Columns » Max Brantley

Baghdad bound

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I learned over the weekend that Mike Pickens, the Arkansas insurance commissioner, is heading to Iraq to help establish a regulated insurance industry in the country. At that moment, I realized more than ever how little I understood of the enormity of building something akin to a democratic society in this dangerous place. The task already seemed hard enough - building infrastructure, reopening schools and hospitals and establishing a government - all while dodging bullets and improvised explosives. But I hadn't given enough thought to the difficulty of the numerous endeavors that seem mundane to us. Pickens' trip made me think, too, of the ways in which the future Iraq might reflect an image of our society as seen by the people dispatched to build it. Just last week, for example, U.S. authorities shut down an Iraqi newspaper they found too irresponsible. George W. Bush or Mike Huckabee might like to do the same in America, but I can't believe they'd try here. We shouldn't have done it in Iraq, either. Now insurance. Pickens and I have had a few differences of opinion on the subject, from workers compensation coverage to liability lawsuits. Much as I respect him for thrusting himself into a perilous place, I confess curiosity about the ultimate product. Pickens' view of a perfect Iraq doesn't seem likely to include Baghdad versions of Chip Welch suing the pants off insurance companies (and, for good measure, the insurance commissioner). Pickens says, probably correctly, that I'm looking too far ahead. "They are starting completely from scratch over there," he wrote me in an e-mail. "Really not much of any institutionalized government or regulation [existed under Saddam Hussein]. Who's gonna 'regulate' state-owned monopolies controlled by Saddam and his sons and their cronies? Still, there is a very high level of education, and many good people wanting their country to work for its citizens. Both Jordan and Bahrain have good insurance laws, and those are the laws we will use in drafting the Iraqi law. … If India and China can make an insurance market work, Iraq can." In the short run, Pickens said, Iraq needs some immediate commercial insurance coverage and the ability to transact business with nearby countries. Working through the U.S. Agency for International Development, Pickens will draft insurance laws and regulations and help set up the framework for a regulatory commission. Pickens, who says he answered a call for volunteers, will take state leave and vacation time for the journey, which is to begin by next week. He'll be staying in touch with his office while he's gone, perhaps as long as two months. He'll stay just outside the heavily fortified "green zone" in Baghdad, traveling from the Babylon Hotel to meetings in an armored bus. He'll wear a flak jacket and helmet. He'll also carry wireless communication devices, which means he'll still be able to instantly rag liberal columnists when the situation demands. (With Pickens, it often does.) Rough as Iraq is, it would seem nearly perfect on one subject close to Pickens' heart. "Iraq does not need tort reform," he said. "It needs functioning courts first."

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