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Opinion

A better benchmark for Iraq: lawyers

Lawsuits signify social progress. We don't kill people; we sue them.

By Douglas A. Borer / July 29, 2008



Monterey, Calif.

How are we doing in Iraq? To help answer this question, the United States government came up with 18 benchmarks for progress. For me, 18 are just too many. I favor the "KISS" principle: keep it simple, stupid. So I propose one simple benchmark to replace them all: the number of Iraqi lawyers and the lawsuits they file.

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I know – it sounds like a lampoon or a lawyer joke. But I'm serious. An increasing presence of lawyers represents something important about social progress. To put it bluntly, we sue people so we don't have to slay them. Real democracies, at their core, are polities in which conflicts are settled peacefully – not violently. Peaceful is not synonymous with pleasant, and when you think about it, other than aspirant newlyweds, few happy people ever have need for the courthouse. When you tell someone, "I am going to court," they never say, "Good for you!"

Divorce lawyers may seem like scum to many who have faced a spouse's fury, but attorneys play a role that is superior to that of a scorned sweetheart with a shotgun.

We the people freely elect lawyer-politicians and oblige them to solve our most thorny disputes with pens and ink rather than swords and blood. As a result, because it is only one step removed from war, law is often a nasty business.

That helps explain why people throughout history have held such a low opinion of the legal profession. One of the most-beloved of Shakespeare's lines is from Henry VI: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." However, the opprobrium overlooks the fact that many fine US presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman among them – studied or practiced law. Mahatma Gandhi, Thurgood Marshall, and Nelson Mandela were lawyers. Roughly half of the US Congress at any given time are lawyers.

Yes, sometimes a lawyer helps a murderer avoid justice, but I trust the fairness of the US legal system more than that of any totalitarian state. Burma, North Korea, the Congo? In these countries, lawyers are an endangered species.

So, using my new KISS-inspired benchmark, how goes Iraq? I don't have any aggregate data about Baghdad's burgeoning burrow of barristers, but I was struck by a recent Reuters headline, "Iraq sues companies over oil-for-food kickbacks." Upon reading this news, I smiled. In seeking to plunder its neighbor's wealth, Saddam Hussein sent Iraq's legions into both Iran and Kuwait. By the very fact that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now choosing to deploy a platoon of high-priced legal beagles to courts in New York with a $10 billion payoff in mind, I suspect we might be making some real progress in spreading the "American way" to Iraq.

If the Iraqis are starting to go down this legalistic path, we should rejoice in knowing that the real sacrifices made by our fine fighting men and women, and the mound of national treasure that we have poured into the fight, may not have been in vain. America should KISS in Iraq: Send them our surplus lawyers. Bon voyage, you patriots!

Douglas A. Borer teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. His views are his own.

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