Tour of Duty

Hill Staffer Helps Assess Emerging Political Parties in Iraq

Posted January 9, 2004 at 12:46pm

After returning from Iraq, Jason Roe, chief of staff to Florida Rep. Tom Feeney (R), likes to joke that if he ever ran for elected office, he’d likely be trounced in any GOP primary.

The day after Saddam Hussein was pulled from a hole near Tikrit in mid-December, Roe, who was in the country on an International Republican Institute mission to assess the state of Iraq’s emerging political parties, was sent to the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party to interview its chairman.

But when he arrived at the Basra compound, a raucous celebration of the capture of the communist group’s longtime foe was in full swing.

“They have 500 Iraqi communists singing and dancing … a 10-person band, they were waving red flags and they insisted that I join [them] and set me up in the front row in the front seat. I was introduced from stage. They took my picture and videotaped me celebrating Saddam’s capture with them.

“It might be difficult to shake my involvement with the Communist Party if I ever run for office,” the 33-year-old Roe quipped.

During his three-week stint in Iraq, Roe helped IRI catalog the 150-some incipient political parties that have sprouted in the wake of the Baathist regime’s demise, visiting with party leaders, as well as assisting with polling projects and the organization of focus groups.

“There are nine districts in Baghdad and nearly every political party has an office in Baghdad,” Roe said. “So what I had was 20 Iraqis that we were paying on a daily basis to comb [Baghdad] street by street … to find a political party.

“What was helpful was that the day any guy decided he’s going to start a political party, he goes and commandeers the biggest building he can find in his neighborhood and puts a big sign out front.”

The recent trip to Baghdad wasn’t Roe’s first IRI mission. Last spring, he served as an international election observer during the Nigerian presidential election; and in 2001, he helped train candidates for the Bulgarian parliament.

“It’s fascinating for those of us involved in American-style government to get a firsthand look at how other governments and political processes work,” Roe said. “I learn a lot more about our system by comparing it to these other systems.”

And when a friend who worked for IRI and was stationed in Iraq came to town this past September, Roe began lobbying right away for a spot on the IRI team.

One person who didn’t need much convincing was his boss, Feeney, who said of Roe’s experience: “It’s almost like being at George Washington’s side when the Constitution was being drafted.”

As he went about his work in Iraq, Roe said he encountered a wide discrepancy in organizational standards among parties.

While some nascent parties were so organized they already had binders of completed membership forms and matching photographs of individual members, others “were very naive” about the most rudimentary elements of party building, he said.

For instance, when Roe asked one party’s leadership how it intended to recruit new members, he was told, “Well, we are not. … We produce a newsletter for all of our members, and if we have more members we’ll have to spend more money on our newsletter and we don’t have that much money.”

Given the proliferation of pro-democracy parties, Roe said a long-term goal for the West must be to consolidate those elements advocating “individual rights and a secular government” so that a handful of extremist Islamic parties with their built-in infrastructural advantage through mosques and religious leaders do not gain sway over the population.

“I would say the Islamic parties would have more of a following based simply on the fact that they’ve got the infrastructure there to communicate with the masses,” he said.

Roe, who expressed an unfettered enthusiasm for all politics — both foreign and domestic — is already planning a shorter return trip to Iraq sometime later this year.

In the meantime, he is working with the IRI to identify those Hill staffers — preferably chiefs of staff and press secretaries — who would be available to go over and help educate Iraqis on issues ranging from the legislative process to electioneering and political party organization.

While Roe said conditions in Iraq were far more promising than many media accounts suggest, he conceded that at least for the moment, the Iraqi understanding of democracy often manifests itself in a crude anarchy, of sorts.

“No one obeys traffic laws,” he said. “It’s not unusual to see a car traveling northbound on a southbound road and if you ask someone why is a car traveling in the wrong direction, the response is: democracy.”