1990s, the homelands as separate political entities swiftly vanished. The only people to whom the past trappings of their independence still matter today are collectors who do a lively trade in the territories' stamps.

Another class of pseudo-states, however, had a very different fate: the 15 Soviet socialist republics that composed the Soviet Union. These too were decked out with the external indicators of sovereignty, and for two of the republics, Byelorussia and Ukraine, you didn't even have to leave the United States to see their flags and other symbols. They'd been given something that South Africa's homelands never got: seats at the United Nations, a concession that Stalin had wrung from the Allies at the end of World War II.

But everyone knew, despite Soviet propaganda, that these so-called republics were nothing of the sort. They had no independence; ultimate power resided in Moscow. (Moscow could even dissolve them at will: A short-lived 16th Soviet socialist republic along the Finnish border simply disappeared in 1956.) And yet, in that other unexpected transformation of the early 1990s, it was the Soviet Union itself that evaporated -- and its 15 pseudo-states, overnight, turned into real ones.

The Iraq that will come into being this week will not closely resemble either the South African homelands or the old Soviet republics. But their histories, though radically different, suggest the same lesson: Because such creations are acts of such hubris, pseudo-states often turn out different from what their inventors intended. And the larger and more unstable the pseudo-state, the more likely that plans will go awry.

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